J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion

On Good Friday it seems appropriate to share some moments from J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  Drawn from Chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the work tells the story of Christ’s crucifixion and was intended to be performed as part of church services on Good Friday, the first part before the sermon and the second part after.  Music scholars believe it was performed for the first time in 1727, at St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, Germany, where Bach was choirmaster, cantor and organist for 27 years.  After Bach’s death in 1750, the work disappeared from view, to be rediscovered by Felix Mendelssohn in 1829.

A view of Leipzig, Germany, showing St. Thomas Church with its courtyard and school. Line engraving, c1735, by J.G. Schreiber.
A view of Leipzig, Germany, showing St. Thomas Church with its courtyard and school. Line engraving, circa 1735, by J.G. Schreiber.

This is a monumental work–over three hours of music–and was scored for two orchestras, two choirs (a third, a boy’s choir, joins as well) and a number of soloists.  Clearly, no single blog post can do justice to such a composition.  What I’ve chosen is the opening, the chorus Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen (Come, ye daughters, share my mourning).  Here’s Leonard Bernstein’s description:

“Suddenly the chorus breaks into two antiphonal choruses. ‘See him!’ cries the first one. ‘Whom?’ asks the second. And the first answers: ‘The Bridegroom see. See Him!’ ‘How?’ ‘So like a Lamb.’ And then over and against all this questioning and answering and throbbing, the voices of a boy’s choir sing out the chorale tune, ‘O Lamb of God Most Holy,’ piercing through the worldly pain with the icy-clear truth of redemption. The contrapuntal combination of the three different choruses is thrilling. There is nothing like it in all music.”


(Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Singverein, the Chorus of the Deutscher Oper Berlin, and the Berlin Cathedral Boys’ Choir)

Chorus I
Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen,
Sehet—(Chorus II) Wen?—(Chorus I) den Bräutigam,
Seht ihn—(Chorus II) Wie?—(Chorus I) als wie ein Lamm!

Chorale
O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig
Am Stamm des Kreuzes geschlachtet,
Sehet,—Was?—seht die Geduld,
Allzeit erfunden geduldig,
Wiewohl du warest verachtet.
Seht—Wohin?—auf unsre Schuld;
All Sünd hast du getragen,
Sonst müßten wir verzagen.
Sehet ihn aus Lieb und Huld
Holz zum Kreuze selber tragen!
Erbarm dich unser, o Jesu !

Chorus I
Come, ye daughters, share my mourning,
See ye—(Chorus II) whom?—(Chorus I) the bridegroom there,
See him—(Chorus II) how?—(Chorus I) just like a lamb!

Chorale
O Lamb of God, unspotted
Upon the cross’s branch slaughtered,
See ye,—what?—see him forbear,
Alway displayed in thy patience,
How greatly wast thou despisèd.
Look—where, then?—upon our guilt;
All sin hast thou born for us,
Else we had lost all courage.
See how he with love and grace
Wood as cross himself now beareth!
Have mercy on us, O Jesus!

Those interested in something different should check out this snippet from a performance staged by opera director Peter Sellars in Berlin in 2010, with Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and the Berlin Radio Chorus.  Sellars himself describes it as a ‘ritualization’; Sellars’ ideas aren’t for everyone–I, personally, like his work–but he’s always interesting.

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