The St Matthew Passion, BWV 244, (German: Matthäus-Passion), is a musical composition 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 to music, with interspersed chorales and arias. It is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of classical sacred music, indeed, of all Western music. The original Latin title Passio Domini Nostri J.C. Secundum Evangelistam Matthaeum translates to: The Suffering of our Lord J.C. after the Evangelist Matthew. It is rendered in English also as St. Matthew Passion and in German also as Matthäuspassion.
Although Bach wrote four (or five) settings of the Passion 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 Kapellmeister. He revised it by 1736, performing it again on 30 March 1736, this time including two organs in the instrumentation.
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 – 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."
The surviving manuscripts consist of eight concertato scores, used for eight soloists who also served in the two choirs, a few extra "bit parts", and a part for the soprano in ripieno. It is believed that Bach wrote and performed the St. Matthew Passion using one voice per part, or eight voices total, rather than the two conventional choirs which is common for performances and recordings today.
The narration of the Gospel texts are sung by the tenorEvangelist in seccorecitative 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".
The St Matthew Passion is set for two orchestras, engaged separately to accompany the soloist, including 2 flutes dolce, 2 transverse flutes, 2 oboes all doubling on oboe d'amore and oboe da caccia, 2 violins, viola, viola da gamba, and basso continuo. In many arias a solo instrument or more create a specific mood, such as the central soprano aria #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 #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 #6, "Buß und Reu", portrays a desire to anoint Jesus with her tears out of remorse. The bass aria #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 #62, "tear me from my fears / through your own fear and pain." The bass, referring to the "sweet cross" expresses in #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 #1, "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 (#2), on the other hand the intention to get rid of him is expressed (#4). A scene in Bethany (#4c) shows a woman treating his head with valuable water. The next scene (#7) has Judas Iscariot deal about the price for delivering Jesus. In a great contrast of mood the preparation for the "Easter meal" (Osterlamm) is described (#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 (#14) where Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him three times before the cock will crow. At the garden of Gethsemane (#18) Jesus asks his followers several times to support him but they fall asleep while he is praying in agony. It is there (#26) that he his betrayed by Judas' kiss and arrested.
Part I is closed by a four-part setting (both choirs) of 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.
Part Two is opened by a dialog between the alto soloist deploring her lost Jesus (quoting Song of Songs 6:1) and choir II offering help in searching for him.
The first scene of Part Two is an interrogation at the High Priest Caiaphas (#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 court (#38) Peter is three times told that he belongs to Jesus and denies it three times – then the cock crows. In the morning (#41) Jesus is sent to Pontius Pilate responsible for the jurisdiction, Judas regrets and kills himself. Pilate interrogates Jesus (#43), is impressed and tends 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 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 (#55) Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the cross. At Golgatha (#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 (#63c) Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for the corpse for burial. The following day (#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 "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. Obviously, neither sets of numbers are explict in the autograph.
1. Coro I & II & Chorale: Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen – O Lamm Gottes unschuldig
2a. Evangelist, Jesus: Da Jesus diese Rede vollendet hatte
3. Chorale: Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen
4a. Evangelist: Da versammleten sich die Hohenpriester und Schriftgelehrten
4b. Coro I & II: Ja nicht auf das Fest
4c. Evangelist: Da nun Jesus war zu Bethanien
4d. Coro I: Wozu dienet dieser Unrat?
4e. Evangelist, Jesus: Da das Jesus merkete, sprach er zu ihnen
5. Recitativo (alto, flutes): Du lieber Heiland du
6. Aria (alto, flutes): Buß und Reu
7. Evangelist, Judas: Da ging hin der Zwölfen einer mit Namen Judas Ischarioth
8. Aria (soprano, flutes): Blute nur, du liebes Herz!
9a. Evangelist: Aber am ersten Tage der süßen Brot
9b. Coro I: Wo willst du, daß wir dir bereiten das Osterlamm zu essen?
Befiel du deine Wege, Paul Gerhardt 1656 verse 1 for #44
The St Matthew Passion was probably first performed on 11 April 1727 in the St. Thomas Church, and again on 30 March 1736. The work was not heard 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. Notably, in the Netherlands a tradition has grown where many professional and amateur orchestras perform the St. Matthew Passion every year on Palm Sunday.
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 soloists included Charlotte Helen Sainton-Dolby. The Sterndale Bennett edition was to be the first of many, the latest being by Neil Jenkins. The Bach Society was reformed in 1876 as The Bach Choir in London.
^ Robin A. Leaver, "St Matthew Passion" Oxford Composer Companions: J. S. Bach, ed. Malcolm Boyd. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1999): 430. "Until 1975 it was thought that the St Matthew Passion was originally composed for Good Friday 1729, but modern research strongly suggests that it was performed two years earlier."
^ Wolff, Christoph. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, 294. New York: WW Norton & Company. 2000
Applegate, Celia: Bach in Berlin: Nation and Culture in Mendelssohn’s Revival of the St. Matthew Passion. Cornell University Press, 2005.
Casino (1995 Film) "Matthaus Passion" chapters 26 and 27.
Platen, Emil. Die Matthäus-Passion von Johann Sebastian Bach. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1991.
Rifkin, Joshua. "The Chronology of Bach's Saint Matthew Passion". In Musical Quarterly, lxi (1975). 360–87