Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
St. Matthew Passion (Bach)
Bach's St. Matthew Passion, or The Passion According to St Matthew, is a musical composition for solo voices, double choir and double orchestra, with libretto by Picander. It sets chapters 26 and 27 of The Gospel of Matthew to music, with interspersed chorales and arias. It is considered by some to be Bach's greatest work, and occasionally even spoken of as the greatest work of Western music.
Structure of the work
Baroque musical settings of the Passion became common in the later 17th century. Like other oratorio passions, Bach's setting presents the Biblical text of Matthew 26-27 in a relatively simple way, primarily using recitative, while arias and ariosos set newly-written texts which comment on the various events in the Biblical narrative.
Two distinctive aspects of Bach's setting spring from Bach’s other church endeavors. One is the double-choir format stems from his own double-choir motets and the many such motets from other composers with which he routinely started Sunday services. The other is the extensive use of chorales, which appear in standard four-part settings, as interpolations in arias, and as a cantus firmus in large polyphonic movements, notably “O Mensch, bewein dein’ Sünde groß,” the conclusion of the first half -- a movement this work has in common with his St. John Passion -- and the opening movement, in which the sopranos “in ripieno” (often sung by children's choir today) crown a colossal buildup of polyphonic and harmonic tension.
The narration of the Gospel texts are sung by the Evangelist, a tenor soloist who sings entirely in free recitative accompanied only by continuo. Whenever an individual speaks as part of the story, another soloist sings those words, also in recitative; in addition to Jesus, there are named parts for Judas, Peter, a high priest, Pontius Pilate, Pilate's wife, and two ancillae (maids), although these are not always sung by all different soloists. Two passages are sung by a pair of soloists representing two simultaneous speakers, and a number of passages for several speakers, called turba parts, are sung by one of the two choirs. These latter passages are not recitative but are conventional metric music.
Jesus' recitatives are particularly distinctive in always being accompanied not by continuo alone but by the entire string section of the first orchestra using long notes, creating a full, sustained sound often referred to as Jesus' "halo." Only his final words, Eli, eli, lama sabachthani, are sung without this halo.
The arias, set to texts by Picander, are interspersed between sections of the Gospel text, and are sung by various soloists and with a variety of instrumental accompaniments, typical of the oratorio style.
The interpolated texts point to a theology which makes the sacrifice on the cross very personal. Almost every text brings home the significance to modern Christians of Jesus’ suffering, from the chorale “Bin ich’s” (“It is I who should suffer and be bound for hell”) to the alto’s desire to anoint Jesus with her tears (“Buß und Reu”), to the bass’s offer to bury Jesus himself (“Mache dich, mein Herze, rein”). Jesus is often referred to as “my Jesus.” The chorus, which expresses great anger at Judas, calling for hell to swallow him up, are themselves rebuked by Jesus: those who take up the sword die by the sword. It is no accident that the chorus alternates between participating in the narrative (in the turba parts) and commenting on it as modern believers; there is an identification between the two.
Equally significant is that there is no mention of the coming Resurrection in any of these texts. Modern Protestant churches treat the crucifixion primarily as a prelude to Easter, only important inasmuch as one can’t be resurrected without dying first. For Bach, following in the footsteps of Anselm of Canterbury, the crucifixion itself is the endpoint, the source of redemption. The emphasis is on the suffering of Jesus in the place of the sinners, and it is the resurrection which is secondary, only important to show God’s power and to give an example of what redemption from sin might consist of. The chorus sings, “tear me from my fears / Through your own fear and pain.” The bass, calling it the “sweet cross,” says “Yes, of course this flesh and blood in us / want to be forced to the cross; / the better it is for our soul, / the more bitter it feels.“
The “mourning” referred to in the opening movement is not mourning for the dead Jesus, but rather for our own sinfulness, culminating in the “O Lamm Gottes” chorale sung by the children, referring to the ritual sacrifice of Jesus like an Old Testament lamb, as an offering for sin. This theme is reinforced by the concluding chorale of the first half, “O Mensch, bewein dein’ Sünde groß” (“O mortal, bewail your great sin”).
Bach’s music is as deep as the text. His recitatives are never mechanical, but set the mood for the particular passage, often highlighting emotionally charged words such as “crucify,”, “kill,” or “mourn” with twisting chromatic melodies. The description of Peter’s weeping after having denied Jesus is especially poignant. Jesus’ prophecies of doom are accompanied by diminished seventh chords and sudden modulations; compare that to the relatively cheerful music of the Eucharistic proclamation (“drink, all of you, this is my blood...”). The cock crowing and the pouring of perfume on Jesus’ head are set to pictorial lines. While these details are more of an effort to hear for modern audiences than they were for people in Bach’s time who heard recitative all the time, the effort is well worth it. Think of it as exceptionally dramatic reading, rather than music, and these details will be easier to hear. In the turba parts, the two choruses sometimes alternate, giving the impression of being buffeted from all sides (e.g. “Weissage uns, Christe”) and sometimes sing together (“Herr, wir haben gedacht”); other times only one chorus sings (chorus I always takes the parts of the disciples) or alternating, for example when “some bystanders” say “He’s calling for Elijah” and “others” say “Wait to see if Elijah comes to help him.”
In the arias, the instruments (either solo or in groups) are equal partners with the voices, and some of Bach’s most beautiful writing ever is in these movements. In addition to his excellent melodies and counterpoint, but could always find a way to match the details of his compositions with the texts. For example, in “Buß und Reu,” the flutes start playing a raindrop-like staccato as the alto sings about the drops of her tears. The strings play a violent motive to symbolize scourging in “Erbarm’ es, Gott.” In “Blute nur,” the line about the “serpent” is set with a twisty melody. The crowd shouts “Crucify him” twice with a jagged, dissonant theme; but in between, the quiet, reflective “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” symbolizes the inner calm of faith in a world of violence, with frequent stops and a heavenly feel, lacking even continuo support.
Bach's St. Matthew Passion was probably written in 1727. Only two of the four (or five) settings of the Passion which Bach wrote have survived; the other is the St. John Passion. The St. Matthew Passion was first performed on either Good Friday 1727 and/or Good Friday 1729 in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach was the cantor. He revised it by 1736, performing it again on March 30, 1736, this time including two organs in the instrumentation.
The contents of this article is licensed from www.wikipedia.org under the GNU Free Documentation License. Click here to see the transparent copy and copyright details