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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Bach's 'St Matthew Passion': four short talks

Four addresses given in the course of a 'come and sing' workshop on Bach's St Matthew Passion. 

The St Matthew Passion is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. Not just ‘religious’ music, whatever we mean by that, but music. It’s one of those works that are universal in their value and their appeal. It seems to speak to people of all faiths and no faith with a depth and directness that only a few works of art ever achieve. Bach’s family used to call it die Grosse Passion, the ‘great’ passion. No-one will argue with that.

I’ve loved the Bach Passions since I was a teenager. I came to faith singing Bach’s St John Passion so I suppose I can say that were it not for Bach I wouldn’t be here now doing what I do in Durham. Soon afterwards, I discovered the St Matthew. And these two works awakened an interest that I have had ever since in both the music of Bach and in the passion narratives of the New Testament. So I want in these short talks to try to open up these musical and spiritual worlds as we enjoy working on the St Matthew today.
Why did Bach write his Passions?  Nowadays, we always hear them as stand-alone ‘concert’ performances. But they were of course written as liturgical music which formed a central part of the Good Friday church service at Leipzig where Bach was cantor. The reading or chanting of the passion accounts in the four gospels had been at the heart of the Good Friday service for many centuries.  In the 18th century Lutheran Church, this liturgy was celebrated in the afternoon as a long vesper service. It began with a hymn, followed by a prayer and then the first part of the passion. The sermon followed, and we should imagine it lasting for up to an hour. The second part of the passion was then sung, with a motet, more prayers and a final hymn to end with. In Leipzig, the service alternated year by year between the two town churches of St Thomas and St Nicholas. 

Bach did not invent this musical form. Other German composers wrote passions which like Bach’s included the reciting of the gospel text or a paraphrase, arias, choruses and chorales. But no-one ever composed passion music with as sure a touch as Bach. He both understood with profound theological and spiritual insight what the gospel story was all about, and also how best to weave it seamlessly into the church’s liturgy.
In both the St John and St Matthew, the concept is the same. Bach firmly believed that the music should honour the words of the biblical text rather than make do with paraphrase. This is sung by the evangelist as tenor recitative. Soloists take the parts of the protagonists – Christus, Peter, Judas, the Chief Priest, Pontius Pilate and so on, with the choir or choirs performing the crowd scenes. But because the reading of the story took place within a public liturgical service, it was important to pause the action frequently to give the congregation plenty of opportunity to reflect on the narrative ass it unfurled and also to offer its own response. So the arias, sometimes supported by the choir, provide spaces for meditation, while the chorales were familiar Lutheran passion hymns in some of which the people would be able to join in singing.

The St John Passion was first performed in 1724 at St Nicholas, and the following year in a revised version at St Thomas. In 1726, a passion by a Hamburg composer Friedrich Bruhns was sung at St Nicholas. Bach composed the St Matthew for the 1727 performance at St Thomas’s. He was 42 by then, and still had over two decades of composition ahead of him. But the care he took over the final manuscript of his 1736 revision, written in two different colours and two distinct scripts, tells us that he knew he had written a work of defining significance, at least for him.

So what makes it the great work we now recognise it to be?

It’s many things. At the most obvious level, Bach is a musician of the first order whose technical mastery of shape and form is wedded to a profound humanity, an inner ear for what has beauty and a mind to give it utterance. Then Bach is a master of biblical interpretation, a supreme commentator on scripture alongside the classics of written commentary. As the cantatas show, he knows and handles the text with the utmost care and reverence: I’ll try to show later on how he does this in the St Matthew. Another is what I would call his ability to read the heart, uncover character, motive and attitude in a story so that it is brought to life as a human drama.  Bach knows the comedy and tragedy of life. Unlike Handel, he never wrote operas; if he had, they would certainly have been wonderful, for in a way, the sacred drama of the Passion is almost operatic in its effect. And because of that, we who listen begin to feel that our own humanity is understood in this music too, the beauty we aspire to in our best moments, the disintegration we experience in our worst. This is what gives this work what I have called its universality.
We owe the rediscovery of the St Matthew to Mendelssohn who revived and performed it in 1829. This to my mind is the really great achievement that we should thank him for – giving Bach back to the world. I don’t think we are ever the same when we hear the Passions well performed, nor are we the same when we perform it ourselves. We should be touched and moved, and maybe glimpse possibilities we had never thought about as I believe I was for a moment on that far-off day 50 years ago.

To understand the St Matthew Passion we need to know it as Bach knew it, get under the skin of this powerful biblical text. We’ve asked what a ‘passion’ was in Bach’s 18th century Lutheran worship. We now need to ask what a ‘passion’ is in the New Testament. When Matthew wrote his story of the suffering and death of Jesus, what was his intention?

