Every year on Good Friday, a Passion was performed in one of Leipzig's two principal churches, St., Thomas and St. Nicholas. Coming at the end of an extended period of silence in places of worship (the Leipzig liturgy allowed no music between Quinquagesima and Good Friday, except on the Feast of Annunciation), the occasion marked a high point in the church year, for the elaborate, almost operatic Passion settings of the era far exceeded in length, complexity, and variety any of the other musical genres that appeared in the Lutheran service.
Johann Sebastian Bach probably faced no harder task among his duties as Thomaskantor and music director of the city of Leipzig than the preparation of the yearly Passion music. Whether or not he took the trouble of writing a new composition, the performance must have placed strenuous demands on his energies. In 1739, when the music Bach chose for the Good Friday service provoked objections from the town council, the composer hold the clerk informing him of the matter that “he did not care, for got nothing out of it anyway, and it was only a burden…”
Bach spoke as a man embittered by numerous and protracted disputes with the Leipzig authorities. Earlier in his career – at least during the relatively brief periods when he maintained a regular production of liturgical music – the challenges involved in the creation of a Passion seem to have engaged him keenly; he wrote at least four such works, of which two survive. His involvement with the Passion apparently began in Weimar. Between the years 1714 and 1717, when Bach’s duties as ducal Concertmeister included the composition of a new cantata every four weeks, the young composer led a performance of St. Mark Passion by the Hamburg master Rheinhard Keiser (1674-1739) and also wrote his own first Passion. (Although this early work has not come down to us, its existence seems well established, and fragments of it appear in Bach’s later Passions.)
Bach’s employment in Köthen (1717-l723), at a court that followed the ascetic Reformed faith, did not produce any sacred music. His move to Leipzig in 1723, however, signalled a burst of intense activity in this sphere. Cantatas flowed from his pen week after week, and he crowned his first year of service with the creation of the St. John Passion BWV 245. The first performance took place in the Nikolaikirche on April 7, 1724; a revised version of the piece, incorporating several movements from the Weimar Passion, was heard in the Thomaskirche the following year. (In subsequent presentations of the St. Thomas Passion, Bach eventually restored to its original form, so that few traces of the Weimar Passion survive in the work as we now know it.)
The rhythm and focus of Bach’s productivity frequently altered as his external situation changed; and when, in the summer of 1725, he fell into the first of many altercations with his superiors, his output declined sharply. By the following spring, the outpouring of cantatas that had filled his first two years in Leipzig virtually came to a halt, and Bach met the schedule of church performances largely with works by his cousin Johann Ludwig Bach. Not surprisingly, the Good Friday music for 1726 also came from the pen of another composer: Bach revived the Keiser Passion that he had given in Weimar.
The summer and autumn yielded a handful of new cantatas, but Bach never resumed steadily production of music for the Leipzig churches. He turned his sights in other directions: to the creation and publication of instrumental music, which he may have hoped would bring him broader recognition; to the directorship of Leipzig’s student Collegium Musicum, which he assumed in 1729; and even, perhaps, to the hope of obtaining a better job elsewhere.
Yet at this very time - when he seems to have renounced definitely any further efforts towards his youthful goal of “a well regulated church music” - Bach wrote his St. Matthew Passion, the longest and most elaborate work that he ever composed. It would appear that he saw significant phase of his life drawing to a close and took the occasion to produce a work that would synthesise and surpass all that he had previously done in the realm of liturgical music. The St. Matthew Passion was his last major composition for the Leipzig congregation. (The few large sacred pieces still to come – the B-minor Mass (BWV 232), the Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, and the lost St. Mark Passion of 1731, BWV 247 – consists mainly of adaptations of music written for other purposes; furthermore, Bach apparently did not intend the Mass for church use, and the oratorio is actually a series of six cantatas, each sung on a different day.)
