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The St Matthew Passion (also frequently St Matthew's Passion; German: Matthäus-Passion), BWV 244 is a sacred oratorio from the Passions written by Johann Sebastian Bach in 1727 for solo voices, double choir and double orchestra, with libretto by Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici). It sets chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew (in the German translation of Martin Luther) to music, with interspersed chorales and arias. It is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of classical sacred music. The original Latin title Passio Domini Nostri J.C. Secundum Evangelistam Matthaeum translates to "The Passion of our Lord J[esus] C[hrist] according to the Evangelist Matthew."
Although Bach wrote four (or five) settings of the Passions only two have survived; the other is the St John Passion. The St Matthew Passion was probably first performed on Good Friday (11 April) 1727 in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach was the Kantor of the School and Directoris Chori musici of Leipzig. He revised it by 1736, performing it again on 30 March 1736, this time including two organs in the instrumentation. He further revised and performed it again on 23 March 1742. Possibly due to the second organ being under repair, he switched the continuo instrument to harpsichord in Chorus II, reinforced the continuo group in Chorus II with a viola da gamba, and inserted a ripieno soprano in both movements 1 and 29. There is evidence of a further revision in 1743–1746, when the score as it is known originated, but no performance.
Many composers wrote musical settings of the Passion in the late 17th century. Like other Baroque oratorio passions, Bach's setting presents the Biblical text of Matthew 26–27 in a relatively simple way, primarily using recitative, while aria and arioso movements set newly written poetic texts which comment on the various events in the Biblical narrative and present the characters' states of mind in a lyrical, monologue-like manner.
Two distinctive aspects of Bach's setting spring from his other church endeavors. One is the double-choir format, which stems from his own double-choir motets and those of many 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. This is notable in "O Mensch, bewein dein' Sünde groß", the conclusion of the first half – a movement which Bach also used as an opening chorus for the second version (1725) of his St John Passion (later – ca. 1730 – he reverted to the originally composed "Herr, unser Herrscher" there). The opening chorus, "Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen" is also notable for the use of chorale cantus firmus, in which the soprano in ripieno crowns a colossal buildup of polyphonic and harmonic tension, singing a verse of "O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig". This was sung only in 1742 and 1743–1746 and had been played on the organ before.
The surviving manuscripts consist of twelve concertato scores, used for eight soloists who also served in the two choirs, additional parts for one soprano and two basses who perform "bit parts" such as the Wife of Pilate, Peter, Judas, High Priests, etc., and a part for the soprano in ripieno (stemming from 1742 and 1743–1746). It is believed that Bach wrote and performed the St Matthew Passion using one voice per part, rather than the two conventional choirs (plus ripienists and soloists) which is common for performances and recordings today. This concept is still being hotly debated. In 1730 (in response to his perceived harassment by the officials and out of concern for the deteriorating condition in religious music), Bach wrote a treatise he entitled "Kurtzer, iedoch höchstnöthiger Entwurff einer wohlbestallten Kirchen Music; nebst einigem unvorgreiflichen Bedenkken von dem Verfall derselben." ("Short, but most Necessary Draft on a well-regulated Church Music, with some modest Thoughts on the Decline of the same"). In it, he outlines both what he thinks would be a well-regulated Church music and also the current circumstances he faced in Leipzig. For the vocal ensembles he states that in the main churches (Hauptkirchen) of St. Thomas, St. Nicholas, and the New Church (Neukirche), each would use three voices per part, meaning three sopranos, three altos, three tenors, and three basses, with the residual (2 per part) for the Petruskirche (University Church). This residual would also act as the concertists (soloists) in the cantatas and other vocal works.[clarification needed What residual? What's with the Petruskirche?] So in this work, therefore, it would require two 12- to 16-voice choirs with a 3-voice ripieno soprano choir (for movements 1 and 29 in versions 1742 and 1743–1746).
