The Saint Matthew Passion

One of the masterpieces of the great musical composer J.S. Bach, the St. Matthew Passion is an incredible musical and spiritual achievement.

For his subject matter, Bach chose chapters 26 and 27 from the Gospel according to Matthew. He sets the text musically, and a performance of the piece can last up to three hours or more, but they're definitely worth it. In another node it was suggested that the listener go to a performance of the St. John Passion. While the St. John Passion is, of course, great music, it is not considered as powerful as the St. Matthew Passion. However, for a person who has not had much musical experience, the St. John Passion is certainly more than adequate for an introduction to Bach, and for someone who knows Bach well, experience with the St. John Passion is almost requisite. There are two choruses, called Chorus I and Chorus II, as well as several soloists who sing the arias. In addition to these, there is an Evangelist (a tenor), Jesus (a bass), Judas (bass), Peter (bass), the High Priest (bass), Pilate (also a bass), two maids (sopranos), two priests (basses), Pilate's wife (soprano), and two witnesses (an alto and a tenor). There is also a boys choir that sings above the sopranos in the first and last songs of the First Part.

The Passion is split into many specific pieces (arias, recitativos, chorals, and straight-up Gospel text, recitatives.), and the numbering schemes for these are many-limbed and multiformed. The scheme I will use corresponds to the vocal score published by Edition Peters in Frankfurt, Germany, catalog number 4503. Note that when I use recitative, I mean a reading of the text, and when I say recitativo, I mean an explanation of the text which is usually followed by an aria.

What's very interesting is that many composers who wrote Passions before Bach simply used the Gospel text. In Bach's version, the reading of the text is interrupted at various points with arias and recitatives. A good example of this, (and there are many), is the end of number 32 into number 33:

Number 32 is a reading of Gospel text, Matthew 26 verse 43-50. It reads,

Evangelist: 43And he came and found them asleep again; for their eyes were heavy. 44And he left them, and went away, and prayed the third time, saying the same words. 45Then cometh he unto his disciples, and saith unto them,
Jesus: Sleep on now, and take your rest: behold, the hour is at hand, and the son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray me.
Evangelist: 47And while he yet spake, lo, Judas, one of the twelve, came, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and elders of the people. 48Now he that betrayed him gave them a sign, saying, Whomever I shall kiss, that same is he; hold him fast. 49 And forthwith he came to Jesus, and he said,
Judas: Hail, Master.
Evangelist: And he kissed him. 50And Jesus said unto him,
Jesus: Friend, wherefore art thou come? Evangelist: Then came they, and laid hands on Jesus, and took him.

Then, instead of continuing, there is a duet with a soprano and an alto. They sing,

Soli: So is my Jesus captured now. Moon and light are quenched for sorrow, because my Jesus is captured. They lead him away, he is bound.
Chorus: Loose him, halt, bind him not!

Then, immediately following, the basses, and then the tenors, and then the altos, and finally the sopranos of both choruses sing,

Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden?
Eröffne den feurigen Abgrund, o Hölle, Zertrümmre, verderbe, verschlinge, zerschelle Mit plötzlicher Wut Den falschen Verräter, das mördrische Blut!
Which means,
Have lightnings, have thunder vanished in the clouds?
Open your fiery pit, O Hell, wreck, ruin, engulf, shatter with sudden rage, the false betrayer, the murderous blood.
The emphasis, incidentally, is not mine, but represents where both choruses are singing together, and the effect can be heard clearly in the music.

So Bach has his own (musical) interpretation layered over the actual Passion itself. Of course, even in the Gospel readings he has interpreted it simply by setting it to music, emphasizing some parts musically. This allows Bach's musical genius to illuminate and elucidate the text. It also allows Bach to exercise the full range of his talent, for the Passion exhibits almost the full range of human emotional experience.

However, the Passion is, ultimately, a downer. It ends with the death and burial of Jesus. The Passion is meant to be played on Good Friday, which is of course a very sad day for Christians, because this is the day Jesus was Crucified. Thus the Passion ends on a sour note (literally: the final chord is a C-minor seventh chord). When it was first performed it shocked many of the listeners, who thought it was inappropriate for instrumental music to be played in church, especially on Good Friday. The piece is rarely performed in church at all anymore, however, and is generally only heard by itself as a musical performance instead of a spiritual experience, though of course one has a greater chance of hearing it performed on or at least near Good Friday than on any other day of the year.

