Friday, March 20, 2020 • 7:00 p.m.
St. Joseph Parish (732 18th Ave E)
- Single tickets will go on sale June 1 — or subscribe now!
Seattle Chamber Singers
William White, conductor
Johann Sebastian Bach ( 1685—1750)
St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244
Johann Sebastian Bach
St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244
Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, on March 21, 1685, and died in Leipzig on July 28, 1750. He composed this work in Leipzig during the late 1720s, scoring it for double chorus, children’s chorus, six vocal soloists and two orchestras, each consisting of 2 flutes, 2 oboes (doubling oboe d’amore and English horn), bassoon, strings (including a viola da gamba) and continuo.
The tradition of presenting on Good Friday one of the four Gospel narratives which describe Jesus’ suffering (“passion”) and death dates back some 1,000 years and continues today in most liturgical churches. According to church tradition, texts from the Gospels can be chanted or read only by members of the clergy. Lay people, however, have traditionally been allowed to participate in the presentation of the Passion narratives, and it was this that allowed more elaborate musical settings of Passion texts to develop. From medieval times, these texts were chanted, a medium voice singing the words of the narrator (“Evangelist”), a lower voice singing those of Jesus and higher voices singing the words spoken by the Jews. By the late 1400s, Passion settings appeared in which the simple plainchants began to be embellished by the addition of more vocal lines to create harmonies. In the 17th century, Passions began to receive more operatic treatments: orchestral accompaniments were included, and the biblical passages began to be paraphrased or expanded by insertions of free poetic texts.
J.S. Bach composed five settings of the Passion story, only two of which survive: the St. John Passion of 1723, and the St. Matthew Passion, in which the zenith of “oratorio-style” Passion composition was reached. The work is a dramatic musical setting of Martin Luther’s German translation of the 26th and 27th chapters of St. Matthew’s Gospel, with 28 additional texts for the arias and a few choruses written especially for the Passion by Picander, one of Bach’s frequent collaborators. The composition of the work seems to have extended over a number of years, and appears not to have been completed even by the time of the Passion’s performance on Good Friday 1729, thought by many to be the work’s first presentation (it might have been performed for the first time on Good Friday, April 11, 1727; it was certainly presented on April 15, 1729, and on March 30, 1736, and it might have been performed in 1740 as well). In any event, the monumental masterpiece, as it has come down to us in an excellent autograph full score and a complete set of parts corresponding to the 1736 version, achieved its final form through a series of revisions and rearrangements. While highly popular today, the St. Matthew Passion descended into oblivion after 1740 and remained thus entombed for nearly a century until Felix Mendelssohn resurrected it in 1829.
The St. Matthew Passion, which has been called “the most noble and inspired treatment of its subject in the whole range of music,” displays Bach’s mastery of vocal and instrumental technique in a wide variety of musical forms, but remains consistent throughout in spiritual feeling. Bach makes frequent use of musical illustration (“tone painting”) to enhance the meaning of the text and also employs abundant tonal, numerical and harmonic symbolism without doing the least violence to the aesthetic beauty of the music. The more musically and theologically sophisticated listeners of Bach’s day would have understood and appreciated such subtleties, but they remain hidden from most of us today because we no longer speak this “musical language.” The music of the Passion is indeed sublime and the text is immensely powerful emotionally, but it is the way in which Bach combines the music with the text that distinguishes the St. Matthew Passion as the greatest sacred work ever composed. If you follow your translations, you will be better able to understand the story, and you will also gain deeper insight into the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach.
The St. Matthew Passion consists of approximately 24 “scenes” organized into two large parts, each framed by a pair of powerful choruses. Throughout the massive work, Bach employs double chorus and orchestra to produce highly dramatic choral dialogue and strongly compelling crowd scenes. As the story of Jesus’ last days, his suffering, and his death unfolds, the solo tenor “Evangelist” serves as the narrator; the soloists sometimes portray the various individual characters in the drama, while at other times, in their arias, they represent the soul of the faithful Christian believer who meditates on the spiritual meanings of the events described; and the two choirs play the parts of the people of Jesus’ day in the freely composed choruses and—when they sing Bach’s incomparable chorale (hymn tune) settings—they represent the congregation of Bach’s time as they ponder the implications of Christ’s Passion for themselves as a church community. The formal structure of “story section followed by recitative and aria that comment upon the narrative” dominates the entire work. Following the musical and dramatic elements of the narrative with this in mind will help both to clarify the progressions in the work, and to explain the length of some of the pieces.
The opening and closing choruses of Part One each contain a chorale melody sung by a choir of treble voices. In the first chorus, a tremendous chorale-fantasia whose painfully throbbing bass line brings to mind a funeral procession, all of humankind is called to participate in the Passion story. Over its dialogue text (and some incredibly complex musical counterpoint), Bach presents the chorale tune “O Lamb of God Unspoiled” as an emotional counterpoint to the tragedy that follows.