The narration of the Gospel texts are sung by the tenor Evangelist in secco recitative accompanied only by continuo. Soloists sing the words of various characters, also in recitative; in addition to Jesus, there are named parts for Judas, Peter, two high priests, Pontius Pilate, Pilate's wife, two witnesses and two ancillae (maids). These are not always sung by all different soloists. The "character" soloists are also often assigned arias and sing with the choirs, a practice not always followed by modern performances. Two duets are sung by a pair of soloists' representing two simultaneous speakers. A number of passages for several speakers, called turba (crowd) parts, are sung by one of the two choirs or both.
The words of Jesus, also termed Vox Christi (voice of Christ), usually receive special treatment. Bach created particularly distinctive accompagnato recitatives in this work: they are accompanied not only by continuo but by the entire string section of the first orchestra using long, sustained notes and "highlighting" certain words, thus creating an effect often referred to as Jesus's "halo". Only his final words, written in Aramaic, Eli, eli, lama sabachthani (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?), are sung without this "halo". In the revision of 1743–1746, it is also these words (the Vox Christi) that receive a sustained continuo part. In all prior versions (1727/1729, 1736, and 1742), the continuo part was sustained in all recitatives.
Some arias and choruses of the St Matthew Passion have a parody connection to the lost funeral cantata Klagt, Kinder, klagt es aller Welt, BWV 244a, composed for the memorial service for Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen (1729).
The St Matthew Passion is set for two choirs and two orchestras. Both include two recorders, two transverse flutes, two oboes, in certain movements instead oboe d'amore or oboe da caccia, two violins, viola, viola da gamba, and basso continuo. For practical reasons the continuo organ is often shared and played with both orchestras. In many arias a solo instrument or more create a specific mood, such as the central soprano aria No. 49, "Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben", where the absence of strings and basso continuo mark a desperate loss of security.
Bach's recitatives often set the mood for the particular passages by highlighting emotionally charged words such as "crucify", "kill", or "mourn" with chromatic melodies. Diminished seventh chords and sudden modulations accompany Jesus's apocalyptic prophecies.
In the turba parts, the two choruses sometimes alternate in cori spezzati style (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 they alternate, 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, obbligato instruments are equal partners with the voices, as was customary in late Baroque arias. Bach often uses madrigalisms, as in "Buß und Reu", where the flutes start playing a raindrop-like staccato as the alto sings of drops of his tears falling. In "Blute nur", the line about the serpent is set with a twisting melody.
The arias, set to texts by Picander, are interspersed between sections of the Gospel text. They are sung by soloists with a variety of instrumental accompaniments, typical of the oratorio style. The interpolated texts theologically and personally interpret the Gospel texts. Many of them include the listener into the action, such as the chorale No. 10, "Ich bin's, ich sollte büßen" ("It is I who should suffer"), after eleven disciples asked "Herr, bin ich's?" (Lord, is it I?) – meaning: Am I the one going to betray? The alto aria No. 6, "Buß und Reu", portrays a desire to anoint Jesus with her tears out of remorse. The bass aria No. 65, "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein", offers to bury Jesus himself. Jesus is often referred to as "my Jesus". The chorus alternates between participating in the narrative and commenting on it.
As is typical of settings of the Passion (and originating in its liturgical use on Palm Sunday), there is no mention of the Resurrection in any of these texts. Following the concept of Anselm of Canterbury, the crucifixion is the endpoint and the source of redemption; the emphasis is on the suffering of Jesus. The chorus sings, in the final chorale No. 62, "tear me from my fears / through your own fear and pain." The bass, referring to the "sweet cross" expresses in No. 56, "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 first "O Lamm Gottes" chorale compares Jesus' crucifixion to the ritual sacrifice of an Old Testament lamb, as an offering for sin. This theme is reinforced by the concluding chorale of the first part, O Mensch, bewein dein' Sünde groß (O man, bewail your great sin).
The work is divided in two parts to be performed before and after the sermon of the Good Friday service.
