The Kennedy Center

St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244

About the Work

J.S. Bach Composer: J.S. Bach
© Richard Freed

Bach composed this extraordinary work for Good Friday, and may have performed it in Leipzig as early as April 11, 1727. We know that he performed portions of the work, which may not have been finished at the time, rearranged as the cantata Klagt, Kinder (BWV 244a, now lost), for the funeral of his former employer Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen on March 24, 1729, but the date generally given for the actual premiere of the complete work is April 15, 1729. With various revisions in the score, Bach performed the work again on March 30, 1736. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed music from the St. Matthew Passion on December 15, 1943, when Charles O'Connell conducted an arrangement of chorale "Herzliebster Jesu." On February 17 and 18, 1959, the alto Carol Smith sang the aria "Erbarme dich," with the NSO conducted by Howard Mitchell. The orchestra's only complete performances of the work prior to the present ones were conducted by Paul Calloway on April 7 and 12, 1968.

The roster of performers for this work comprises soprano, mezzo-soprano, 2 tenors, baritone and bass soli; 4-part chorus; children's chorus, 4 flutes, 4 oboes (2 doubling on oboi d'amore, 2 on oboi da caccia), and strings, with a continuo of viola da gamba, violone, bassoon, harpsichord and organ. Duration, 3 hours (plus intermission).

While today's connotations of the word "passion" are generally associated with an intensity of feeling or enthusiastic commitment, frequently in the context of a romantic attachment or one's vocation, the dictionary specifies a primary definition quite at odds with that interpretation: "An enduring of inflicted pain, tortures, or the like; now only specif.: (a) [usually cap.] the suffering of Christ on the cross, or his sufferings between the night of the Last Supper and his death. (b) [cap.] One of the gospel narratives of the passion of Christ." These basic definitions are illustrated in the traditional Passion Plays (the best-known being the famous production at Oberammergau in Bavaria, instituted in 1634), in the recent movie The Passion of the Christ, in innumerable musical works from Bach's time and earlier, as well as quite a few more recent ones. The second of the three parts of Handel's beloved oratorio Messiah was designated a "Passion" by the composer himself; some forty years ago the young Krzysztof Penderecki captured the attention of the world with his St. Luke Passion, and in 1974 the Argentine master Alberto Ginastera gave us his powerful Turbae (ad Passionem Gregorianam).

Recitations of the Passion appeared in Christian religious observance as early as the fourth century. Musical settings came into the picture before the end of the twelfth century, and polyphonic treatments in the fifteenth. Significant contributions to the genre came from English and Italian composers in the latter century, and from Bach's great compatriot Heinrich Schütz in the seventeenth. As originally designated in Roman Catholic usage, the Passion as described in the Gospel of St. Matthew was performed with the Mass on Palm Sunday, the Passion according to St. Luke on Wednesday of Holy Week, the Passion according to St. Mark on the following day, and the Passion according to St. John on Good Friday. These specifications were modified more than once over the centuries; as already noted, the Bach masterwork performed in the present concerts was composed for and introduced on Good Friday.

By the time Bach composed this work, the Passion as a musical form had become a prominent feature of Protestant observance, particularly in the German states, while in Catholic Italy the famous opera librettist Pietro Metastasio composed texts for Passions. In general the German Passion took the form of a large-scale oratorio, its text based primarily on one of the Gospels (as translated by Martin Luther) but including also contemporaneous material either created specifically for the oratorio or adapted for it, and in many instances embellished with numerous chorales. Bach's prolific friend Georg Philipp Telemann (godfather to the best-known of his sons) produced no fewer than 44 Passions. Bach himself set out to compose one after each of the Gospels, but completed only two of them in addition to the present work: the earlier St. John Passion (performed in April 1724 and again in March of the following year in a revised version) and a St. Mark Passion (performed in March 1731 but subsequently lost except for eight movements which Bach recycled in two of his church cantatas). A St. Luke Passion, assigned the number 246 in Wolfgang Schmieder's catalogue of Bach's works, turned up and was recorded some 45 years ago, but has been dismissed as inauthentic.

The librettist for the St. Matthew Passion was Bach's friend Christian Friedrich Henrici (1700-1764), who used the pseudonym "Picander" for the numerous poems and texts for cantatas and oratorios he wrote. He was born in Stolpen, a town near Dresden, and settled in Leipzig in 1720, after completing his studies there. He began writing song texts and libretti the following year, two years before Bach came from Cöthen to take up his duties at St. Thomas's Church, and the two became frequent collaborators. The Bach scholar Joshua Rifkin (the same Rifkin who as pianist initiated the Scott Joplin revival in the 1960s) wrote of Henrici, in The New Grove,
Although not a poet of notable depth or originality, Henrici made an ideal literary partner for Bach. Widely read, technically skilful and well versed in music (which had formed part of his studies as a young man), he could express ideas with the concrete imagery, clear syntax and rhythmic variety necessary to a composer's purpose. He had considerable virtuosity at writing verses to metric schemes dictated by older poems; this ability must have appealed particularly to Bach, who so often used a single piece of music in multiple textual guises.

