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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 7

The St. Matthew Passion - The Jewel of the Genre

by Dr. Lisette Canton / April 1, 2002

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Among the unpublished scores listed in the catalogue of Bach's works, and included in his 1754 obituary, are "five Passions, of which one is for double chorus." This work, presumably the St. Matthew Passion – referred to as "the great Passion" in the Bach family circle – was composed in 1727, between the more modestly scored St. John Passion of 1724 and the St. Mark Passion of 1731. The differences between these three Leipzig Passions (the other two are presumably lost) are seen in their overall form, layout, scoring and conception. Of the three works, the St. John Passion lacks textual unity because of madrigal lyrics that were compiled from various poetic sources. Bach thus began to look for a different kind of text and eventually came into contact with Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici), a poet responsible for a large number of occasional sacred texts, many of which Bach used in his cantatas. With its mixture of Gospel text and complex madrigal-style poetry, Picander's St. Matthew Passion libretto constituted, from a literary point of view, a unified Passion oratorio which enabled Bach to compose a wholly original work in a single sweep.

A long history

The Passion as a genre has a long history, dating back to medieval times, but from the beginning of the sixteenth century onwards three types may be distinguished according to text: those setting the complete text according to one Evangelist; the so-called summa Passionis (Passion harmony), made up of sections taken from all four Gospels, including all seven words of Christ on the cross; and the setting of a shortened version of the text of one Gospel (found only in Protestant Germany). In its desire to encourage liturgical singing in the vernacular, the Lutheran church made a considerable contribution to the growth and dissemination of this genre. In Leipzig, for example, there had been a tradition, dating back to 1669, of reciting the texts of the Passion choraliter (a style of singing derived from Gregorian chant) on Palm Sunday, when St. Matthew's Gospel was used, and on Good Friday, when St. John's Gospel was preferred. From 1717 onwards, the polyphonic style (figuraliter) was authorized for the performance of both Passions; and from Good Friday 1721 it became traditional to perform a polyphonic Passion either at St. Thomas's Church, where Bach had been kapellmeister since 1723, or at St. Nicolas's.

After its first performance on April 11, 1727, Bach revised the St. Matthew Passion only once, extending and refocusing its musical dimensions while leaving the overall design and libretto intact. In 1736, on the occasion of its third performance, Bach replaced the simple chorale, Jesum lass ich nicht von mir, which originally concluded part I, with the massive chorale fantasia, O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, taken from the second version of the St. John Passion. He also made a more decisive division of the entire ensemble into two vocal-instrumental bodies by assigning separate continuo groups to choirs I and II. In addition, he used the swallow's nest organ and choir loft at St. Thomas's in the performance by assigning the cantus firmus lines of the two choruses that framed part I (nos. 1 and 29) to a third choir made up of sopranos with organ support (marked Soprano in ripieno in the score). The definitive character of the 1736 revisions is expressed by the calligraphic autograph copy that he completed with great scrupulousness. It is clear that Bach considered this score as his most significant work up to that point.

Based on a reprint of the text in volume ii of Picander's collected works published in 1729, the biblical Passion narrative may be divided into fifteen scenes and two introductions, to which both the lyrical meditations and the interspersing of hymn stanzas relate. All of the lyrics are introduced by biblical references so that the function of every single poem and musical setting becomes clear.

All musical means

A distinctive feature of the St. Matthew Passion is Bach's optimal use of all musical means available to him, including widely diverse singing voices and instrumental sonorities (exclusive of brass). He also drew on the complete repertoire of forms in sacred and secular music.

The "great Passion" begins with a large-scale chorale fantasia for double chorus, each choir with its own orchestral support, with a seamless integration of freely conceived verse and chorale text and melody. At bar 30 this chorale, O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig (O innocent lamb of God), which serves as the cantus firmus, soars above the choral and orchestral texture and immediately responds to the dialogue Seht ihn! Wie? Als wie ein Lamm! (See him! How? Just as a lamb!). The text of the chorale is the metrical paraphrase of the Agnus Dei which would have been sung at the end of the morning service on Good Friday. The opening chorus thus provides a summation of what the entire Passion oratorio aims to achieve in theological content, literary structure, and musical expression.

The progression through the details of the Passion story is frequently presented in a repeated pattern of biblical narrative, comment, and prayer. The biblical narrative is sung mainly by the Evangelist, but with various dramatic roles represented by other voices, and groups of people by choir I or II (or both) of the choruses. Next, before the narrative is continued, a recitative comments on the biblical narrative just heard, and the substance of the comment is transformed into a prayer in an aria that follows. A final element in the varied texture of the Passion lies in the chorales that punctuate the narrative.

Individual styles

Each character also has his or her particular musical style and function in the Passion. The Evangelist carries the actions forward in the form of recitativo secco, accompanied by continuo alone, merely recounting events. Jesus speaks to his disciples and to Pilate in the form of an arioso halfway between recitative and aria. Except at the very end, he is accompanied by strings in addition to the continuo, which create a symbolic "halo" around his words. Only in the passage preceding his death (no. 61: Eli, lama asabthani) is this effect abandoned and recitativo secco restored.

The St. Matthew Passion is symmetrically structured around a central point which occurs between the two turba choruses, nos. 45a and 50a, Laß ihn kreuzigen (Crucify Him) while Christ appears before Pilate. It is during the soprano aria (no. 49), Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben (For love my Saviour now is dying), that the whole meaning behind Christ's Passion is revealed.

In terms of harmonic texture and colour, Bach employs the widest possible range of musical expression. The St. Matthew Passion strides moves through a variety of keys while drawing on an extraordinary array of colours in the instrumental obbligato accompaniments of the arias. Bach takes the harmony to its furtherest extreme in no. 59, Ach Golgotha (which uses all twelve chromatic pitches), and on Jesus's last words Eli, lama asabthani which appears in b-flat minor and moves to e-flat minor in the subsequent translation. His key choices for the "Passion chorale" – the melody of Herzlich tut mich verlangen – which appears five times in nos. 15, 17, 44, 54, and 62, follow a reverse tonal descent through the successive key signatures

( 4 sharps / 3 flats / 2 sharps / 1 flat / natural),

and illustrates the path of inevitability as the Passion progresses.

The St. Matthew Passion represents the culmination of not only the Lutheran tradition of liturgical Passions, but of the entire genre as well. It is a work of majesty which demonstrates the height of Bach's compositional mastery as well as the profundity of his musical expression and his understanding of the liturgical and spiritual elements of his faith. After some 275 years since its first performance, the St. Matthew Passion remains the summit of the choral art alongside the Mass in B minor.

Dr. Lisette Canton conducts the Ottawa Bach Choir, the Carleton University Choir and teaches choral conducting and aural training. She is also the Director of Music at Rideau Park United Church and a vocal coach, choral workshop leader, adjudicator, and guest conductor. Dr. Canton just conducted a very successful performance of the St. Matthew Passion on March 10 in Ottawa.

The complete St. Matthew Passion will be performed by the St. Lawrence Choir in Montreal directed by Iwan Edwards on April 14 in two sessions. The concert is a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the choir. (514) 790-1245.

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