Part One is opened by the chorus Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen. Choir I and II act separately, at times in question and answer, choir I Seht ihn ("Behold Him"), choir II interrupting Wie? ("How?"), choir I als wie ein Lamm ("as a Lamb"). The image of the lamb slaughtered on the cross is prominent also in the cantus firmus of the third choir, like a heading of the whole work.
The first scenes are in Jerusalem: Jesus announces his death (No. 2), on the other hand the intention to get rid of him is expressed (No. 4). A scene in Bethany (No. 4c) shows a woman anointing his head with valuable oils. The next scene (No. 7) has Judas Iscariot negotiating the price for handing Jesus over. In a great contrast of mood the preparation for the "Easter meal" (Osterlamm) is described (No. 9) and the Passover meal itself, the Last Supper, foreshadowed by the announcement of betrayal. After the meal they go together to the Mount of Olives (No. 14) where Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him three times before the cock crows. At the garden of Gethsemane (No. 18) Jesus asks his followers several times to support him but they fall asleep while he is praying in agony. It is there (No. 26) that he is betrayed by Judas' kiss and arrested. While soprano and alto mourn (in duet, No. 27a) Jesus's arrest, the chorus make angry interjections (Laßt ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!). In a dramatic highpoint of the Passion, the chorus (No. 27b) furiously demands against the Jews who arrested Jesus "Zertrümmre, verderbe, verschlinge, zerschelle/ Mit plötzlicher Wut/Den falschen Verräter, das mördrische Blut!" (Wreck, ruin, engulf, shatter with sudden force the false betrayer, the murderous blood!).
Part I is closed by a four-part Chorale Fantasia (both choirs) on the chorale O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß (O mankind, mourn your great sins), recapitulating that Jesus was born of the Virgin to "become the intercessor". The sopranos sing the cantus firmus, the other voices interpret aspects of the narration. In the 1727/1729 version, this part is concluded by a four-part setting of verse 6 of the Chorale "Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht (Jesum laß ich nicht von mir)".
Part Two is opened by a dialog between the alto soloist deploring her lost Jesus and choir II offering help in searching for him, quoting Song of Songs 6:1. In the 1727/1729 version, the soloist is a bass.
The first scene of Part Two is an interrogation at the High Priest Caiaphas (No. 37) where two witnesses report Jesus having spoken about destroying the Temple and building it again in three days. Jesus is silent to this, but his answer to the question if he is the Son of God is considered a sacrilege calling for his death. Outside in the courtyard (No. 38) Peter is told three times that he belongs to Jesus and denies it three times – then the cock crows. In the morning (No. 41) Jesus is sent to Pontius Pilate while Judas is overcome by remorse and kills himself. Pilate interrogates Jesus (No. 43), is impressed and is inclined to release him, as it was customary to release one prisoner for the holiday, supported in this by his wife. But the crowd, given the choice to have Jesus released or Barabbas, a thief, insurrectionist and murderer, asks with one voice "Barrabam!". They vote to crucify Jesus, Pilate gives in, washing his hands claiming his innocence, and delivers Jesus to torture and crucifixion. On the way to the crucifixion site (No. 55) Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the cross. At Golgatha (No. 58) Jesus and two others are crucified and mocked by the crowd. Even his last words are misunderstood. Where he cites Psalm 22, "Eli, Eli" (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?), he is supposed to have called Elijah. He dies. St. Matthew describes the tearing of the Temple curtain and an earthquake – set to music by Bach. In the evening (No. 63c) Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for the corpse for burial. The following day (No. 66) officials remind Pilate of the talk of resurrection and ask for guards and a seal for the grave to prevent fraud.