The obvious way of reading any of the four gospels is to see them as ‘lives’ of Jesus that inevitably conclude with accounts of his death. But this is the wrong way round, and it’s obvious for two reasons. The first is that the length of the passion narratives is out of all proportion to the rest of the text. In St John, for instance, the events of the last week of Jesus’ life occupy the last 10 chapters out of a total of 21 – nearly half. In Matthew it is 8 out of 28, still a very significant amount. Clearly, what took place in that week was given huge emphasis; so much so that the passion narratives are the culmination of everything that has gone before. Indeed, we could say that a ‘gospel’ consists of a passion narrative with an extended introduction. So if we read the gospels ‘backwards’, starting with the passion, we begin to see how the crucifixion was the lens through which the writers saw the entire life of Jesus. He was, as we say on Good Friday, born to die this death.
But this leads to the second reason why the passion narrative is not simply an ending. For in the gospels, it isn’t an ending at all. They conclude not with the cross but with the resurrection. In St Mark, the meeting of the disciples with the risen Lord is promised as a future event; but Matthew, Luke and John all record the Easter recognition scene as the culmination of the story. For all four gospels, the resurrection is the transforming event of human history, not an end but a new beginning, a new world. This was the starting point of all four gospels. The only reason for telling the story of Jesus at all was that the crucified Son of Man had risen from the dead. And this explains why the cross is dwelt on in such loving detail, because it was a (literally) crucial part of the story of redemption. Theologically, we should speak not of two separate events, Jesus’s death and resurrection, but of a single one, cross-and-resurrection together, through which, the gospel writers claim, the salvation of the world is won.

Originally, the liturgy of Easter did not separate these ‘moments’ of redemption. It was one story that was celebrated, death and resurrection as one redemptive event. However, early in the Christian era the liturgy began to extend back across an entire week with each day given to marking the events of that day as the gospels record them: Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the last supper and betrayal on Maundy Thursday, the passion and crucifixion on Good Friday, the burial on Holy Saturday. By the time of Bach, Good Friday had taken on the character of a day dedicated to the solemn commemoration of Jesus’ suffering and death; hence the central part the passion story on its own played in the liturgy of the day. 
We can see how, separated from the resurrection account that follows it, St Matthew’s passion takes on a decidedly dark aspect. I want to look later on at how the story depicts Jesus himself, but we should notice how he enters and leaves the passion. It begins on a note of foreboding as Jesus says to his disciples: ‘you know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified’. And the words with which he dies fill out that ominous prediction. There is darkness over the whole land, says Matthew. After three hours he calls out to God from the cross, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ and, says Matthew, dies with a cry on his lips. It is hard not to feel it as a cry of despair. Bach’s agonised music seems to read it that way.

If you read St Mark’s passion account, you will find that he tells the story in much the same way. In particular, he records the same bleak word from the cross. The consensus of biblical scholars is that Mark’s story came first, and that Matthew had it to hand when he wrote his own gospel. Matthew edited Mark, omitting some details and adding others (for instance, the earthquake and the bodies of the saints rising out of the earth is pure Matthew, an episode that gives Bach scope for some dramatic word-painting that I dare say he enjoyed).
But it is substantially the same message, written with the same purpose in mind. What is that?

It is to elicit the reader’s response. Matthew and Mark do not simply tell a story for the sake of the story. They tell it as a proclamation of the Christian message so that we who read may gain insight and understanding. For this is not just anyone’s death. It is the death of the one who has come into the world for our redemption. This is why telling it at such length, and meditating on it in a way that takes time and effort is fundamental to our recognition of who Jesus was and is for us. It explains why Bach thought that three hours of musical contemplation on Good Friday was not too much to give to a task that in reality belongs to a lifetime. 


So far I have taken the perspective of the listener (or perhaps I should say the worshipper): how does our understanding of the Passion help us to respond to this majestic music? I’d like in this talk to reflect on performance: how do we sing the St Matthew Passion? I’m conscious that singing is not the only performing art involved: the instrumentalists are as vital as the singers and in no sense reduced to the role of merely ‘accompanying’. But since today is billed as a ‘come and sing’, you will forgive me for focusing on the part the chorus plays in the music.
Both Bach’s passions approach their texts with a view to creating out of them a sacred drama. In the St John, the hectic pace of the narrative sweeps all before it, and a major role for the chorus is to portray an angry and hostile crowd intent on being rid of Jesus. This aspect is certainly present in the St Matthew too: ‘he is worthy of death’, ‘now tell us who smote thee?’, ‘let him be crucified’. But these numbers are fewer than in St John, and apart from two, they are terser and less elaborate. Bach takes this to an extreme in the episode where Pilate asks the crowd which of the two men, Jesus or Barabbas, they want him to release. Their response is a single eight-part shriek on a diminished seventh chord: ‘Barabbas!’ Just half a bar of music, yet how superlatively effective as a dramatic device, for any development would have lost the demonic decisiveness with which the crowd, by casting its vote, condemns Jesus to death.