Henrici/Picander himself wrote, in his foreword to a published collection of his cantata libretti, "I flatter myself that the lack of poetic charm may be compensated by the loveliness [of the music] of our incomparable Kapellmeister Bach." He supplied texts for literally dozens of Bach's works, secular as well as sacred, among them those for both the St. Matthew Passion and the lost St. Mark Passion, as well as another lost work, the secular cantata Bach assembled from sections of the St. Matthew Passion and the Cantata BWV 198 (Trauer-Ode) for the funeral of Prince Leopold in 1729.

The St. Matthew Passion itself was never lost, but Bach himself apparently performed it only two or three times and, together with so many of his other large works, it tended to be overlooked for three quarters of a century following his death. It was the twenty-year-old Felix Mendelssohn who undertook to correct this, by unearthing the Matthew Passion and directing the historic performance of the work in Berlin on March 11, 1829 (a performance, with some cuts and some retouching, given for the benefit of the city's Sewing School for Indigent Girls, followed by a second presentation ten days later). This successful rescue effort of Mendelssohn's not only achieved widespread recognition for the Matthew Passion as the towering masterwork it is, but also opened the way to a revival and new appreciation of Bach's other works. Beethoven had kept The Well Tempered Clavier close by, various other musicians had cultivated an appreciation of Bach's mastery of counterpoint and fugue, and organists delighted in his virtuoso pieces, but the general public had not been aware of the Passions, the B-minor Mass, the Christmas Oratorio, or other large-scale works, which when revived provoked Mendelssohn's friend Robert Schumann to write of Bach as a figure "to whom music owes as great a debt as religion does to its founder." (Mendelssohn subsequently performed similar rescue service for numerous other neglected or overlooked works, among them Beethoven's Fourth and Fifth piano concertos, the same composer's Violin Concerto, and Schubert's final symphony, the manuscript for which was given to him by Schumann.)

Mendelssohn, who was a practicing Lutheran all his life, was nonetheless mindful that he was a grandson of the celebrated Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. He is said to have remarked to his friend Eduard Devrient, the distinguished actor and stage director who collaborated with him in the revival of the Matthew Passion (and who, as a fellow pupil of Carl Friedrich Zelter, may even urged it upon him), "To think that an actor and a Jew who gave back to the Germans their greatest Christian work!"

Whether Mendelssohn actually made such a remark is a question that has never been settled, but reference to it touches off a somewhat more delicate question. The traditional Passion Plays, the recent Mel Gibson movie, and even the text of Bach's own St. John Passion (written by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, not the trusty Picander) have been controversial to varying degrees because of content interpreted as preaching anti-Semitism. The producers of the Passion Play at Oberammergau, in fact, undertook to revise its text on this account in 1990, and again in 2000, and criticisms of Brockes's text for the St. John Passion are voiced with some frequency, but the widespread admiration for the Matthew Passion itself has never been clouded by such a factor or any level of dissatisfaction with Picander's text. This remarkable work, in fact, has earned much of its unique status through its perceived universality and inclusiveness, the power of Bach's illumination of the text enabling it to cross sectarian borders as well as those of time and place. Helmuth Rilling, who has earned the respect of his colleagues and the admiration of a broad international public for his own service to Bach, and for his discerning interpretation of this masterwork in particular, recently summed up for us his understanding of its universal and entirely positive appeal:

The St. Matthew Passion is assuredly one of the greatest masterpieces ever composed in the history of music. In specifically measurable respects, it is Bach's longest work, and it also calls for the largest array of performing forces he ever used in a single composition: two complete choruses and two complete orchestras in addition to the numerous soloists. I would say the Matthew Passion is the most important of Bach's works, sharing that distinction only with the Mass in B minor.

Bach composed this work, as he did also his St. John Passion, using the complete text of the Gospel—in this case, Chapters 25 and 26 of St. Matthew—unabridged, since every word of this text was important to him, and he followed the story of the Passion very closely. In addition to that, there is a second layer of text: these are contemplative passages from the pen of Picander, commenting on the story as it unfolds. And the third layer of the text, of course, comprises the wonderful chorales which appear throughout the entire work.

As in many other oratorios, especially in stories of the Passion, the story itself is given to the Evangelist. While we can observe that the Evangelist, on one side, testifies—he tells us the story—there are also moments, and these are most beautiful ones, in which he seems to become overwhelmed by the story itself, becoming very expressive, touched and moved by the story which he himself tells.

All of the persons represented in this story have solo parts, and in the St. Matthew Passion these are many: there are the servants, there are the maidens, there is the high priest, and so on. One of the solo roles is that of Jesus himself. Bach surrounds the part of Jesus with the strings of the first orchestra, giving this figure his halo, a radiant light around this Son of God that sets him apart from all the other persons represented in the work. There is one very special moment, however, in which he is not accompanied by the strings: this is very special, the moment his also loses his halo, when he says, "Eli, Eli, lama asabthani!"—"My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken me?" At this very touching moment, when he loses his faith, he also loses his halo.