The first performance of the St. Matthew Passion, given at the Thomaskirche, probably fell on April 11, 1727. A second presentation (perhaps in fact the first, for the evidence indicating the performance of 1727, while persuasive, remains fragmentary) took place two years later, again in the Thomaskirche, which also served as the site of two further repetitions, one in 1736, the other in the late 1740’s. Just as the creation of the St. Matthew Passion rounded off one segment of Bach’s career, the 1736 revival appears to have begun another: the collection, organisation, and revision of his music, a task that occupied him the rest of his life. Bach subjected the Passion to a thorough-going revision, copying out an entire new score – the first in a series of copies of his major works that Bach made throughout his last years – and preparing a new set of performing parts, which further refined the readings of the score.
The 1736 autograph of the St. Matthew Passion is one of the most beautiful manuscripts that any composer has left us. As the noted Bach scholar Alfred Dürr has pointed out, the visual perfection of this score testifies to Bach’s awareness of the special position held by the Passion among his works. The composer’s concern for the most appropriate graphic presentation of the music even led him to write the manuscript in two different colours of ink, the customary of blackish brown for most of the work, and a striking deep red for the chorale melody appearing in the opening movement and for all the Gospel words except for those sung by the chorus. Dürr sums up some of the other characteristics of the score as follows:
The barlines are drawn… very straight, at difficult places (e.g., “Sind Blitze, sind Donner” [No. 33]) with the help of the ruler. The staves, drawn with a staff-liner, are always counted out exactly – there is never an excess at the lower margin, and a somewhat greater expanse is left between systems, so that the eye can readily orient itself to the beginning of a new line. The movement headings and the indications of instrumentation are entered more carefully than usual in Bach’s scores; Part II receives a new title page, and the opening title even gives both the real name and the pseudonym of the librettist.
Some time after the creation of this score, its first thirteen folios were severely damaged, Bach proceeded to repair them with extraordinary care, replacing the outer-half of each sheet with a pasted-on piece of paper, on which he then filled in the missing music - a remarkable indication of the importance that he attached to the manuscript and its contents.
Music from St. Matthew Passion served Bach on one other occasion. On November 19, 1728, his former employer Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen died. Bach and the Prince had enjoyed an unusually warm relationship; the composer once represented Leopold “a gracious prince who both loved and understood music, and with whom I intended to finish my life.” Even after the departure from Köthen, Bach maintained friendly connections with Le’s court and continued to supply music for various ceremonies. He thus received the commission to compose a cantata for the burial service, which took place in March of 1729. Bach’s funeral music has not come down to us, but the verse schemes of the surviving text (Klagt, kinder, klagt es aller Welt, BWV 244a) reveal that he adapted most of the work from the Passion, using several arias (Nos. 10, 12, 19, 26, 29, 47, 58, 66, and 75), the final chorus, and perhaps some of the recitatives (Nos. 9, 18, 25, 28, 40, 57, 65, 69, and 74).
Passion compositions in Bach's era usually elaborated the biblical rendering of Christ's betrayal, capture, and crucifixion with the addition of chorales and meditative recitatives and arias. Some Passions, often called Passion oratorios, went so far as to dispense with the scriptural text entirely, replacing it with rhymed paraphrases; Bach's known Passions, however, retain the Evangelist's narrative.
When writing the St. John Passion, Bach evidently lacked an adequate literary collaborator and had to assemble his libretto himself, adapting most of the madrigalesque (i.e., freely written) portions from Barthold Heinrich Brockes's Der für die sünde der Welt gemartete und sterbende Jesus (Jesus Martyred and Dying for the Sin of the World), a celebrated Passion poem set by Keiser, Händel, Telemann, and Mattheson among others. By the time he composed the St. Matthew Passion, however, Bach enjoyed the services of a skilled and sympathetic poet, Christian Friedrich Henrici (1700-1764), who wrote under the name Picander. While neither profound nor verbally brilliant, Picander's poetry suited Bach's needs exceptionally well, providing a wealth of images and sentiments expressed in neatly diversified meters and rhyme schemes. Poet and composer no doubt worked closely together in establishing the text; Picander subsequently published his verses in his Ernst-, scherzhaffte und satyrische Gedichte, Part II (1729).