The Passion

Erster Teil - First Part

The exordium of the Passion begins in E-minor. Both Choruses are singing, sometimes together, and sometimes in 8-part polyphony, but most of the time it is Chorus I that is singing. They sing, "Come, ye Daughters, help me lament. Behold—Whom?—The Bridegroom. Look at him!—How?—Like a Lamb." The Bridegroom here is, of course, Jesus, who is also the Lamb of God. Chorus I sings the imperatives, and Chorus II the interrogatives. In this way the piece resembles a dialogue between two groups of people whose identity is unclear. It is interesting to note, though, that in Matthew 25, just before the text with which we are about to begin the Passion, there is the parable of the brides and the lamps.

At this point the Treble Chorale, or boy's choir, begins to sing a hymn. The hymn and the melody for it were not written by Bach, but were already well known to most by that time. It begins, "O Lamm Gottes unschuldig, am Stamm des Kreuzes geschlachtet," or, "O innocent Lamb of God, slaughtered on the Cross's stem." What is surprising about this melody is that it is not in E-minor, but its relative key, G-major. The overlay of a major melody on minor polyphony is very surprising. It is actually true that Bach's use of accidentals and chromatic tones caused him to switch in and out of the major and minor modes quite often. This would be used later, along with several philosophical musings by Goethe, by Webern and others to justify the rejection of the tonic chord and the cadence. Regardless of how it was used later, Bach uses it with skill and the effect is quite haunting. The Choruses sing on, "Behold him, out of love and grace Himself bearing wood for His Cross," as the Choir sings, "Have Thou mercy on us, O Jesus."

After the exordium is the first recitative, or reading of the Gospel text. This and the three following pieces are basically the prophecy of the crucifixion. The second part of this, Herzliebster Jesu, is a chorale. Bach's chorales are very famous, because there are so many and because he was so adept at them. In the Passion there are several chorales, and they sometimes share a melody, but differ greatly in the harmony. In this way Bach is able to tie together two parts of the Passion, and not sacrifice emotive power.

The chorales are, additionally, not technically part of the passion according to St. Matthew as found in the Bible and composed by other musicians. They are an integral part of the Passion, though. They interrupt the text with a reflection of it. My best guess is that they are supposed to give voice to what the audience is thinking and feeling at the time, and indeed some performances of the Passion have the audience sing the chorales.

Herzliebster Jezu responds to Jesus's prophesy with, "Beloved Jesus, what is your offense, that they have pronounced so harsh a judgment?" The irony is that the Pharisees killed Jesus because he claimed to be the Son of God. According to this interpretation, he was. The priests then assemble and plot when they might put Jesus to death, but they decide not to do it on the day of the feast.

The next five parts (6-10) deal with the anointing in Bethany. This is when Jesus was anointed with oil by a woman, with whom his disciples grew angry, because the oil could have been sold and the profit given to the poor, but Jesus says, "Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. ... For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial." Follows this immediately a recitativo, in which an alto talks about the anointing. After this is an aria, "Repentance and Remorse," which is also an alto-flute duo. The text of the aria is, "Repentance and remorse grinds the sinful heart to pieces, may the drops of my weeping a welcome adornment, faithful Jesus, bear to Thee." You can see how this is a subtle interpretation of the text. The alto anoints Jesus with her tears, which in turn are engendered by her repentance for her sins, and her remorse for being sinful. The anointments are, like the oil in the story, for Jesus's burial.

The next two (11-12) are a recitative (reading of the text) and an aria. These are about Judas, and his agreement to betray Jesus. The aria seems to be singing either to Jesus or Judas's mother, which sounds odd, but these are the words: "By all means bleed, Thou dear heart! Alas, a child that Thou raised, that suckled at Thy breast threatens to murder his guardian for he has become a serpent." The "Thou"s in this are capitalized because they are in the translation I have before me, but they are not in the German.

With part 13 we begin the Last Supper. It is in the middle of this supper when Jesus reveals that one of them will betray him. The chorus immediately sings a confusing polyphony of "Herr, bin ich's?" or "Lord, is it I?" The word "Herr" is said 11 times. Then a chorale begins, "Ich bin's, ich sollte büssen..." or "It is I, I should atone..." Bach is putting these words into the mouths of all of us. Of course then in 17 Judas asks, and Jesus replies, "Du sagest's," You have said it.

The latter half of 17 is reserved for the breaking of the bread and the first communion. Jesus's part here is interesting, because usually during the recitatives he and everyone else are not very metered. Here, he has a definite rhythm and the music becomes almost dance-like. The recitative and the aria, sung by sopranos, that follow this expound on the sacrament. The aria, indeed, almost sounds like a wedding song, and the opening words are, "I will give my heart to Thee." This is interesting because Jesus is, of course, the Bridegroom of the Church.

