The Bach Passions

This goes very well with the passion!

Hmmm, not sure Bach had Singapore Sling for Easter, but he would have had plenty of food and drink, maybe even Easter bread. He certainly liked his food and drink; if friends wanted to get into his good books, they’s send him either a good joint of meat or a good bottle of brandy or wine. In fact, for some of his early jobs, part of his yearly salary would be paid in beer.

This music doesn’t hip hop much… Maybe we should have put on Brandenburg Concerto No 3.

It was St Matthew Passion he played in Leipzig for Easter in 1727, not the Brandenburg Concertos.

St Matthew Passion is the larger, later and more famous of the two passions that survives out of the five Bach composed.

St Matthew Passion is for orchestra, double choir, children’s choir and soloists. It was first performed in 1727, but received relatively few hearings from this time until its famous 1829 revival in Berlin with the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. The huge interest which Mendelssohn’s performance sparked was a key factor in the resurgence of interest in Bach’s music generally, which grew throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. And as Bach has become more and more revered and loved over the years, the St Matthew Passion’s status as one of music’s masterpieces has only been confirmed; as a large-scale Baroque work it has few competitors in terms of fame or popularity.

The St. Matthew text was arranged by the poet Picander, whose sacred texts Bach also often used for cantatas. In it, verses from Matthew’s Gospel are interspersed with original, so-called ‘madrigal’ pieces set by Bach as arias and ariosos. There is also an element of dialogue in the text, which Bach exploits to great effect through use of the double choir.

The story is told by the Evangelist, as well as Biblical characters including Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Between these narrative sections are interspersed a combination of reflective ‘numbers’ (sung not by the characters but by various soloists) and chorales, with which the congregation would originally have joined in. Despite the fragmentary nature of its form, there is a fluentness to the piece, and a sense of energy runs through it all.

The part of Jesus is distinguished from the others by a particularly original effect: his music is given an accompanying group of strings which endows it with what is often described as a ‘halo’ (the musicologist Richard Taruskin has used ‘aureole’). It is only when Jesus is on the cross and declares ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ that this halo is withdrawn.

Particular highlights of the St. Matthew Passion include two incredible alto arias: ‘Erbarme dich’, an exquisitely touching piece with a solo violin part which provides a moment of reflection after Peter’s third betrayal of Jesus; and ‘Können Tränen meiner Wangen’, whose impassioned broken chords reference the shape of the cross, with which Jesus is then beginning his journey. The duet ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’, with its angry interjections from the choir, portrays the capturing of Jesus with amazing force at the end of Part 1. But picking out individual moments from a work of such overwhelming intensity is to miss the point: this is a piece whose scale and seriousness reflect its subject sincerely, and an experience of anything less than the whole cannot convey the sense of Passion integral to this work.

Bach continued to revise the St Matthew Passion for a good 10 or 15 years after it was first performed at Leipzig on Good Friday 1727.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner uses one of the later reworkings with an approach to the St Matthew Passion is fervent and contains a vivid sense of theatre. He does not seek an approximation to the performing conditions that Bach had at his disposal at various times. We are far from certain about what they were, but we know that they must often have been less than ideal.

Richard Egarr with the Academy of Ancient Music and the choir of the AAM (the version little bears are listening to) follows the original 1727 version.

The Academy of Ancient Music is considered one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world. With its roots tracing back to 1726, it consistently produces some of the finest recordings in the world of classical music. Performing on period instruments, its interpretations are always flavoured with intense musicianship as well as that particular sound that cannot be found when these works are recorded on modern instruments. Richard Egarr and AAM convey St Matthew Passion’s reflection, meditation and devotional calm in this interpretation.

A smaller piece than the 1727 St. Matthew Passion, Bach’s St. John Passion was first performed in 1724. Bach revised this piece considerably several times, but the final performance during his lifetime, in 1749, was similar in form to the first version. St. John Passion tells John’s account of the crucifixion through Biblical passages and poetry from a variety of sources (the compiler of the text is unknown). As in St. Matthew Passion, the story is told by an Evangelist and solo singers, and arias and chorales fit between the dramatic action. This work is somehow less unified, less ‘finished’ than its larger relative, but such views should not detract from the obvious high quality of the piece.

The passions of John and Matthew were the first two to gain a place in the liturgical canon, though this was a good twelve centuries before Bach’s settings materialised: Pope Leo the Great established that these two accounts of the events leading to the crucifixion should be presented during Holy Week as early as the 5th century. The tradition of setting the Passion story to music is older than that again, and is almost as old as the gospels themselves. From the earliest times of formalized church music, the Passions were chanted by the priests.

Later, composers wrote Gregorian chants to the texts of the Passion. Since the Passion is read several times during Holy Week, there were and are numerous occasions for musical and dramatic re-tellings of the tale. In fact, as time passed, the Passion productions became more and more elaborate, and increasingly more dramatic, sometimes so much so that they had to be moved out of the church, since these productions involved the use of the vernacular, props, costumes, and acting. The Church likes the dramatic productions of Passions, even when they involved laymen (not clergy), since the church was not only a place of worship, but also a common meeting place and the center for the community.

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