Playing this hostile part in the drama is not, however, the most important function of the chorus in St Matthew. What the choir is principally there to do is more like the chorus in a Greek tragedy: to observe the action and to offer commentary and interpretation from the edges of the drama. In the St Matthew, they often do this through an overheard conversation with one another: the ‘daughters of Zion’ and the community of believers or those who aspire to faith. In this, the chorus ‘bears witness’ not only to events as they unfold, but their meaning. Sometimes this is in the form of affirmation, sometimes in questions. In this, they are the mouthpiece of the largely silent congregation. This audience that is listening to the Passion understands that the story is ultimately for us and about us, and from time to time is given permission to offer its own response through the congregational chorales it is invited to sing.
It helps to understand the structure of the work and how the chorus fits into it. The St Matthew has 15 main scenes according to the scheme by which Bach’s librettist Picander arranged the material. In part one we have Jesus’ anointing at Bethany, his betrayal by Judas, the last supper, Gethsemane, Jesus’ prayer for deliverance and finally his arrest. In part two, he is interrogated by the high priest, Peter denies him, Judas’ remorse in the temple, Jesus before Pilate, his scourging, Simon of Cyrene carrying his cross, the crucifixion itself, the descent from the cross and lastly his burial. At the end of each of these, Picander inserted a poetic meditation which pauses the action and allows for reflection. These are the points at which the arias are inserted, usually preceded by a recitative-type arioso. In some of them the chorus is in dialogue with the soloist. ‘I would beside my Lord be watching’ sings the tenor while the second choir responds ‘and so our sin will fall asleep’; or the alto, imagining herself at Golgotha, ‘Come, see the Saviour’s outstretched hands’ while the chorus asks ‘come where?’. In these ways we the audience grasp how the Passion is not being sung to us, still less at us. It is being sung with us as conversation partners.

There are four particularly important choruses that stand like cornerstones at the beginning and end of each part. These frame the entire story. The first, ‘Come ye daughters, share my mourning’ sets the scene by inviting the audience to imagine themselves taking part in a worldwide funeral march to Golgotha. But already there is a key conversation taking place between the doleful E minor lament of the eight-part chorus, and the hope-filled G major hymn sung by the ripieno choir whose words ‘O Lamb of God most holy, have mercy on us’ that point not simply to an event but its profound meaning for the human race. The second cornerstone, positioned at the dramatic point where Matthew says that ‘all the disciples forsook him and fled’, is an extended setting of the chorale ‘O man, thy grievous sin bemoan’. This was transferred to the St Matthew from St John and eloquently captures the brokenness of humanity in turning away from Jesus as the source of light and life.
The third cornerstone opens part 2 of the work. Here the ‘daughter of Zion’ who personifies the people of God is asking desolately and insistently where her Saviour has gone, while the chorus sympathises with her. There is no da capo in this piece as in many of the arias, no going back to the beginning again: the question mark with which it ends is all important, symbolised by ending not in the tonic home key of B minor but the dominant F sharp major. And finally, of course, the concluding double chorus ‘In tears of grief’, a lullaby in which the Christ, and the passion, are gently laid to rest (the theme also of the choral recitative that precede it). This chorus is both theologically and psychologically essential. It is not that there is resolution in the story yet (that must wait for Easter Day), but it is important that the narrative can end on a properly cathartic note, having cleansed both listener and performer, enabling us all to leave the story without experiencing a wrenching dislocation as we return to ordinary time.

I think that when we remember the St Matthew Passion and ask ourselves why we love it so much, it’s for these ethereally beautiful reflective moments where arias and choruses somehow enable the music to glow from within. Like the halo of strings that surrounds the words of Jesus in the Passion, they too illuminate the story with meanings that turn out to be about the transfiguration of life. That is the all-important contribution the chorus makes in this most exquisite of sacred works. There could not be a more privileged role to have.


In the last of these talks, I want to focus on how Jesus is portrayed in the St Matthew Passion.
I am going to start not at the beginning but at the end, or almost. It may be foolish to ask you this question, but I am going to anyway. What are the two greatest bars of music ever written? I reply, the brief chorus you will find on page 173 of the Novello score, embedded in movement no. 73. This is the earthquake scene I referred to earlier. ‘Now when the centurion, and they that were with him watching Jesus, saw the earth quake and those things that were done, they feared greatly saying, truly this was the Son of God’.

