Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Bach St. Matthew Passion

The St. Matthew Passion: better than opera

The majority of Bach's choral works were composed after 1723, the year in which he took up his position as Cantor of the Leipzig Thomaskirche. Before his death he would compose more than 230 individual cantatas and five Passions, of which two have survived: the St. Matthew and St. John Passions. We know that a St. Mark Passion by Bach was performed in 1731, although only its libretto has survived.

Leipzig was a thriving centre for trade and was surpassed in this only by Dresden; the city had its own university and a busy cultural life, in which Bach, Leipzig's Cantor and director of music, was required to play an important part. Bach also composed a great quantity of pieces for the local citizenry and aristocracy as well as his obligatory musical commitments to church and school: these included cantatas for birthdays and weddings, the E minor Violin Concerto and the Brandenburg Concertos. Bach composed in every genre possible except opera, for it was unthinkable that a man in service to the Lutheran church could ever be involved with such a morally dubious art form; the opera house in Leipzig was actually closed down in 1720. Secular music in the city was performed principally by the Collegium Musicum, founded by Telemann in 1701 and directed by Bach from 1729 onwards.

Passio Domini Nostri

The most important large-scale work from Bach's first years in Leipzig was the St. John Passion, first performed in 1724; Bach concocted its libretto from a mixture of Biblical and non-liturgical texts of varying quality. He later came to know Christian Friedrich Henrici, the city's postmaster, who published poetry under the name of Picander. They collaborated on the texts of two cantatas, with the result that around 1727 Bach decided that Picander had sufficient literary qualities to assist him in the realisation of his greatest ambition: a Passio Domini Nostri J.C. Secundum Evangelistam Matthaeumthe Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the Evangelist Matthew. This was to be a musical and dramatic treatment of the final days of the life of Christ: the Last Supper, the betrayal in Gethsemane, his arrest, trial and crucifixion. "Passion" in this sense is a derivation from the Latin verb patior, pati, passus meaning to suffer.

Pain and suffering

Bach's St. Matthew Passion was first performed on Good Friday, 11 April 1727. It was not an opera, although its effect was comparable, if not stronger. According to John Eliot Gardiner, "there is not a single opera seria of the period that I have studied or conducted to compare with Bach's two Passions, in terms of the intense human drama and moral dilemma that he expresses in such a persuasive and deeply poignant way".

Gardiner believes that Bach was following in the footsteps of Martin Luther, who stated that the story of the Passion should neither be imitated nor depicted, but lived. This is indeed the case in the St. Matthew Passion: the listener is caught up in a narration that demands his full attention as it passes from pain and suffering through remorse and repentance to the possibility of salvation — the resurrection on the third day.

Picander clearly had a highly important part in this: earlier settings of the Passion, such as Heinrich Schütz's Matthäus-Passion, essentially used only the Biblical text, although new elements began to appear during Bach's lifetime. Bach and Picander punctuate the Biblical narration not only with traditional chorales that could be sung by the Leipzig congregation but also with arias, duets and choruses for which new words and music had to be provided. These sections naturally refer to the story of the Passion, but step outside it to make it personally relevant and to bring it much closer to those listening. All who are present are therefore witnesses to Christ's torture and crucifixion; it is they who call for Barabbas and who will be the mourners around the tomb in the work's final moments.

Comic opera

Bach's setting of the Passion caused strong reactions. A contemporary source — Christian Gerber's Historie der Kirchen-Ceremonien in Sachsen, 1732 — contains the reaction of a member of the congregation at its first performance: "Many people were surprised when this type of Passion music was first performed in the city and did not know how to take it. Aristocratic families, clergy and many well-to-do families were present in the pews and sang the first chorale from their hymn-books with great devotion, only to be thrown into great confusion when the theatrical music began. They looked at each other and wondered what this could be; an old aristocratic widow exclaimed "God save us, my children! We seem to be attending a comic opera!"

Bach later adapted and revised the work several times; its definitive form dates from 1736. It was, however, only infrequently heard outside Leipzig and was soon forgotten. It was only in 1829, when Mendelssohn performed a shortened version of the work in Berlin, that it came back into popular favour and returned to the repertoire. An annual performance of the St. Matthew Passion has since become a tradition in many countries, in Holland in particular.

Koen Kleijn
Translation: Peter Lockwood