The next four (20-23) parts are Jesus's prediction of his disciple's denials, specifically Peter's. There are two chorales in this section, and they frame the relevant scripture. The first is a supplication to Jesus, the shepherd, to keep watch over the chorus. The second, given after Peter's adamant denial is, "I would stand here by Thee...From Thee I would not depart." Suddenly, instead of asking for protection, they (or we, depending on how you interpret it) are offering to protect Jesus.

The garden of Gethsemane (24-31) is probably one of the most poetic parts of the Passion. Jesus begins by saying to his disciples, "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death; tarry ye here, and watch with me." The recitativo and aria that follow are promises to do just this. The aria:

Solo: I would watch by my Jesus.
Chorus: Thus our sins shall fall asleep.
Solo: For by my death, His soul's distress atones;
     His grieving makes me full of joy.
Chorus: For us therefore His most worthy suffering must be right bitter and yet sweet.
Solo: I will watch by my Jesus.
Chorus: Thus our sins shall fall asleep.
Of course, the sins do not fall asleep; they are the disciples who fall asleep. Jesus prays to God that he will not have to be crucified. The arias in this section are so powerful and so sublime that I won't even attempt to describe them or give any kind of account, except to say that the reader, if the reader loves beautiful things, needs to hear them.

32 and 33, as quoted above, are the actual betrayal of Jesus by Judas into the hands of the Pharisees. The part continues with 34, a recitative, and 35, a chorus (not a chorale), in which the treble choir sings again.

O Man, bewail your great sin;
For this, Christ from his Father's bosom
Went forth and came to earth.
Of a Virgin pure and gentle
For our sake was He born here,
He was willing to become the Mediator.
To the dead he gave life
And conquered all sickness
Until the time drew nigh
That he should be sacrificed for us,
Should bear the heavy burden of our sins
Full long upon the Cross.

Zweiter Teil - Second Part

We begin with another lamentation of the betrayal of Jesus to the Romans. An alto sings, "Ah, my Jesus is gone now." Chorus I sings behind her, "Where then is your friend gone, O Fairest among women?" The aria is very gentle and full of sorrow.

The next several (37 - 44) parts are Jesus being questioned by the high priest Caiaphas. Here Bach skillfully interweaves biblical text and chorales, which has very powerful effects:

High Priest: Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing before you?
Evangelist: But Jesus remained silent.
Chorus: My Jesus holds his peace
Before false lies,
So as to show us
That his merciful will
Is bent on suffering for our sake...

Number 45 is Peter's first two denials of Jesus. Two women come up to him and say that he was one of the men who was with Jesus of Nazareth, and he denies knowing the man. The third time they accuse him, they do it in a wonderful chorus that does not sound very accusatory at all. However, Peter, in 46, denies knowing Jesus again.

To understand the impact of what happens next you should know some rudimentary music theory. Basically, harmony is composed of chords, which are three or more notes. These can be played on top of one another or they can unfold over time. With Bach, you can never really be sure what's going on (if you think his music is simple, try analyzing the prelude in C Major of the Well-Tempered Clavier), but in the recicitives, the chords underneath the Evangelist and the other singers are generally played all at once, and they act as a sort of punctuation. Every chord has a name, and its name is based on what key it is in. In the key of C-Major, for example, the C-Major chord would be called the Tonic or I, because it is the most tonal of the chords, and it feels like "home," it is a place of rest, and most cadences end with the tonic. There are several chords that point to the tonic, and the most "popular" of those is the dominant, or V. In the case of C-Major the dominant is G-Major. The dominant has a kind of leaning effect—you can feel the music leaning to the tonic.

Now, the tonic and dominant can sometimes be called 1 and 7 stations, respectively. These names are based on the dynamic qualities that belong most to the chords, and while this isn't a very tricky topic it's more than I want to go into. What you need to know to understand what I am about to say is that most tonal music follows the very basic pattern of 1-4-7-1. It begins at a 1 station, it moves to a 4 station, and then it cadences with a 7 station and then a 1 station. I know that probably anyone with any music theory (and there's a good bet they have more music theory under their belt than I do) is thinking about exceptions and sub-dominants and I-6/4 and all sorts of crazy fun stuff. But the 1-4-7-1 pattern is very simple and basic and you see it everywhere, especially in the melody of the recicitives. And nearly every sentence in a recicitive is punctuated by a V-I chord progression.