As you can see, here is where Bach breaks the rule he has set himself throughout the narrative parts of the Passion. We would expect a single tenor or bass voice to sing the part of the centurion, or perhaps a semi-chorus representing the other bystanders. But Bach assigns it to the whole chorus, choirs one and two and treats it as if the chorus were in its ‘reflective’ mode. The rise and fall of the beautiful melodic line, the richness of the choral and orchestral textures, the Lento mark all tell us that Bach sees this as a transformative moment in the work, a kind of apotheosis. It’s as if the Passion simply stops and stands still at this point, so that the wonderment of recognition can sink in. A sensitive conductor knows not to hurry back to the recitative and break the spell too soon.
Here Bach the theologian, the biblical interpreter, informs Bach the musician. For St Matthew, the centurion, a non-Jewish Roman soldier, is not simply speaking for himself when he utters these words. They are articulated on behalf of the whole world that has followed the events of the passion story to their end. At one level, it is a baffling tragedy of a good man on whom cruelty is inflicted and evil done although he has done nothing to deserve it. But the eye of faith sees deeper into the mystery. It perceives that in the demeanour of Jesus, even in the awful godforsakenness of the cross, some other story is being acted out. For the evangelist, it is the story of a redemption that embraces all of humanity. So the centurion gives voice on behalf of us all when he recognises who it is who has suffered and died in this way. The lonely sufferer had thought he had been abandoned. The centurion recognises that even in the darkness, the light of God’s Son is not extinguished for ever.

These two bars are surrounded by the same halo I spoke about in the last talk. One of the characteristics of the St Matthew Passion compared with the more spare St John is how Bach adorns the harpsichord and cello continuo accompaniment every time Jesus speaks with an ethereal halo of strings. This serves to underline whose voice it is we are listening to, not simply the words of a man but the divine utterances of the Son of Man. So Bach creates a highly dramatic effect on reaching the last words of Jesus from the cross: ‘my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’  Here alone in the entire work, the string halo we have come to expect every time Jesus speaks is suddenly stripped away, as if to leave him naked in his godforsakenness. Bach commentators often say that this reduces him to being 'just' a man like any other crucified man, like the two thieves on either side of him.
However, I doubt if this obvious reading is what Matthew intends and Bach was too good a theologian not to realise this. The issue is the paradox that Jesus as God’s Son no longer experiencing himself in that way, as if God could both be God and yet know what it is to be not-God at the same time, suffering as God himself and yet being abandoned by him.  I think we should construe Bach’s musical language as meaning not that Jesus’s divinity was stripped from him in his death but that his experience of God’s presence was taken from him in the terrible ordeal he underwent. This is where the centurion’s utterance is all the more powerful. It’s as if the halo that was absent in the word from the cross has slipped across the boundary of death and is now present once more as the chorus recognises who this divine man was all along.
I have emphasised the way Jesus is portrayed at the end of the Passion as the divine man whom God abandoned because it is fundamental to the rest of it. I’ve already spoken about the opening words in which Jesus foretells what is to happen to him. The cross’s inevitability has already become a theme earlier in the gospel. It is relentlessly underlined by foreshadowings throughout the passion narrative. Here are some early instances. The anointing by the woman at Bethany is meant, says Jesus, to prepare his body for burial. Next, Judas obtains money from the chief priests and begins to ‘look for an opportunity to betray him’. At the last supper, he says that ‘the Son of Man goes as it is written of him’ and declares that the poured-out wine his blood ‘poured out for many’. On the Mount of Olives, he quotes the prophecy about God striking the shepherd and the sheep being scattered. In Gethsemane he prays that the cup of suffering may pass from him. We are all familiar with these, but we need to notice their cumulative effect. Early in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says that ‘the Son of Man must suffer’. The Greek word for ‘must’ captures this unavoidable vocation to suffer, the sense of destiny that pervades the story. The king must die.

So the St Matthew Passion is a sombre work. Perhaps it’s right to speak of it as a tragedy, not because of any tragic flaw in Jesus but because of the tragedy of the human condition that brings his crucifixion about. The Passion confronts us with the image of suffering in a way that is profoundly challenging. It should disturb us, and it does. But it is not desperate and not bleak. It is not simply Bach’s Christian vision that shines through the warmth and humaneness of the music; it is St Matthew’s as well. His, and Bach’s, invitation to us who sing or listen is quite simply to begin to see things as the centurion did: to look into the face of a death and recognise there the seeds of light and life. 

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