Given its first complete performance in this country by H&H in 1879, the St. Matthew Passion is considered by many to be one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. Bach’s brilliant oratorio is a moving, glorious setting of the Gospel of St. Matthew.
concert funded in part by:
- Bach: St. Matthew Passion
One hour before the start of each performance in Symphony Hall's Higginson Hall.
H2 Young Professionals
Immediately following the Fri 3/30 performance at Lucca Back Bay.
Read more about the events surrounding these concerts.
Orchestra & Chorus
Krista Buckland Reisner
Viola Da Gamba
Amelia Peabody Chair
Oboe/Oboe D'amore/Oboe Da Caccia
Christina Day Martinson
Heather Miller Lardin
Kristin Brown Huggins
Marcio de Oliveira
A passion recounts the arrest, death, and burial of Jesus, as told by one of the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Since about the fourth century, the passion story has been retold dramatically and usually with some singing; Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is part of this long, rich, and varied tradition.
Leipzig in the 18th century was an economic and cultural center. It was a hub for publishing and its trade fairs brought visitors to the city regularly. The university and the church schools were known for academic excellence. The city was a center for both secular and sacred music as well as instrument builders. Bach moved to Leipzig with his family in 1723 after being named cantor of the St. Thomas School and Director of Music for the city.
The St. Matthew Passion was first performed as part of the Good Friday service on April 11, 1727, toward the end of Bach’s fourth year in Leipzig. The Good Friday service, and therefore the Passion story, alternated between the two main Leipzig churches, St. Thomas and St. Nicolas. Passions were performed at St. Thomas during odd-numbered years and at St. Nicolas during even-numbered years. The St. Matthew Passion was definitely performed again in 1729 (once thought to be the first performance) and a third time at St. Nicolas in 1736; it may have been part of services in the 1740s as well. Because compositions were adapted to fit the venue as well as the performers available, each performance was different.
Even though Bach performed this work several times, he also created a definitive edition of the St. Matthew Passion. Bach undertook this time-consuming project in 1736, using the most expensive paper then available. That Bach felt this work to be one of his most important compositions is evidenced by the creation of this carefully prepared manuscript, which was described by the Bach family as
“the great passion.”
The St. Matthew Passion contains arias with texts by Picander, Lutheran chorales chosen by Bach, and text from chapters 26–27 of the Gospel of St. Matthew. Divided into two main parts, the Passion would have framed the Good Friday sermon, one of the most important sermons of the church year. Bach’s score requires double chorus, an extra choir to sing selected chorale melodies, soloists (both named and unnamed characters), double orchestra, and two continuo sections.
The Evangelist narrates the story, a tradition that can be traced to the 13th century, and his secco recitative (accompanied only by continuo) relates information of setting, scene, and action. Jesus, Peter, Judas, Pilate, and other characters also enact the Biblical story through recitative. Often described as “a halo of sound,” Jesus’ accompagnato recitatives are accompanied by strings (two violins and viola) and continuo. The single exception to this occurs when he cries out, “Eli, Eli, lama, lama asabthani!” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”). Here there is only continuo accompaniment, a stark musical reminder of Jesus’ last words on the cross.
For other recitatives, such as
“O Schmerz!” from Part I, Bach accompanies the tenor part with pairs of flutes and oboes da caccia. The intricate polyphony of the wind lines plus the repeated notes in the bass emphasize the tenor text “O grief!” and expound on Jesus’ earlier statement,
“Meine Seele ist betrübt” (“My soul is troubled”). Phrases of a chorale for double chorus and strings alternate with the tenor recitative, adding a contemporary feel to it.
Picander wrote expressive poetic texts that Bach set as inspiring and imaginative arias for unspecified characters. The arias are points of personal reflection bridging the Biblical account of the Passion with the contemporary believer. By not assigning arias to the named characters, Bach separates the Biblical text from movements that function as elaboration and meditation on a particular scene.
