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Bach’s St. Matthew Passion
When in 1723 Johann Sebastian Bach entered upon the office of Thomascantor in the city of Leipzig, he continued one of the most recent and most important innovations introduced by his predecessor, Johann Kuhnau. On Good Friday of the year 1721 Kuhnau presented for the first time a Passion in concerted style at the afternoon vesper service of St. Thomas Church. Protestant churches in other cities, and especially court churches, had by 1700 introduced the modern Passion type that included contemplative poetry, incorporated arias and recitatives, and featured rich instrumental accompaniment. Leipzig’s New Church, since Georg Philipp Telemann’s years there a hotbed of innovation in matters of sacred music, saw the first performance of a Passion oratorio already in 1717, so that Kuhnau felt very much under pressure to compete. But the Leipzig church administration resisted until 1721.
Although granting no changes for the Good Friday morning service, they finally instituted a special afternoon service in order to accommodate a “musicirte Passion” in place of the traditional practice, under which the congregation sang long and unaccompanied Passion chorales like the 23-stanza hymn “O Mensch bewein dein Sünde groß” of 1525. The composition presented by Kuhnau, a St. Mark Passion, survives in only incomplete form. But even from the fragment we can see that he established a model which remained valid for Bach insofar as it focused on the unaltered biblical narrative distributed among soloists (evangelist and various soliloquentes: Jesus, Peter, Pilate, etc.) and choir (various turbae: High Priests, Roman Soldiers, Jews, etc.), a sequence interrupted here and there by hymn strophes and contemplative lyrics set to freely composed verse, mainly in the form of arias. The whole structure was divided into two parts, one before and one after the hour-long vesper sermon.
Under Bach the Passion performances became the musical highpoint of the church year in Leipzig. The first summary worklist of 1750, the year of Bach’s death, reported that he had actually composed five Passions. They were apparently performed in alternating fashion, but only two such works are still extant, the Passions according to St. John (first performed in 1724) and St. Matthew (premiered in 1727). A Passion according to St. Mark of 1731 survived in its text only (the music is lost), and of the other two Passions there remains no trace. The St. Matthew Passion—in the early worklist specifically designated “for double chorus” and in the Bach family circle referred to as the “Great Passion” (Große Passion)—clearly represents Bach’s most significant contribution to this genre of church music. The St. John Passion on the other hand was never put in final form; Bach continued to experiment with different versions until 1749. The principal reason for this situation seems to be a lack of textual unity because the madrigal lyrics in the St. John Passion were compiled from various poetic sources, and the remarkable adaptability of the work in its various versions cannot entirely conceal this inherent aesthetic problem. The St. Matthew Passion, however, was based on a unified libretto by Christian Friedrich Henrici, better known by his pen-name Picander.
Whether Bach commissioned Henrici or Henrici approached Bach, a close collaboration of the two is beyond doubt, both on the conceptual level and in matters of detail. The famous 1711 Passion libretto by Barthold Heinrich Brockes which Bach had utilized for his St. John Passion loomed rather large as a model. Picander emulated Brockes’ allegorical dialogue between “The Daughters of Zion” (Die Tochter Zion) and “The Faithful” (Die Gläubigen). Moreover, the poetic language of Bach’s Weimar librettist Salomon Franck proved inspiring as well. However, it became of utmost importance for the gospel text to be preserved intact and for the lyrics to reflect the appropriate theological scope. Here Bach may have alerted Henrici to pertinent sources such as the Passion homilies of Heinrich Müller, a seventeenth-century Lutheran theologian whose books could be found in his library.
Some structural features seem to have been specifically requested by the composer. For example, the allegorical dialogue is arranged so that The Daughters of Zion and The Faithful do not just appear successively but simultaneously, as in aria no. 20 where the soloist of choir I sings “Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen” (I will wake with my Jesus) while choir II responds ”So schlafen unsre Sünden ein” (Thus will our sins go to sleep) – this kind of conjunction being essential for the double choir design. Likewise, the combination of free lyrics with traditional hymns (most prominently featured in the opening chorus) may have been suggested by Bach because it reflected his keen interest in multi-layered polyphonic structures involving a chorale melody.
What emerged was a libretto that used the same textual components as the St. John but avoided the pitfalls of heterogeneous lyrics. With its more extensive and complex madrigal-style poetry, Picander’s St. Matthew Passion libretto indeed constituted, from a literary point of view, a unified Passion oratorio. Consequently, the St. Matthew Passion libretto enabled Bach to conceive a wholly original work and to compose it in a single sweep. There was neither room nor need for the kind of radical alterations that the St. John Passion underwent, even though Bach nearly always found occasion to change and improve. In the case of the St. Matthew Passion, a significant revision occurred only once after its first performance at St. Thomas’s on April 11, 1727. It happened for the definite purpose of enhancing the work’s monumental character by extending its musical dimensions and by expanding and refocusing its performing forces, while leaving the overall design and libretto intact.
In 1736, when the work was performed for the third time, Bach replaced the simple chorale “Jesum lass ich nicht von mir,” which originally concluded part I, with the large-scale chorale setting “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß” appropriated from the second version of the St. John Passion. Additionally, he created a more decisive division of the entire ensemble into two fully separate vocal-instrumental bodies by assigning separate continuo groups to choirs I and II, instead of letting one common continuo group provide the fundament for both choirs. Finally, in addition to the regular location on the west gallery of the church for placing the two choirs and two orchestras, Bach used the so-called swallow’s nest organ and choir loft at the east end of the nave. From this space sounded the chorale melodies of the two movements framing part I of the Passion (nos. 1 and 29), performed by a third choir of soprano singers accompanied by the small organ, a decision that mobilized all available musical resources at St. Thomas’s and surely resulted in a spectacular effect.
The definitive character of Bach’s 1736 revision of the St. Matthew Passion and concomitant performance decisions is expressed by the calligraphic autograph fair copy that he set out to prepare that year and that he later on completed with greatest scrupulousness. There is no comparable manuscript score from Bach’s hand that is so carefully laid out and written in two colors of ink, red and dark brown. Red is applied to the biblical text of the evangelist and the soliloquentes, the chorale melody “O Lamm Gottes unschuldig” in the first movement, and a few rubrics. It could not be more evident that in 1736 Bach considered this score as most significant work, the Great Passion. In fact, he treasured the manuscript score so much that even when the opening pages were damaged by some mishap in later years, he carefully restored them by pasting on strips of paper and replacing lost staves. But while Bach could hardly imagine that the Great Passion, more than any of his other works, would make history in the truest sense of the word, he knew full well from the earliest planning stages that this composition would be special–indeed, that nothing like it had ever been attempted before.
In many ways, the time, space, focus, and meaning of the musical vespers service on Good Friday gave Bach a unique opportunity to set his imagination free, and he grasped the opportunity from the very beginning by composing the Passion according to St. John. Yet one discerns everywhere in the St. Matthew Passion his intention, already clear from the work’s internal and external dimensions, of surpassing everything that had been written previously, by himself and by other composers. The score containing 68 movements, some of extraordinary length, required an eight-voice double choir and a richly equipped double orchestra. He could bring to the big project the rich experience he had gained through his sustained involvement with the church cantata over a period of four years. However, his ambitions went far beyond the monumental format that he so consciously chose. We can best understand his approach as an artist to the musical shaping of the Passion story by seeing how he planned and ordered it so as to bring out a wealth of interconnections. We also see how he employed musical forms and compositional techniques in an exceedingly imaginative and totally non-schematic manner in order to serve the most sacred biblical text of the Lutheran faith on the highest feast day of the church.
The primary structural backbone of the St. John Passion and, therefore, the compositional focus of that work, rests on the Gospel narrative. In the St. Matthew Passion, by contrast, it is Picander’s poetry, lyrical contemplations of individual scenes in the story of the Passion, that shapes the work. None of the original text booklets from Bach’s performances have survived, but the first reprint of the text in the second volume of Picander’s collected works, Ernst-Schertzhaffte und Satyrische Gedichte, published in 1729, shows how the biblical Passion narrative is framed and punctuated by seventeen poems, most of them bipartite. Hence the biblical material is divided, in accordance with the poet’s conception and its realization by the composer, into fifteen scenes and two introductions, to which both the lyrical meditations and the pointed interspersing of hymn stanzas relate. All of the lyrics are introduced by precise biblical references– for example nos. 5-6, “When the woman anointed Jesus” (Als das Weib Jesum gesalbet hatte)–so that the specific reflective and interpretive function of every single poem and musical setting becomes immediately clear.
It is a distinguishing mark of the St. Matthew Passion that Bach chose to draw deliberately on the wide repertory of forms cultivated in the sacred and secular music of his day. Even Baroque opera, the most representative genre of the age, could not compare in its range of compositional types and forms, for opera naturally finds no place for movements based on a cantus firmus, which belong exclusively to the domain of sacred music, or for settings in the style of a polyphonic motet (of which there are several examples among the turba choruses of the Passion). Anyway, such a degree of polyphonic elaboration, which is typical of the church style in general and Bach’s artistic preferences in particular, would be worlds away from operatic practice. But well beyond questions of form, genre, and compositional technique, the St. Matthew Passion challenged the full scope of Bach’s musical art, from analyzing the literary material, the symbolic and affective imagery, and the theological content to considering the appropriate representation of the Passion story. He did so by making optimal use of all fitting musical means, from the widely diverging qualities of human singing voices and instrumental sonorities (exclusive of brass) to the broad spectrum of melodic inventions, rhythmic patterns, harmonic structures, and key choices.
With respect to the latter two, the composer of the Well-Tempered Clavier not only had the advantage of his cutting-edge experimental background, he also sought to extend his experience to the realm of vocal-instrumental music. In its range of keys and daring harmonic treatment, the St. Matthew Passion indeed exceeds all largescale works in any genre by any composer up to that point, even though these path-breaking aspects would not be fully recognized until the nineteenth century. By meandering through the keys while drawing on an extraordinary array of colors in the instrumental obbligato accompaniments of the various arias, Bach explores the widest possible range of musical expression. The settings of the Picander poems function as pillars of stability, from the dual tonality and modality in the opening chorus through the full chromatic realm of keys up to four sharps and flats–the maximum range for a mixed group of instruments not regulated by equal temperament.
Given those limitations, Bach did not shy away from breaking out of these restrictions when underscoring extreme affects or imagery. For example, in the harmonically unique arioso no. 59 (“Ach Golgatha”) he fully exploits all twelve chromatic pitches, moves through chords as remote and exorbitant as A-flat minor and F-flat minor (requiring double flats), and lets the alto voice end the piece with an unresolved tritone, D-flat to G. Likewise, in the death scene no. 61a, after using the pitch of f-flat for the word “Finsternis” (darkness), he puts Jesus’s last words, the Hebrew “Eli, Eli, lama asabthani,” in B-flat minor (5 flats) near the bottom end of the circle of fifths, and to complete the descent to the absolute depth of despair, he sets the subsequent translation one step beyond that, in E-flat minor (6 flats). In a kind of counterpoint to this extreme venture at the brink of the key system–at once compellingly expressive and symbolic–and on a greatly spaced-out scale, Bach pursues a corresponding yet reverse tonal descent in his key choices for the principal “Passion chorale”–the melody of “Herzlich tut mich verlangen” in nos.15, 17, 44, 54, and 62–whose successive key signatures (#### - bbb - ## - b – 0) demarcate the path of inevitability no less forcefully. As for sophisticated and decisively innovative compositional planning, one cannot but notice how much further Bach goes here than he does in the St. John Passion. The two principal and fundamentally different textual layers that constitute the libretto of the St. Matthew Passion– madrigal poetry on the one hand, holy scripture and chorales on the other–are nowhere abruptly juxtaposed. On the contrary, Henrici and Bach alike set a premium on seamless integration that is already manifest in the opening chorus, in which freely conceived verse and chorale text and melody perfectly blend into each other, the cantus firmus “O Lamm Gottes unschuldig” (O innocent lamb of God) immediately responds to the dialogue “Seht ihn! Wie? Als wie ein Lamm!” (See him! How? Just as a lamb!). In this sense, the opening chorus provides a summation of what the entire Passion oratorio aims to achieve in theological content, literary structure, and musical expression. Picander’s allegorical lament “Kommt, ihr Töchter” is set by Bach in the manner of a French tombeau, as a funeral march for the multitude of believers who ascend to Mount Zion and the holy city of Jerusalem. The Daughters of Zion, personification of the site of Christ’s suffering, call on The Faithful, representing the contemporary believer, to join her. In the Apocalypse of St. John, the site of Christ’s Passion is an integral part of the vision of the eternal Jerusalem whose ruler is the Lamb. Here one finds the reason for the deliberate connection between the aria text “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen” (Come, you daughters, help me lament), set by Bach in E minor, and the chorale “O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig” set in G major: “celestial” major proclaiming Christ’s innocence and “terrestrial” minor accentuating Christ’s suffering are contrasted, yet integrated in one and the same musical setting.
This theologically meaningful poetic and musical dia - lectic is placed by Picander and Bach as a kind of vision that precedes the account of the Passion and provides an ultimate goal for the gradual unfolding of the drama. Throughout the musical score, the tension between major and minor modes is never resolved, quite the reverse, it becomes increasingly acute in the course of the Passion story in the constant oscillation between sharp and flat keys before finally subsiding in the final chorus in C minor. The beginning of the work thus determines its ending: the dual tonality and modality of the opening chorus, E minor and G major, exposes the dramatic tension that the final chorus can only partly resolve. Therefore, the true resolution comes only when the radiant major mode, enhanced by the triadic fanfares of the trumpets, resonates two days later in the cantata on Easter Sunday.
Through its reference to the innocent Lamb as the ruler in Zion, the celestial Jerusalem, the opening cho - rus provides the Passion with a mighty visionary or, theologically speaking, eschatological preface. Thus, when the G-major chorale sung from the swallows’ nest organ loft at St. Thomas’s above the so-called Triumphal Arch–that is, from the altar side–pierced the E minor and thereby forced a modal switch, the music revealed its deep symbolic dimension right from the outset. For the tremendous show of musical force (two choirs and two orchestras on the main west gallery, a distant third choir on the small east gallery) was not meant as a mere display of powerful and luxuriant sound. The chorale reverberating from the chancel side of the church warned the audience and alerted skeptics at the outset that what awaited them was not a theatrical feature, but music that provided incontestable proof of its sacred and genuinely liturgical character.