Several of the poems derive from earlier models. Picander's own Erbauliche Gedanken ...über den leidenden Jesum (Edifying Ref1ections on the Dying Jesus), a rhymed Passion text published in 1725, served as the basis for six numbers of the St. Matthew Passion (11 25, 47, 58, 60, and 78). Two more movements (Nos. 9 and 74) adapt poems by Bach's frequent Weimar librettist Salomon Franck. Picander also made a nod in Brockes's direction, taking the aria "Eilt, ihr angefocht'nen Seelen" - which Bach had set in the St. John Passion - as his model for "Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand" (No. 70). Finally he introduced chorale texts into two movements (Nos. 1 and 25) and a passage from the Old Testament (Song of Songs 6, 1) into another (No. 36).
The action of the libretto unfolds on three levels. Chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel According to Matthew present the events of Christ's suffering and death; the story is divided by Bach and Picander into two unequal parts (not corresponding to the chapters of the Gospel), the first ending with Christ's capture. Picander's twenty-eight recitatives and arias (the number includes a handful of choral movements - Bach's contemporaries understood the word "aria" in terms of poetic and musical structure, not as an indication of a solo vocal piece) offer a concise and often affecting commentary on the drama. The fifteen chorales mediate between the other elements: like the recitatives and arias, they connect the action to the present; but they also belong to the liturgy and thus share the higher authority of the Gospel. The chorales also affect the music more specifically than do the other texts, as the use of a hymn poem usually implies the adoption of its associated melody as well. (The chart on this page gives an overview of the chorales in the St. Matthew Passion.)
The disposition of the chorales and madrigalesque verses follows the dictates of the unfolding drama, relying on subtle connections of imagery and expression rather than on a systematic architectural plan to establish continuity and formal coherence. The elements of the libretto interrelate in a number of ways. For example, their confrontation creates symbolic dialogues like the exchange "Herr, bin ich's? Ich bin's, sallte büssen" produced by the juxtaposition of the chorus of the disciples (No. 15) and the succeeding chorale, or the reply to Pilate's question "Was hat er denn übels getan?" (No. 56) with the recitative "Er hat uns allen wohlgetan" (No. 57). This movement and the following aria, "Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben," momentarily relax the tension of the scene; but commentary can intensify the action as well: immediately before Pilate speaks, the chorale "Wie wunderbarlich ist dach diese Strafe!" (No. 55) heightens and transforms the savage emotions unleashed by the crowd screaming "Lass ihn kreuzigen!" (No. 54). Other interpolated movements expand emotions and ideas latent in the biblical text. Peter's remorse, succinctly described by the Evangelist with the words "Und ging heraus, und weinete bitterlich" (No. 46), underlies the aria "Erbarme dich" (No. 47) and the chorale "Bin ich gleich van dir gewichen" (No.48), while the recitative "O Schmerz!" (No. 25) and the following aria, "Ich will bei meinem lesum wachen," deepen, then radiantly dispel, the atmosphere of gloom that enshrouds Christ in Gethsemane.
The unusual scope of the libretto (it contains, for instance, more than twice as many madrigalesque numbers as that of the St. John Passion) probably reflected an awareness on Bach's part that the Good Friday performance would place at his disposal a larger group of singers and instrumentalists than he normally commanded, enabling him to produce a variety and power sufficient for even the most extended composition. The layout of the Thomaskirche, moreover, made it possible for Bach to divide his forces into two independent choruses-an arrangement most likely foreseen during the planning of the text, which includes no fewer than seven movements in dialogue.
Each chorus has its own orchestra, consisting of two flutes, two oboes (doubling oboe d'amore and oboe da caccia), strings, and continuo; one movement (No. 25) adds a pair of recorders to Chorus I, and four others (Nos. 40, 41, 65, and 66) call for a viola da gamba. This subdued range of colours, lacking any brilliant or exotic instruments, reflects the gravity of the occasion. Bach's flexible and subtle scoring, however, produces a richly gradated complex of textures and sonorities, moving fluidly from unadorned recitative to massive tutti, and encompassing such remarkable inventions as the quartet of recorders and oboes da caccia in "O Schmerz!" (No. 25), the hushed chorus in the following aria, or the ethereal instrumentation of "Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben" (No. 58), which omits the continuo to symbolize Christ's otherworldly purity. The spatial disposition of the music also lends nuance and motion to the ongoing drama, not only in moments of direct antiphony-which Bach actually uses rather sparingly, thereby gaining greater impact - but also in the shifts of successive movements from one chorus to another: the Evangelist and Christ, for example, sing from Chorus I; the turbae (the disciples, crowds, soldiers) and madrigalesque numbers come now from one chorus, now from another, now from both; and the chorales always from both groups in unison.
