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Length: 2 hours, 30 mins

Orchestration: Evangelist (bass), Jesus (tenor), SATB soloists, orchestra I and II (each with 2 flutes, 2 oboes [ = oboes da caccia, oboes d’amore], strings, organ, and basso continuo), chorus I and II (each SATB), and soprano ripieno (children’s chorus).

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 29, 1946, with Leopold Stokowski conducting

About this Piece

In 1697, Gottfried Vockerodt, rector of the high school in the southeast German town of Gotha and a self-styled “good Christian,” directed his students in an evening of dramatic scenes from Roman antiquity. Among them were reenactments of the death of Caligula, killed as he chatted with some actors, and of Nero’s descent into insanity, its paranoid confusion ushered in by his reckless violin-playing and frequent visits to the theater.

The point of the scenes was clear: the arts, and above all, the theater, were dangerous, something to be avoided at all costs lest one wander into sin and wantonness.

Musicians and performers around Germany leapt to the theater’s defense, unleashing a blitz of rhetoric against Vockerodt. With a single gesture, Vockerodt had positioned himself as the Jesse Helms of the 17th century, battling the heathen filth seeping from the stages of Germany’s theaters.
What does all of this have to do with Bach’s St. Matthew Passion? Well, in a way, the St. Matthew Passion – or, to give it its full title, the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ According to St. Matthew – is the end of the story that began with Vockerodt, a triumphant affirmation of the power of theater to depict profound spiritual drama. Where the Gotha schoolmaster saw only depravity and sin, Bach found a means of capturing a religious moment, the Passion of Christ, in all of its complexity.

At the beginning of the 18th century, a Hamburg pastor named Erdmann Neumeister noticed the same problem that had so vexed Vockerodt. People were flocking to the opera and displaying an enthusiasm for it that they did not have for religion. But Neumeister turned a negative into a positive, seeing in 18th century opera an effective way to render the narrative of Christianity in music. He wrote hundreds of texts for religious music, employing the alternation of dramatic action and contemplative reflection found in 18th-century opera’s recitative-aria structure. These texts also integrated the Lutheran chorale, a moment when the entire congregation could join together and affirm the spiritual message of the text. This combination of recitative (a speech-like declamation), aria, and chorale provide the skeletal structure of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

Bach was familiar with Neumeister’s innovations, having set several of the Hamburg pastor’s texts to music. The St. Matthew Passion is perhaps the most ambitious work Bach ever composed. In it, Bach (1685-1750) adds a host of choruses, passages of accompanied declamation, and several other musical innovations to Neumeister’s original alternation of recitative, aria, and chorale.
The text, penned by Bach’s Leipzig collaborator Picander, renders the events of Matthew 26 and 27 with such complexity that Bach could not avoid innovation. The Passion follows these two chapters of Matthew’s gospel closely in recounting the trial and crucifixion of Christ. The St. Matthew Passion can be broken down roughly into nine scenes: an introduction, the anointing in Bethany, the Last Supper, Jesus and the apostles in the garden of Gethsemane, Judas’ betrayal, the trial and interrogation of Jesus, Judas in the Temple, the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus, and the descent from the cross and burial.

This drama unfolds on three levels in the St. Matthew Passion: that of the characters involved in it (Matthew, Jesus, Peter, Judas, Pilate, the chorus in its guise as the crowd, and various others mentioned in the text), that of the spiritual community (represented by various reflective choruses and the chorales), and that of the individual believer (whose reflections unfold in the arias).
Bach uses these levels to bring out the drama of the Passion, something apparent immediately in the imposing opening chorus. Here, we see Bach working on a scale found nowhere else in his output, using the double chorus and orchestra, as well as the (in this performance) children’s chorus to paint a vivid scene of Jesus carrying the cross to his crucifixion. The two full choruses comment on the procession, acting as a crowd gathered on either side of it, while the children’s chorus sings the chorale “O Lamm Gottes” (“O guiltless Lamb of God”), a reflection on the events about to unfold.

Recitatives for tenor (in his guise as the evangelist) and bass or baritone (as Jesus) provide the work with a narrative. The action of the drama is restricted to these exchanges, and to the brief choral interjections that provide the voice of the crowd during these recitatives.
Bach follows dramatic moments with reflective arias and chorales. For example, after the opening chorus, Jesus declares to his apostles that he will be crucified in two days. The chorale that follows (“Herzliebster Jesu” – “Beloved Jesus”) – meditates on this declaration with a series of questions. The evangelist continues his narration in the recitatives that follow, with the chorus appearing twice, first as a group of priests, scribes, and elders (“Ja nicht auf das Fest” – “Not on the feast day”) and then as Jesus’ disciples (“Wozu dienet dieser Unrat?” – “To what purpose is this waste?”). In this chorus, the disciples question a woman’s use of ointment to anoint Jesus when it could have been sold for money to give to the poor. Jesus answers that she anointed him for his burial, as a memorial. In the recitative and aria that follow (“Du lieber heiland du” – “Buss und Reu” [“Thou, dear Redeemer” – “Penance and Remorse”]), the alto soloist ponders the anointment, identifying with it as an individual believer. In these first scenes, Bach presents us with a rich dramatization of the event as the community and the individual reflect on the narrative as it unfolds.

This complexity of form and adventurous use of chorus and soloists is matched by rich and detailed writing for the double orchestra. Witness, for example, the liquid writing for two oboes d’amore in the soprano’s accompanied recitative “Wiewohl mein Herz in Tränen schwimmt” (“Although my heart swims in tears”), Bach’s union of the two orchestras to accompany the chorus that closes Part I of the Passion, or the eerie accompaniment provided by two oboes da caccia and pizzicato cello to the alto’s recitative “Ach Golgotha” (“Ah, Golgotha”) in Part II.
Many of the work’s arias provide powerful examples of Bach’s ability to fuse a solo instrument and the voice. Some of these, such as the tenor’s “Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen” (“I will watch beside my Jesus”), with its elaborate oboe solo and use of the chorus to finish the soloist’s lines, are quite complex. Others, such as the bass’ “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” (“Make thyself clean, my heart”), with its simple accompaniment, match the chaste expression of the text.

All of this innovation seemed lost, however, on Leipzig’s fairly reactionary musical audiences. Most of the Passion music performed in Leipzig before Bach’s arrival had been sung in plainchant, and, though Bach introduced his St. John Passion in 1724, it appears that his music had the power to shock his audiences. The St. Matthew Passion had its first performance three years later, on April 11, 1727 in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, where Bach was cantor. A 1732 account of a performance of one of Bach’s Passions captures a Vockerodt-style indictment of Bach’s brand of Passion music.

“In the pew of a noble family in church, many ministers and noble ladies were present, who sang the first Passion chorale out of their books with great devotion. But when this theatrical music began, all these people were thrown into the greatest bewilderment, looked at each other, and said, ‘What will come of this?’ An old widow of the nobility said, ‘God save us, my children! It’s just as if one were at an opera comedy.’”

Though the St. Matthew Passion hardly strikes us today as opera, that is perhaps because our understanding of opera has changed. With its structure based on an alternation of recitatives and arias, Bach’s work struck reactionaries in Leipzig as being too operatic. But the composer’s innovation within the language of 18th-century opera is one aspect that makes the St. Matthew Passion a profound, edifying, and deeply spiritual experience. Bach, immersed in the music of his time, transcended this music. The St. Matthew Passion stands as a universal and eternal monument to his genius.

John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA, where he is writing about opera in Berlin between 1740 and 1806. He has also annotated programs for the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles Opera, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.