The Music of the St Matthew Passion

The text contains the verses of the Passion story (the whole of chapters 26 and 27 of St Matthew’s Gospel) as translated by Martin Luther himself. These are delivered largely by the Evangelist – a musical personification of Matthew himself – and by Christ. Some lines are delivered by the chorus representing variously the protagonists, the people of Jerusalem and the disciples. Other lines are delivered soliloquentes – Peter, Judas, Pilate, Pilate’s wife, a couple of high priests and false witnesses, and a couple of girls. The chorus passages are in motet form (accompanied double choir). This style, with its quick antiphonal exchanges between two choirs, is known as chori spezzati (spaced choirs). Venetian composers such as Monteverdi and Gabrieli would set out their chori spezzati in the various balconies and galleries of St Mark’s Cathedral. 

The words of the evangelist and the lesser characters are delivered in the style known as secco recitative. This is a Singspiel style, which allows for a great deal of rhythmic freedom and therefore a dramatic delivery, accompanied by very simple and occasional chords from the continuo from orchestra 1. The words sung by Christ are set to recitative stromentato, or accompanied recitative.  Bach ingeniously enfolds these words in slow-moving, richly-scored string chords to set them apart from the other characters in a musical halo, or a warm glow of sound around the words of Christ. Symbolically, in Bach’s original manuscript, the words from Matthew are written in red ink, and the rest in black ink, a technique we have reproduced in this programme. In Christian colour symbolism, red is the colour of divine sovereignty and the blood of martyrdom.   

In between this biblical narration is a selection of solo ariosi recitativi (accompanied recitatives) and arias. The former provide a fusion of action and contemplation and are characterised by recurrent and insistent instrumental figuration of one kind or another. They are always followed by a solo aria which is intended for in-depth reflection and contemplation of the events which have just occurred. They also comment on the action as it unfolds, and allow the opportunity for personal reaction to the events of the narrative. 

Christian Henrici (1700–1764), who wrote under the pseudonym Picander, provided the text for both the arioso recitatives and the arias. Henrici, a local postal worker and tax officer and a close friend of Bach, later published these words in the second volume of his Ernst Schertzhaffte und Satyrische Gedichte (serious, humorous and satirical poems) in 1729. Although not a poet of great depth, Picander was an ideal partner for Bach, being widely read, technically skilful and well versed in music. He could express his ideas with clear and simple imagery which was well suited to a composer’s needs, allowing as it does scope for effective musical illustration of the text. Picander also provided text for the St John Passion and many of Bach’s cantatas. The arioso recitatives and arias in the St Matthew Passion are nearly all written in the first person, as if to give a real and personal insight.  

In addition, Bach inserts twelve chorales, or hymns, from the familiar Lutheran repertoire of hymnody known as Kirchenlieder. These are sung together by both choirs, who represent the chorus of faithful believers. They would have been very familiar to the congregation and are a poetic interpolation to smooth the transition between the biblical narrative and Picander’s more emotional reflections. Their familiarity to the congregation also serves as a link between congregation and composer during the performance. Whilst the melody and the words are by other people, the harmony is Bach’s and, as we shall see, he uses adventurous harmonic language very skilfully to illustrate the words. 

The Bach / Picander collaboration manifests itself therefore as a compelling biblical narration of the crucifixion story, with a penetrating reflection of the meaning of the events as described by Matthew. Listeners find themselves alternating between active participation in the events and meaningful contemplation. Bach’s fidelity to Matthew is totally uncompromising: of the 141 verses in the gospel story, not one is omitted, shortened or altered in any way.

The three great concertante choruses, nos 1, 27b, and 68, stand out like three great pillars supporting the architecture of the rest of the work, whilst chorus numbers 1, 19 and 29 also have chorale melodies interwoven in the texture. 

⇐ History of the Passion History of the Bach St Matthew Passion ⇒

Notes by Peter Parfitt ©2012 Aberdeen Bach Choir