The work is closed by a grand scale chorus in da capo form, choir I and II mostly in unison for the first part Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder (We sit down in tears), but in dialog in the middle section, choir II repeating "Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh!" ("Rest gently, gently rest!"), choir I reflecting: "Your grave and headstone shall, for the anxious conscience, be a comfortable pillow and the resting place for the soul. Highly contented, there the eyes fall asleep." These are the last words (before the recapitulation), marked by Bach himself: p pp ppp (soft, very soft, extremely soft).
Note: The numbering system, 1 through 68, used here is from the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (New Bach Edition). The traditional BWV numbering uses a different scheme of 78 numbers. Neither sets of numbers are explicit in the autograph. See the comparison table.
1. Chorus I & II & Chorale: Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen – O Lamm Gottes unschuldig (Chorale sung only in 1742 and 1743–1746 versions)
3. Chorale: Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen
10. Chorale: Ich bin's, ich sollte büßen
15. Chorale: Erkenne mich, mein Hüter
17. Chorale: Ich will hier bei dir stehen (1727/1729 version without music and text "Es dient zu meinem Freude")
25. Chorale: Was mein Gott will, das gscheh allzeit
29. Chorale: O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß (1727/1729 version: "Jesum lass ich nicht von mir"; 1742 and 1743–1746 versions: ripieno soprano choir added to soprano line)
32. Chorale: Mir hat die Welt trüglich gericht't
37. Chorale: Wer hat dich so geschlagen
40. Chorale: Bin ich gleich von dir gewichen
44. Chorale: Befiehl du deine Wege
46. Chorale: Wie wunderbarlich ist doch diese Strafe!
54. Chorale: O Haupt, voll Blut und Wunden
62. Chorale: Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden
(first 29 seconds)
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68. Chorus I & II: Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder
The St Matthew Passion was probably first performed on 11 April 1727 in the St. Thomas Church, and again on 15 April 1729, 30 March 1736, and 23 March 1742. Bach then revised it again between 1743 and 1746 (the version most commonly performed is this version). The work was not heard in more or less its entirety outside of Leipzig until 1829, when Felix Mendelssohn performed an abbreviated and modified version in Berlin to great acclaim. Mendelssohn's revival brought the music of Bach, particularly the large-scale works, to public and scholarly attention (although the St John Passion had been performed in 1822). Appreciation, performance and study of Bach's composition have persisted into the present era.
Meanwhile William Sterndale Bennett formed the Bach Society in 1849 with the intention of introducing the work to the English public. Helen Johnston (a student at Queen's College London) translated the libretto, and Bennett conducted the first performance at the Hanover Square Rooms London on 6 April 1854 (the same year that it appeared in print by the Old Bach Society (Alte Bach-Gesellschaft). The soloists included Charlotte Helen Sainton-Dolby. The Sterndale Bennett edition was to be the first of many, the latest being by Neil Jenkins (1997) and Nicholas Fisher and John Russell (2008). The Bach Society was reformed in 1876 as The Bach Choir in London.
Excerpts of the work were performed on the American television program Omnibus on 31 March 1957 in the episode "The Music of J.S. Bach." The presenter and explicator was Leonard Bernstein, who introduced the St Matthew Passion as "that glorious work that started me off on my own private passion for Bach."
The St Matthew Passion has been presented in staged performances. Typically, these are done with all performers in street clothes or neutral costumes, the orchestras on stage, at least the soloists singing without scores from memory, and the words acted out in a solemn, melodramatic fashion with only a minimal stage set. On the other hand, George Balanchine staged it in 1943 with Stokowski conducting, and the Hamburg Ballet presented a Saint Matthew Passion under John Neumeier with Peter Schreier in 1981. Notable staged performances include Jonathan Miller's 1997 production in English; Lindy Hume's 2005 production for the Perth International Arts Festival, restaged in 2013 for Opera Queensland with Leif Aruhn-Solén (sv), Sara Macliver, Tobias Cole; and Peter Sellars' 2010 production with the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle with Mark Padmore, Camilla Tilling, Magdalena Kožená, Topi Lehtipuu, Christian Gerhaher and Thomas Quasthoff.
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