A dramatic recitative begins the “Last Supper” portion of the Passion. Note that Jesus’ words are always accompanied by a “halo” of strings (this is not the case in the St. John Passion, but the practice is descended directly from earlier sacred works, such as the Seven Last Words on the Cross by Heinrich Schütz).
As this section continues, Bach contrasts the chorale that asks what crime Jesus has committed with the scene that describes the elders, scribes and priests suggesting that Jesus not be killed during the feast of the Passover. Then follow descriptions of the woman anointing Jesus with expensive ointment, the disciples’ chiding her for her wasteful action, and Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples for their criticism. The ensuing alto recitative and aria complete the section with deeply personal comments on the preceding actions.
In a gentle chorus, the disciples ask Jesus where the Passover feast will be celebrated. The mood of His answer is again in direct contrast with that of the chorus. He says that one of them will betray Him; this, of course, Judas has already done. The disciples now ask, “Lord, is it I?” and in the chorus Bach sets the word “Lord” exactly 11 times, leaving the question from the twelfth disciple, Judas the betrayer, for the next recitative. Judas frames the question differently, asking, “Is it I, Rabbi?” Bach builds upon this distinction in setting up the actual betrayal scene that occurs later in the work, in which Judas will once again greet Jesus as “Rabbi.”
The Passover supper scene contains the only real aria sung by Jesus in the entire work. Accompanied by the halo of strings, it is one of the most beautiful moments in the Passion. After the soprano recitative and aria, which comment on Jesus’ words, comes one of the more descriptive of Jesus’ recitatives. Notice the upward-moving scale, which starts in the cello and ends in the Evangelist’s lines as Jesus and his disciples ascend the Mount of Olives. Bach scatters the sheep with a very sprightly string accompaniment that takes a sober turn at the end of the section.
Next comes an illustration of Bach’s use of tonality to make a philosophical point. The joyful chorale extolling the virtues of the Savior/Shepherd is in E major. Immediately come Peter’s declaration that he will be absolutely faithful to Jesus whatever happens and Jesus’ prediction that Peter will deny Him three times. The following chorale, “I will stand here beside Thee,” is set one half-step lower, signifying the personal loss humankind must suffer through the example of the denial.
The next accompanied recitative and aria feature a solo tenor paired with a chorale melody sung by Choir II. The repeated-note pattern in low strings symbolizes the trembling, tormented heart. The combination in canon of recorder and English horn (in Bach’s score, an oboe da caccia or “hunting oboe” that was curved like a hunting horn and pitched lower than today’s “normal” oboe) is the first of the unique orchestrations Bach uses in the work. The wonder of these two movements is the great contrast between the uneasiness of the aria and the consoling comfort of the chorale.
In the bass recitative “The Savior falls low before His Father,” the strings constantly move downward in an arpeggio figure, except when the text speaks of God’s uplifting mercy. In the aria, the setting of the words fits the voice so perfectly that the opening ascending sixth on “gladly” emerges effortlessly. The wonderful chromatic setting of the words “Kreuz und Becher” (“Cross and cup”) contrasts with the music of the second section of the aria, “His lips with milk and honey flowing” and demonstrates Bach’s constant desire to heighten the emotional meaning of the text using all the devices at hand—he even changes the tonality from minor to major.
Leading to the end of Part One are the Evangelist’s description of Jesus praying in the garden while none of His disciples are able to maintain the vigil with Him. Then soldiers and priests come to arrest Jesus and—in one of the most dramatic moments in the Evangelist’s part—Judas says, “The one I kiss is he.” In an almost tender exchange between Jesus and Judas, Jesus is recognized and taken.
The grief-filled duet that follows contains many canons and is reminiscent of the chorale melody. In Part One’s opening chorus, questions from Choir II interrupt the music sung by Choir I; here, the crowd of disciples interrupts the duet, crying, “Loose Him, halt ye, bind Him not!” This leads into the explosive double chorus “Have lightning and thunder vanished in the clouds? Let Hell engulf the false betrayer!” Bach’s use of antiphonal choruses and rapidly shifting harmonies in this piece is truly amazing for its time!
After a highly charged dramatic recitative comes the final chorus of the first part: “O Man, bewail thy grievous sin,” Bach’s loveliest setting of this chorale tune. This chorale-fantasia was originally intended to be the opening chorus of his St. John Passion (in a key a half-step lower), but Bach instead placed this piece here as a hopeful closing chorus.
(Between the two parts of the Passion, you will be able to move about and enjoy refreshments; Bach’s listeners were treated to a sermon that probably lasted well over an hour!)
Part Two opens with an unusual dialogue between the alto soloist and Choir II. Note that, with each entrance of the chorus, the harmonies grow stranger and, in a way, wander further afield. The movement ends on a singularly unresolved note, with the alto asking, “Ah, where has my Jesus gone?”