Differentiations of scoring and style reflect the stratification of the libretto; each layer, moreover, contains further internal differentiations. The Gospel unfolds largely in recitative. All the speakers except Christ are accompanied by detached chords in the continuo; Jesus receives a “halo” of sustained strings (a device suggested by Keiser and Telemann), which departs from him only at his dying words. The turbae, generally motet-like in style, call for the full ensemble of one or both choruses.
Picander’s verses are composed mainly as solo numbers. Bach sets the opening and closing movements as choral pieces, however, and the dialogues (given bthe poet to "The Daughter of Zion" and 'The Faithful1!” - designations that Bach dropped from his score) also involve chorus. Virtually all of these movements, regardless of their scoring, follow standard recitative and aria patterns; the recitatives all have obbligato accompaniment, usually with persistent motivic figures.
With one exception-the mighty fantasy on O Mensch, bewein’ dein' Sünde gross that concludes Part I - the independent chorales all take the form of simple "congregational” settings. The two chorales that figure in madrigalesque pieces help link these two layers of the composition. Similar connections, such as the appearance of the chorus on all levels of the action, or the use of recitative for both biblical and madrigalesque texts, perform a further unifying function.
As the culmination of a crucial phase in Bach’s life, the St. Matthew Passion not unnaturally reveals traces of his earlier works, especially the two preceding Passions. "O Mensch, bewein'" (No. 35) probably originated as part of the Weimar Passion, and it also figured in the second performance of the St. John Passion before assuming its present location in the 1736 version of the St. Matthew Passion. Some of the turbae also might come from the Weimar Passion. Reflections of the St. John Passion abound. "O Schmerz! hier zittert das gequälte Herz”' (No. 25), with its quartet of woodwinds and its "trembling” bass I recalls the tenor arioso “Mein Herz! in dem die ganze Welt” from the earlier work. The settings of two Gospel passages-Peter's weeping (No. 46 in the St. Matthew Passion) and the destruction of the temple (No. 73)-also reveal a close kinship between the two Passions (these portions of the St. John Passion may in fact go back to Weimar). As we have already seen, the text of "Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand" (No. 70) resembles that of the St. John Passion aria “Eilt, ihr angefocht'nen Seelen,” and Bach sets the reiterated questions “Wohin?” in a fashion reminiscent of the earlier composition. Finally, the concluding movement of the St. Mathew Passion bears an exceptionally close relationship-in key I meter I form, and text-to the penultimate number of the St. John Passion, the chorus "Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine.”
Like the libretto, the music of the St. Matthew Passion does not follow a strict architectural scheme; Bach appears to have composed more or less from number to number, responding to the specific demands of his texts. But while the large-scale cohesion of the Passion depends chiefly on the profound inner consistency of its writing, several externally perceptible relationships also contribute to its unity.
Repeated material plays a significant role. Three chorales recur throughout the piece: the melody used for O Welt, sieh' hier dein Leben appears twice in different settings (Nos. 16 and 44), Herzliebster Jesu three times (Nos. 3, 25, and 55), and the Hassler tune associated with O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden no fewer than five times (Nos. 21, 23, 53, 63, and 72) in four closely related harmonizations (Nos. 21 and 23 are musically identical except for key). The two choruses "Lass ihn kreuzigen!" (Nos. 54 and 59) use the same music, with the repetition a whole-tone higher than the first statement, possibly to symbolize the mounting anger of the crowd. The phrases "so steig herab vom Kreuz" and "so steige er nun vom Kreuz" in the turbae of No. 67 receive nearly identical settings.
Other relationships, although somewhat more tenuous, also make themselves felt. The cries of "Wohin?" in "Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand" (No. 70) recall the middle section of the opening chorus; the aria's frequent pairs of slurred sixteenth-notes also suggest a connection with "O Mensch, bewein' " (No. 35) - a relationship made especially manifest in the following two cadences: