JS Bach’s masterpiece - St Matthew Passion

On Saturday 6 April Bury Bach Choir will sing the St Matthew Passion in St Edmundsbury cathedral, Bury St Edmunds, accompanied by five wonderful soloists – Robert Murray, Graeme Danby, Valerie Reid, Fae Evelyn and Tom Asher, with the Suffolk Baroque Players and the cathedral’s Boy Choristers.

St Edmundsbury Cathedral
Bach’s musical inheritance was rich with the accumulated wealth of many centuries, nowhere more so than in his settings of the story of Christ’s Passion, whose history is one of gradually evolving elaboration and complexity.

Of the five Passions listed in Bach’s obituary only two survive: the St John (1724, revised 1725) and the St Matthew, which probably received its first performance in 1727 and was certainly sung on 15 April 1729, as part of the already lengthy Good Friday service at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche.   It was on an altogether vaster scale, not just in duration, but in its whole conception. 

Apparently forced by circumstances to compile his own text for the St John Passion, Bach chose for the lyrical sections of the St Matthew an amateur poet, Picander (C F Henrici), who here produced his best work (surely under Bach’s guidance).  The narrative came from Luther’s translation of the Bible (Matthew 26 and 27), following tradition, and Bach himself chose the chorale melodies.

As in the St John Passion, the work exists in layers. The story unfolds in a series of scenes (recitatives and crowd choruses) closing with lyrical reflections away from the action.  At a third level are the chorales – communal, devotional, part of the ‘present’.  The congregation may have joined in these, certainly in thought, so familiar were the hymns.   In the St Matthew Passion there are further dimensions: with double choir and orchestra, Bach was able to represent the disciples with one choir, the scattered groups of a crowd in eight-part polyphony, and humanity in the combined choir singing as one.  The choir are both observers and participants: as the music makes clear, this is a surging crowd.  The trebles’ chorale melody cuts in, as through time.

Bach’s ability to create a great architectural framework was allied to a vivid imagination that could take stock motifs and imbue them with something deeper - jagged chromatic shapes for ‘crucified’, accompaniments built from ‘scourging’ dotted rhythms or ‘weeping’ triplets, and so on.  Number symbolism was also important to Bach and he made sure the disciples’ ‘Lord, is it I?’ was uttered eleven times (Judas, the twelfth disciple, remains silent.)

The St Matthew Passion was performed by Bach at least once after 1736. Later, although his keyboard music was kept alive by pupils, the choral works sank into near oblivion, partly through changes in taste, but also because the standard of performance of church music had deteriorated. (And Bach complained bitterly about Leipzig’s standards!)

When the St Matthew was eventually revived in Berlin in 1829 by Mendelssohn it was in the concert hall.  Mendelssohn had the good fortune to grow up in a Bach-loving household and at the Berlin Singakademie his teacher was a Bach enthusiast who rehearsed parts of the St Matthew Passion with his choir.  At fourteen Mendelssohn owned a score of the work, and it came as a shock to him that the musical public did not share his enthusiasm.  Mendelssohn’s performances were well received but the first English performance in 1854 was not appreciated.  Later, it was increasingly performed and admired:  to Hubert Parry the St Matthew Passion was ‘the richest and noblest example of devotional music in existence’.  It was not until 1950 that this country heard a complete performance in German – at Aldeburgh Parish Church as part of the Third Aldeburgh Festival.

Tickets at £16 and £21 are available from www.burybachchoir.co.uk or by phoning the Box Office on 01284 758000.


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