The drama continues with the introduction of the two false witnesses who perform a strange duet in which the second witness sings very mechanically after the first, as if he were taking care to repeat exactly a prearranged tale. Jesus, however, remains silent. The tenor recitative is accompanied by oboes and an arpeggiated figure in the cello, which plays exactly 39 “strokes,” symbolizing the scourging of Jesus. In the aria, Bach uses great contrasts in setting the text, which depict the emotional meanings of the words “patience,” “shame,” “scorn” and “false tongues.”
Jesus’ trial in the Judgment Hall is followed by outbursts from the crowd. Here, as in the later crowd scenes, it is the job of the Evangelist to maintain the drama’s tautness. Bach moves the story forward by keeping the Evangelist’s interjections brief and energetic. The chorale that ends this section is particularly bittersweet.
Next comes Peter’s denial of Jesus: Peter is asked by two individuals, and then by a group of people, if he knows who this man (Jesus) is. All three times Peter’s reply is “no,” and after each denial the cock crows. In the original clefs in which the piece was written, Peter’s last line, “I know this man not,” and the following line, “And immediately the cock crew,” were identically written notes. The Evangelist’s words, “And Peter went out and wept bitterly,” and the ensuing alto aria with violin obbligato are two of the most intimate moments in the work.
There follows a very worldly return to the story. Judas tries to give back the 30 silver pieces—his betrayal fee—to the High Priests, but his attempt is in vain; the priests tell him that in no way can he absolve himself of the evil that he has done. In despair and remorse, Judas hangs himself. In the duet that follows, the two priests state that they cannot even put the “blood money” into the treasury; the bass plays 30 notes up to the end of the musical flurry on the word “legen” as the 30 pieces of silver are counted out. A bass aria with violin obbligato follows, this one contrasting strongly with the alto aria mentioned above.
Jesus’ trial proceeds. Pilate asks the crowd which prisoner should be set free—their unanimous outburst is “Barabbas!” This exclamation is immediately followed by the “Crucify Him!” chorus, a fughetta (short fugue) with a jagged subject that describes tonally the ugliness of the crowd and the act of crucifixion.
The following soprano recitative and aria hold the heart of the entire Passion: “For love of me my Savior is dying.” This aria’s only accompanying instruments are obbligato flute and two mournful and haunting English horns. As the movement ends and a tranquil mood is established, the Evangelist interrupts and the crowd repeats the “Crucify Him!” chorus, this time a whole step higher in pitch as the chaotic crowd’s hysteria and the musical tension escalate.
Pilate’s attempts at ridding himself of guilt are thwarted by the polyphonic crowd chorus, “His blood be upon all of us and on our children.” There follows an alto recitative and aria that depict the weeping of the believer’s heart. The soldiers now array Jesus in a purple robe and a crown of thorns and mock Him (listen for the flutes) saying, “We hail thee, O King of the Jews.” Then they spit on Him and strike His head with a reed, leading to the famous Passion chorale, “O head, full of blood and wounds.”
When Jesus is being led away to be crucified, a man named Simon is compelled to carry his cross. This is depicted in an incredible bass aria accompanied by viola da gamba, whose difficult chords and ornaments, string crossings and dotted rhythms illustrate the dragging of the cross. The text speaks of sharing the burden with Jesus, as He bears the burdens of the people. The aria’s length corresponds to the duration of the agonizing ordeal.
Mocking crowd choruses now ask Jesus why, if He is God’s son, He cannot take Himself down from the cross. Bach orchestrates the ensuing alto recitative and aria in an unusual manner using two English horns. Choir II interrupts the soloist, asking where “they,” the “forsaken little chicks,” should come for mercy, and receive the answer: to Jesus’ arms.
The next section describes the death of Jesus. Here—for the only time—as He asks why his Father has forsaken Him, Jesus’ words are not accompanied by the glow of strings, but by continuo organ and cello alone. Constantly harassed by the crowd, Jesus cries out His last words and expires. The choirs then sing together the last and most moving of the five settings of the Passion chorale that—in varying keys and harmonizations—appear throughout the work, almost as a refrain.
An earthquake rumbles in the accompaniment, and the graves of the righteous are opened. This terrifies the onlookers, prompting the captain of the guard and those with him to observe with awe, “Truly, this was the Son of God!” Bach sets this text in two measures of exquisite choral music—perhaps the most sublime passage in the entire work!
The Passion narrative is completed with a heartrendingly beautiful bass recitative and aria, but the musical work does not end here. The insolent crowd enters once more and—in a very rude chorus—intimates to Pilate that, if no guards are placed around Jesus’ tomb, His disciples will come in the night, steal His body and claim that He has been resurrected. Pilate permits a watch to be set; the guards are put in place as a stone is rolled across the mouth of the tomb, sealing it. Jesus is now bid goodnight in a sorrowful, yet adoring four-section recitative and chorus. The closing portion of the Passion, “Here at the grave we all sit weeping,” concludes the narrative of Jesus’ suffering on Good Friday. The Passion story remains unfinished at this point, however: there has as yet been no resurrection. We keep vigil, contemplating both the depth of our own wretchedness and the even greater depth of Jesus’ redemptive love.