Looking more closely at selected arias, we can appreciate how Bach creates a unique orchestration to complement each poetic text. In Part II, Peter denies knowing Jesus, fulfilling the prediction at the Mount of Olives; this scene is followed by the aria “Erbarme dich” (“Have mercy”) for alto and solo violin, accompanied by strings and continuo. The vocal and solo violin lines are virtuosic; it is the interplay of these, however, that emerges as a musical representation of remorse. The use of first person in the aria text reflects Peter’s emotions and, by extension, the believer’s. The chorale that follows this aria juxtaposes Peter’s actions with the crucifixion yet to come.
The aria “Aus Liebe” (“Out of love”) for soprano solo, flute, and two oboes da caccia is part of the believer’s response to Pilate’s question, “What has [Jesus] done?” The intricate flute line weaves around the soprano part, emphasizing the words Liebe (love), Sterben (death), and ewige (eternal), and provides a tender evocation of compassion in an otherwise chilling scene.
In the bass aria “Komm süßes Kreuz” (“Come sweet cross”), Bach uses the viola da gamba, an instrument going out of fashion in his day. The aria, essentially a duet for bass and viola da gamba, is part of the scene in which Simon carries the cross. The complexity of the vocal part is supported by that of the gamba, and vice versa, resulting in a powerful musical illustration of shouldering burdens.
Just as the aria represents the individual, the chorale movements incorporate the entire community of believers. Bach chose chorales familiar to his congregation; they provide a structural thread throughout the Passion. We hear the chorales set in many ways; however, Bach takes great care to present the chorale as cantus firmus, or musical foundation, in the opening chorus. In this movement, the chorale melody “O Lamm Gottes unschuldig” (“O guiltless Lamb of God”) is sung by a separate choir in extended note values that soar above and around the music of the other two choruses. Originally sung by boys, in today’s performance this chorale will be sung by members of the Young Women’s Chorus from the Vocal Apprenticeship Program.
The closing of Part I, “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross” (“O man, bewail your great sin”), uses the same instrumentation as the opening chorus. The chorale melody is sung by the sopranos while the lower voices musically expand each phrase against a richly textured orchestral backdrop. Although Bach treats this chorale melody in a freer way than in the opening movement, it never loses its prominent place within the texture.
In the final movement of Part II, “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder” (“We sit down with tears”), Bach begins with a four-part setting for both choruses and orchestras, powerfully expressive in its relative simplicity. He then recalls the opening of the Passion with sections that alternate between the two groups before returning to the original four-part setting.
Throughout the St. Matthew Passion, Bach masterfully retells the Biblical story, underscoring the significance of the text while simultaneously personalizing it from the viewpoint of the believer. Whether in a church service or a concert hall, Bach’s musical representation of multiple perspectives lends an unprecedented depth to this work, a depth that surely resonated with his Leipzig congregation as keenly as it has throughout history.
After the Good Friday service in 1736, performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion are difficult to document, making an 1829 performance of Bach’s Passion in Berlin seem all the more remarkable. That performance, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn on March 11, used a score Mendelssohn himself arranged from a manuscript copy he received when he was 14. Mendelssohn’s version of St. Matthew Passion did not include the arias and was performed in a concert hall by hundreds of voices, so its relation to the original work was tenuous; however, the precedent for performing St. Matthew Passion as concert music was established. This performance also helped spark a new interest in Bach’s vocal music, an interest that would eventually lead to the founding of the Bach Society in 1850 and the publication of his known works in the 19th century.
Forty-two years after Mendelssohn’s concert, the Handel and Haydn Society presented portions of St. Matthew Passion as part of its 1871 Music Festival. This was the first performance of the work in the United States. Portions of the Passion were performed again in 1874 and 1876. On Good Friday, April 11, 1879, H&H performed the complete St. Matthew Passion for the first time in the United States. From 1891–1896, they performed the Passion every spring.
For these performances, members of the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Choruses join the chorales.
Program notes prepared by
Teresa M. Neff, PhD
2011–2012 Historically Informed
Artists, dates, and programming are subject to change.
Bach: “Kommt Ihr Töchter, Helft Mir Klageb” from St. Matthew Passion