Music with Ease > Classical Music > Concert Guide: Baroque Era > St Matthew Passion (J S Bach)
St Mathew Passion
Johann Sebastian Bach
The St Matthew Passion is written in two parts, between which the sermon intervened in olden times. It includes portions of chapters XXVI and XXVII of the Gospel according to St Matthew. The dramatis personae are Jesus, Judas, Peter, Pilate, the Apostles, and the people, or Turbae, and the narrative is interpreted by reflections addressed to Jesus, forming two choruses ("The Daughter of Zion") and ("The Faithful"). They are sometimes given by the chorus, and sometimes by single voices. The chorales are selected from which were in common use in the Lutheran Church. The Gospel text is recitative form throughout, the part of the Evangelist, or narrator, being assigned to a tenor voice, while those of the persons incidentally introduced are given to other singers. In the dialogue, wherever the words of Jesus occur, the accompaniment is furnished by a string quartet, which serves to distinguish them from the others, and invest them with a peculiar gentleness and grace. The incidental choruses, sung by the people and the Apostles, are short and vivacious in character, many of them being in madrigal form. The chorales, fifteen in number, as already been said, were taken from Lutheran service. One of them, which Bach also liberally used in his "Christmas Oratorio," beginning "Acknowledge me, my Keeper," appears five times in the progress of the work, forming the keynote of the church sentiment, and differently harmonized on each occasion. Another ("O blessed Jesus") is twice used -- once where the Saviour announces that he will be crucified after the Feast of the Passover, and again in the scene Gethsemane. The whole work is written for double chorus, the two choruses singing the harmony of the chorales, accompanied by the instruments, while the congregation sing the tune in unison. Each chorus has its own orchestra and its own organ accompaniment. The double orchestra is composed of oboes, flutes, and stringed instruments. Drums and brass instruments are not used, the sentiment of the work, in Bach's estimation, not being fitted with them, sweetness and expressiveness of tone rather than power being required.
The part opens with a reflection sung by the double chorus ("Come, ye Daughters, weep for Anguish"), the first exorting believers to weep over the sinful world, the second responding with a brief interrogations, and at last taking part in the sorrowful strains of the first. Interwoven with these is an independent instrumental melody, the whole crowned with a chorale sung by the sopranos ("O Lamb of God all blameless"), followed by still another ("Say, sweetest Jesus"), which reappears in other parts of the work variously harmonized. The double chorus and chorales form the introduction, and are followed by recitative and a chorale ("Thou dear Redeemer") and a pathetic aria for contralto ("Grief and Pain"), relating the incident of the woman annointing the feet of Jesus. The next number is an aria for soprano ("Only bleed, Thou dearest Heart"), which follows the acceptance by Judas of the thirty pieces of silver, and which serves to intensify the grief in the aria preceding it. The scene of the Last Supper ensues, and to this number Bach has given a character of sweetness and gentleness, though its coloring is sad. As the desciples ask "Lord, is it I?" another chorale is sung ("Tis I! my Sins betray me"). Recitative of impressive character, conveying the divine injunctions, leads up to a graceful and tender aria for soprana ("Never will my Heart refuse Thee"), one of the simpliest and clearest, and yet one of the richest and most expensive melodies ever conceived. After further recitative and the chorale ("I will stay here beside Thee"), we are introduced to the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is introduced to the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is introduced by a short instrumentmental prelude, Zion, represented by the tenor voice, and the Believers by the chorus, coming in the after a few bars and alternating with extraordinary vocal effect. It prepares the way for the two great movements which close the first part, an aria for soprano and alto ("Alas! my Jesus now is taken") and a double chorus ("Ye Lightnings, ye Thunders!"). The two solo voices join in a lament of a most touching nature, accompanied by a chorus exclaiming in the short, hurried phrases ("Lets Him go! Hold! Bind Him not!"), until at the last double chorus bursts in like a tempest, accompanied with the full power of the instruments, expressing the world's indignation at the deed which is to be commited. The first part concludes with the chorale ("O Man, bewail thy great Sin!").
The second part opens with an aria for contralto, full of the deepest feeling ("Alas! now my Jesus is gone"). The trial scene before Caiaphas and the threefold denial of Peter follow, leading up to the expressive aria for alto, with violin obligato ("Oh pardon me, my God !"). The work now rapidly progresses to its beautiful finale. The soprano recitative in response to Pilate's question ("He hath done only Good to all"), the aria for soprano ("From Love unbounded"), the powerful contralto recitative ("Look down, O God"), the chorale ("O Head, all bruised and wounded !"), the contralto aria with chorus ("Look where Jesus beckoning stands"), and the peaceful, soothing recitative for bass ("At Eventide, cool Hour for Rest") are the principal numbers that occur as we approach the last sad but beautiful double chorus of the Apostles ("Around Thy Tomb here sit we weeping") -- a close as peaceful as the setting sun; for the tomb is but the couch on which Jesus is reposing, and the music dies away in a slumber song of the most exalted beauty.