In 46, at the part with which we are concerned, we are in c#-minor. At the end of Peter's third denial, the sentence is "cadenced" on an f#-minor chord. And then the Evangelist says, "And immediately a cock crowed," and then another cadence on c#-minor. Since we had a cadence on f#-minor, we were in f#-minor, but then inside 11 notes, we move from that to c#-minor. This is something Bach is doing all the time all throughout the Passion and all throughout his music. I chose this example because I wanted to convey the horror and sadness that you can hear in the Evangelist when he sings, "Und alsbald krähete der Hahn," and the absolute emptiness and loneliness that the final c#-minor cadence brings, but while I thought I could do that a few paragraphs ago, I know now that that is beyond my power. You'll just have to listen to it.

Number 47 is a haunting reflection on Peter's sin. "Have mercy, my God, for my tears' sake." However, Peter, a bass, is not singing. An alto is. Is she someone singing in Peter's stead? Peter is presumably still weeping bitterly (weinete biterlich) over his denial. Who is she? I think an alto is singing here for three reasons. The first is that a deeper voice certainly would not fit the music. The second is that I don't think there is anything Peter could say here. He's pretty much out of the picture. He doesn't appear again in the Passion setting. Finally, I think the alto is weeping for Peter's sake, having somehow participated in his act, or feeling terribly sorrowful for him. Either way, it reminds us that we're not exactly spectators in this.

This write-up is getting pretty long-winded, so, since I haven't yet actually studied the second part as closely as I have the first, I'm going to pick out a few parts that are (for me) particularly impressive, and let you get on with renting it from your local library.

The first of those parts is in 54, when Pilate asks the crowd who should be freed, Barbaras or Jesus. The crowd replies, "Barabbas!" and Pilate asks, "When what should I do with Jesus, who is called the Christ?" The crowd shouts, "Let him be Crucified!" This final shout is musically rendered in such an awful way that the hearer is almost struck dumb. One can feel the terrible doom being called down. Pilate then asks (in 56), "Why, what has this man done?" His question is answered by what is probably the loneliest Soprano ever, who says, "He has done good to us all, He gave sight to the blind, The lame he made to walk; He told us his father's word, He drove the devils forth; The wretched he has raised up; He received and sheltered sinners, Nothing else has my Jesus done."

Following this is an even more poignant aria that begins, "Out of love my Savior is willing to die." After that the chorus repeats the sentence, which is made worse by what we have just heard.

If any one part of the St. Matthew Passion could be my favorite, it would be (as if saying I have a favorite part of Jesus' passion weren't bad enough, how much worse is this?) while Jesus is on the cross, and is being mocked by the crowd and the Scribes. They call to him, "You who said he could destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!" The Scribes say, "He saved others, but he cannot save himself! He is the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he has said, 'I am God's Son.'" The whole thing is, of course, an orgy of tonal explication, but at the line, "I am God's Son" -- "Ich bin Gottes Sohn" the music hits such an emphatic cadence (6-4-5-5-1) that it strikes me, at least, to the bone.

Since I primarily want to do what I most lack the ability to do, which is convey the power of the music, instead of perform an analysis of the words, I'll simply skip to the final chord of the final chorus, because it is interesting. It is dissonant. Bach ends what is probably the most powerful of his works on a minor seventh appoggiatura, which only flows to a c-minor chord as an afterthought. This makes sense with reflection: Why would Bach want his audience to go home with a full cadence in mind? What they had just heard was certainly not happy. What they have just spent the last three hours immersed in could arguably be one of the worst things in the world. It is only fitting, then, that it does not end, as the cliche says, on a happy note.

Besides, the story isn't over quite yet.

Sources: The music and the German are taken from the Edition Peters Nr. 4503, Bach Matthäus=Passion. The English translation of the words are at first from the wonderful translation that I'm afraid I don't have access to anymore, but that can be found in the back of the Sophomore Music Manual that can be found in the college bookstore at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. Later, I used and it's corresponding part2.htm.

A quick note on the title: The St. Matthew Passion is referred to either as that, "The St. Matthew Passion", (or Saint, but not as often) or "The Matthäus-Passion", or either with the definite article deleted. It is never "St. Matthew's Passion." A passion is a suffering. The suffering depicted in the Matthäus-Passion is not Matthew's, it is Christ's. Specifically, it is Christ's Crucifixion; Matthew is merely the evangelist. In the German, the word for "Matthew" in the title, "Matthäus", is in the genitive. Thus, the third (and probably most) appropriate name for this work is, "The Passion according to Matthew."

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