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18th March 2018
The Bach Choir’s annual performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, sung in English, is a much-anticipated fixture in London’s musical calendar. Join The Bach Choir, David Hill and the period instrument ensemble Florilegium for this Passion Sunday performance.
Please note, there is a long lunch interval between Parts I and II. Part II begins at 2.15pm.
Notes From the Composer / Conductor
St Matthew Passion
JS Bach (1685-1750)
On 11 April 1727, the congregation at the Good Friday Lutheran Vespers service in St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig first experienced Bach’s remarkable St Matthew Passion.
The idea of the passion story being sung in church on Good Friday was well established but Bach’s predecessor at St Thomas’s, Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722), had broken new ground in 1721 as far as the Leipzig congregation was concerned with his ‘oratorio passion’ based on St Mark’s Gospel. This is the type of passion setting most familiar to listeners today, taking biblical text as the main narrative, and interspersing it with chorales, arias and choruses to reflect and comment on the story.
Three years earlier, not long after his appointment as Organist and Choir Master at St Thomas’s Church, and Director of Music at the choir school of St Thomas’s, Bach had produced his first passion setting – the St John – in St Nicholas’s Church. Since then he had worked unstintingly, composing huge numbers of cantatas, including some of his finest settings, as well as devoting many hours to his pupils’ musical education, and publishing some of his own keyboard music. He had also experienced personal tragedy with the death of his first child with his new wife, Anna Magdalena.
Leipzig tradition dictated that Good Friday services should alternate between the two churches and St Thomas’s was the larger, able to accommodate a greater number of singers and instrumentalists. Bach took full advantage of the possibilities offered by St Thomas’s, scoring his new Passion for two choirs and orchestras, as well as an additional boys’ choir (to which he applied the term ‘ripieno’).
The narrative text, taken from St Matthew’s Gospel chapter 26, verses 1–75, and chapter 27, verses 1– 66, is played out by the Evangelist, Christ, and the various smaller roles which include Judas, Peter and Pilate, as well as the crowd. The Evangelist sings throughout with bass instruments and organ only but Bach returned to the older tradition of the ‘halo’ of string accompaniment (which he had abandoned in the St John Passion) for the words of Jesus, with the only very deliberate exception being in No 71 on Jesus’s cry of ‘My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ In contrast to Bach’s earlier passion setting, the St Matthew begins the story some way before Jesus’s arrest, and includes Judas’s role in far greater detail. This, along with the many fine arias commenting on the text, meant that, for the Leipzig congregation, there was nearly an hour and a half of music before the end of Part I and the start of the customary long sermon, which could itself have lasted at least an hour.
For the texts of the reflective arias and choruses in the St John Passion, Bach had used sections of a then well-known libretto by Brockes. But for the St Matthew he wanted something new, and turned to the young, amateur poet, Christian Friedrich Henrici, who lived and worked in Leipzig and who published his work under the pseudonym Picander. Bach established a close relationship with Picander, using his texts in a number of his other secular and sacred choral works. For Bach’s new passion setting, Picander supplied texts for 11 accompanied recitatives and 15 arias (the St John contained just two and eight respectively), during which the action pauses and emotions are explored. Placed at important points in the narrative, Bach scored many of these movements as duets between the singer and a solo instrument of a similar range, usually a woodwind instrument. In No 58, for example, placed after the first of the crowd’s two calls for Jesus to be crucified, the soprano text beginning ‘For love my Saviour now is dying’ is interwoven with a solo flute, accompanied only by two oboes da caccia. In the accompanied recitatives, the solo instrument often has a figure depicting a reference in the text; the tears of the two oboes d’amore in No 18 (‘Although our eyes with tears o’erflow’) and the relentless dotted rhythms of the scourging in No 60 are particularly vivid examples. Sometimes the solo singer is joined by the chorus, either as a gentle interpolation (No 26 ‘I would beside my Lord be watching’) or a sudden forceful interjection (No 33 ‘Behold, my Saviour now is taken’). In both these arias the solo parts would, in Bach’s time, have been taken by the ‘concertists’ (the most accomplished singers) of Choir 1, standing on the opposite side of the church from Choir 2 who provide the choral accompaniments, thus heightening the dramatic effect.
Other interpolations in the biblical narrative are provided by the chorales, German hymns which would have been very familiar to the Lutheran congregations in Leipzig’s churches. Of the 13 chorales in the St Matthew Passion, five are settings of the ‘Passion’ chorale (now known as the hymn ‘O sacred Head, sore wounded’) in four different harmonisations. Each time the chorale is heard in Part II, it is at a decisive moment in the narrative: No 53, after Jesus’s questioning by Pilate; No 63, following the mocking of Jesus; and No 72, after Jesus’s death. In Part I it is heard twice in identical harmonisations in the scene on the Mount of Olives; the second hearing, after Jesus’s prediction of Peter’s denial, a semitone lower in pitch than the first. The finale of Part I, ‘O man, thy heavy sin lament’, is a chorale fantasia on a grand scale, the lower voices weaving around the chorale melody in the sopranos.
Two large-scale choruses, both with free texts, frame the work. In the opening chorus Bach blends Picander’s text with the chorale ‘O Lamb of God most holy’, sung by the ripieno choir, to introduce the Passion. The chorale melody soars above the sorrowful questions and answers being passed backwards and forwards between the two choirs. The two four-part choirs, each accompanied by its own orchestra, are used both separately and together in the ‘turba’ or crowd choruses. When singing alone, Choir 1 is used to represent the twelve disciples and Choir 2 to depict a wider company of believers. The only exception to this is, again, No 71, in which Choir 1 represents ‘some of them that stood and watched Him’ and Choir 2 ‘others of them’. There is enormous variety in the dramatic choruses, from the three chords on ‘Barabbas’ in No 54, to the vigorous 8-part writing of No 67, in which the two choirs start by answering each other, combining for the powerful unison ending ‘I am the Son of God’. The intensely moving chorus, ‘Truly, this was the Son of God’ (No 73), follows some of the most vivid dramatisation achieved with continuo accompaniment alone in the rending of the temple veil and the earthquake. Much has been made of Bach’s number symbolism in this work, and one of the most easily identifiable examples of this is in No 15 where, in response to Jesus’s statement that one of the disciples will betray him, eleven entries of the phrase ‘Lord, is it I?’ are heard, one for each of the disciples except for Judas.
Remarkably we know of only three performances of the St Matthew Passion during Bach’s lifetime, and after his death in 1750 the work was largely forgotten until it was revived by Mendelssohn in 1829. British audiences had to wait until 6 April 1854, when William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875) conducted it in English at the Hanover Square Rooms in London with a choir of students and members of his recently-formed Bach Society.
The Bach Choir first performed the work in 1894 under Charles Villiers Stanford, the Choir’s musical director from 1885 until 1902, but it was not until 1930 that the Choir, then under the direction of Adrian Boult, established the tradition of performing the work in English every year, on the Sundays leading up to Easter.
© Katharine Richman