We come to the question, why is the St Matthew Passion so important and so moving for so many people? I think it is because Bach very obviously tries to touch upon so many basic human problems. He speaks about love, he speaks about hate, he speaks about betrayal, and of many other things that were problems for his time and are still problems in human situations in our own time. And I think in this touching music Bach can address these problems and say something that still has profound meaning for us today.

Besides that, we have a very personal aspect to the work, and this is shown in Bach's position toward his text. In one of the final choruses, by which point Christ has already died, the soldiers gather and speak the words, "Wahrlich, dieser ist Gottes Sohn gewesen"—"Truly, this was the Son of God"—and there we find a number of notes in the bass line of the chorus: just 14 notes, and these 14 notes, I think, must represent Bach's own name. His "name number" is 14 [the letters of the name BACH being Nos. 2, 1, 3 and 8, respectively, of the alphabet], and so he underscores his personal identity with the story of the Passion in his own name—certainly a very special way to demonstrate his own position in respect to those words of the soldiers, and the story of the Passion.

Bach may in fact have composed some portions of his St. Matthew Passion as early as his years in Weimar (1708-1717); what is more to the point, however, is that by the time he completed and performed the work he had behind him the virtuoso organ pieces of his Weimar years and the richly varied instrumental masterworks of his half-dozen years in the service of the young and musically active Prince Leopold in Cöthen (1717-1723), and was solidly established in the glorious final phase of his creative life at Leipzig, where he composed both sacred and secular works but had as one of his primary responsibilities as Cantor of St. Thomas's Church the production of sacred cantatas and various liturgical works. Bach was by then a musician of vast and varied experience, and his personal life had equipped him with a certain depth and a compassionate level of understanding. He was not without humor (as he demonstrated in several of his secular cantatas), but he was by no means cynical or casual in matters of his own religious faith. Even some of the aforementioned virtuoso organ pieces include musical symbols of the Trinity and other religious references. Since Mendelssohn's historic revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829, there has never been any question of the work's being less than fully valid as a personal statement on its composer's part; it might be said that the genuineness of the personal impulse behind it has somehow empowered it with the universality of its appeal already noted.

Another element, surely, is Bach's vivifying feeling for color and drama in an outright theatrical sense. Not only did Mendelssohn collaborate with a distinguished actor in reviving the St. Matthew Passion a hundred years after its premiere, but in more recent times there have been elaborate staged productions. Some 65 years ago, for instance, the legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski presided over a fully dramatized performance of the work at the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York, with the actress Lillian Gish in the role of Mary Magdalene and with dancers choreography designed for the occasion by George Balanchine. Overall, however, it has been felt that stage action and/or "visual aids" tend to be gratuitous embellishments of this masterwork conceived as a musical offering and wholly empowered by its sounds.

The specific sounds Bach created and assigned, in fact, not only for the individual and choral voices but for their poignant accompaniments, have a great deal to do with the striking projection of the emotional substance. Typical of Bach's imaginativeness in this respect, as the British musicologist Denis Stevens pointed out, was his choice of various forms of oboe:
The vibrant and metallic sound of the oboe da caccia helps to express tragedy and anguish, as when the dark agaony of Gethsemane is portrayed (Nok. 19), which Christ stands condemned before Pilate (Nos. 48 and 49) or hangs upon the cross (Nos. 59 and 60), or finally at the Tomb (No. 65). Bach's use of the oboe d'amore is no less imaginative, especially in the soprano recitate and aria, Nos. 12 and 13 ("Wiewohl mein Herz"; "Ich will dir mein Herze schenken"), where the two veiled-sounding instruments express to perfrection the close ties between Mankind and the Saviour, moving from heartfelt tears to a true commingling of grace and devotion.

The work is laid out in two large parts and no fewer than 78 subsections. Part I, comprising Sections 1 through 48, begins with the anointing of Jesus in Bethany and ends with his arrest; Part I covers his trial and crucifixion. For his 1736 performance of the work, Bach replaced the relatively simply chorale which had been his original ending for Part I with the remarkable fantasia for double chorus which now concludes it: "O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross." The great choruses that introduce and conclude each of the work's two parts, as the revered scholar Karl Geiringer observed, "form the pillars supporting the mighty work without participating in the development of the drama," while
The chorales distributed over the score belong to a special category. Bach's favorite chorale, "O sacred Head now wounded," appears no [fewer] than five times in different places of the score (Nos. 21, 23, 53, 63, 72). Each time, however, both the chordal structure and the text are changed in accordance with the specific dramatic situation.

Beyond these brief observations, as the sheer dimensions of the St. Matthew Passion, and the number of its individual sections, render extremely impractical any thought of section-by-section description or analysis, listeners are advised simply to receive the work on its own terms, as a sacred drama expressed in terms of human feelings and understanding, and to find the only guidance they will need in Mr. Rilling's already quoted remarks and the text itself.