Thursday, March 28, 2013

J. S. Bach's Matthäus-Passion: THE Essential Soundtrack to Holy Week


Years ago one of my students asked me who my favorite musical artists were. After listing a host of blues, classic rock, and jazz artists, she asked incredulously, "Don't you listen to Christian music?"
My response failed to enhance her comprehension: "Sure I do. I listen to Bach."

Johann Sebastian Bach is, in my view, along with Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the two greatest composers in the history of Western music. He was also a devout Lutheran who served, for the last 27 years of his life, as Cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig and Director of Music for the main churches in the city. Among his responsibilities was the composition and performance of cantatas for each Sunday (!) and major holy days on the liturgical calendar. A staggering 209 of these have survived. Even more spectacular are the three Passions he wrote to be performed at Good Friday vespers services at St. Thomas: the St. John Passion (1724), the St. Matthew Passion (1727), and the St. Mark Passion (1731; unfortunately only the libretto has survived). Of these, the St. Matthew Passion, referred to by his wife Anna Magdalena Bach as "the great Passion," is the most significant. Of all Bach's sacred works, the Matthäus-Passion is surpassed only by his crowning achievement, the B-Minor Mass of 1749.

The "great Passion" is an oratorio which sets chapters 26-27 of Matthew's Gospel (his "passion narrative") to music, with the libretto provided by Christian Friedrich Henrici (pseudonym Picander). And both the length (27 "scenes" comprising of 68 "actions") and the forces marshaled for its performance (soloists, double choir, double orchestra, upwards of 60 total performers) certainly warrant Anna's description of it as "great." It presents Luther's German translation of Matthew (soloists representing both the Evangelist and the main characters in the scenes) interspersed with arias and chorales which brilliantly convey the theological and personal/existential significance of the events.

The Passion was divided by Bach into two parts, to be performed before and after the sermon. Part One consists of 12 scenes and Part Two of fifteen. Each of these scenes consists of biblical text followed by either individual (aria) or collective (chorale) reflection on that text. Furthermore, each part is framed by significant choruses (##1, 29; 30, 68) which serve as architectural pillars supporting the project as a whole. Most significant is the spectacular introductory chorus ("Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen"), in which the entire theological force of the passion is presented in nuce (performed here in period style by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his incomparable Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists):

Come ye daughters, share my mourning;
See Him! — Whom? —The Bridegroom Christ.
See Him! — How? — A spotless Lamb.

See it! — What? — His patient love.
Look! — Look where? — On our guilt.
Look on Him. For love of us
He Himself His Cross is bearing.

O Lamb of God unspotted,
There slaughtered on the cross,
Serene and ever patient,
Though scorned and cruelly tortured,
All sin for our sake bearing, Else would we die despairing,
Have pity on us, O Jesus.

The guiltless Son of God, dying the death his people deserved, bearing their guilt as he was slaughtered as the antitype of the Passover Lamb—here is faultless New Testament theology presented by Picander in poetic form and set to spectacularly beautiful music by the great Bach. And this sets the tone for the work as a whole. The story, with its bitter ironies and gruesome details as it works its way inexorably to the execution of its protagonist, is ultimately not a tragedy. Hence, Picander and Bach can close the monumental piece on a "down" note ("In tears of grief, dear Lord, we leave Thee ...") in the knowledge that the story of Jesus does not end here. Indeed, the glorious continuation of the story would be performed only two days later in the Easter Oratorio.

Part of Bach's genius is how he incorporated a number of chorales his audience would have recognized from their own hymn singing. Foremost among these is "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden," based on a Medieval poem by Arnulf of Louvain (d. 1250 CE) (not St. Bernard of Clairvaux, as had previously been thought), and set to music based on a secular love song by Hans Leo Hassler ca. 1600. Bach interspersed five verses of this hymn throughout the Passion, utilizing different harmonics in each, culminating in the famous first verse in Action number 54. We English speakers know this hymn as "O Sacred Head Now Wounded," based on the English translation of 1830 by the American Presbyterian minister James Waddel Alexander. The hymn in its entirety reads thus, and needs no commentary:

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
How pale Thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!
What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.
Men mock and taunt and jeer Thee, Thou noble countenance,
Though mighty worlds shall fear Thee and flee before Thy glance.
How art thou pale with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How doth Thy visage languish that once was bright as morn!
Now from Thy cheeks has vanished their color once so fair;
From Thy red lips is banished the splendor that was there.
Grim death, with cruel rigor, hath robbed Thee of Thy life;
Thus Thou hast lost Thy vigor, Thy strength in this sad strife.
My burden in Thy Passion, Lord, Thou hast borne for me,
For it was my transgression which brought this woe on Thee.
I cast me down before Thee, wrath were my rightful lot;
Have mercy, I implore Thee; Redeemer, spurn me not!
What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.
My Shepherd, now receive me; my Guardian, own me Thine.
Great blessings Thou didst give me, O source of gifts divine.
Thy lips have often fed me with words of truth and love;
Thy Spirit oft hath led me to heavenly joys above.
Here I will stand beside Thee, from Thee I will not part;
O Savior, do not chide me! When breaks Thy loving heart,
When soul and body languish in death’s cold, cruel grasp,
Then, in Thy deepest anguish, Thee in mine arms I’ll clasp.
The joy can never be spoken, above all joys beside,
When in Thy body broken I thus with safety hide.
O Lord of Life, desiring Thy glory now to see,
Beside Thy cross expiring, I’d breathe my soul to Thee.
My Savior, be Thou near me when death is at my door;
Then let Thy presence cheer me, forsake me nevermore!
When soul and body languish, oh, leave me not alone,
But take away mine anguish by virtue of Thine own!
Be Thou my consolation, my shield when I must die;
Remind me of Thy passion when my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfolds Thee. Who dieth thus dies well.

I leave you with a lovely performance by Gustav Leonhardt and La Petite Bande of "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden," in the prayer that all of us take its words to heart and redouble our commitment to the one who died in our place for our eternal gain. As Bach himself always wrote at the conclusion of his sacred scores, Soli Deo Gloria!


  1. I loved your thoughts on this work which is also one of my favourite. As excellent as the Gardiner recording is, I think the Dunedin Consort recording is superior.

    1. Thanks, Kagan, for the recommendation!

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