Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Catholic Activity: Music for Lent and Easter: St. Matthew Passion by Bach


  • Musical Recording of St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach

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A great way to meditate on the Passion of Christ is to listen to The St. Matthew Passion by Bach. This is an especially good exercise for older children, and doubles as some training in music appreciation. Ethel Marbach describes the richness of this work, and highlights some of the arias.


Music at Easter is beautiful, both in and out of church. The sung Mass seems so new and fresh after the long "dry" Lent. We know that Handel's Messiah, with its affirmation that "our redeemer liveth", is traditionally played on Easter, but we personally prefer it at Christmas. To us, Easter means one piece of music: the Bach St. Matthew Passion. Now that television has become a part of our lives, our children have been able to see as well as hear this moving work. We hope that, like Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors at Christmas, the presentation of the Bach classic may become an Easter tradition. In an article in Marriage, Critic Paul Hume gives his interpretation of this great masterpiece:

If you are looking for that single work in music which most incomparably combines the elements of man's humanity with God's divinity, then there can be no question: The St. Matthew Passion by Bach has not even a near rival. Within its pages are contained musical and dramatic beauties unique in their power to convey the story of our Lord's passion and death.

Just what is this work we call Bach's St. Matthew Passion? Why is it so universally acclaimed by musicians and laymen alike? It is a setting of the story of our Lord's passion, in the language of St. Matthew, taken from Chapters 26 and 27 of his Gospel.

There is, however, more to the text than the biblical language. A well known librettist of the 18th century, writing under the name of Picander, provided Bach with added verses in which the dramatic events of the Gospel are interpreted or commented upon, as was the custom in Bach's day.

These verses, following established patterns, represent the Daughter of Zion, and a Chorus of Believers. They serve to amplify the emotional mood of various passages, or to speak for all observers of the drama in which the Son of Man and Son of God makes that sacrifice which forever delivers us from the bonds of death.

It is not the text, however, that makes Bach's setting of the Passion that which it has become around the world: an object of long pilgrimages, a spiritual and artistic experience to be absorbed over a period of between three and four hours. Written to serve as a frame for the sermon in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig on Good Friday, 1729, Bach's Passion music is an endless fountain of beauty. Out of it pours a succession of flawless streams, each illuminating a different aspect of the familiar story.

Let me tell you something about this music. It contains great choruses, sung by two separate choirs of equal numbers. In Bach's time a total of sixteen or seventeen singers gave the first performance of this music, not because Bach would not have been happy to have used more voices, but because, as he wrote in a famous report to the Leipzig town council which hired him, he had at his disposal these singers: "seventeen usable, twenty not yet usable, and seventeen unfit." There were twenty-eight instrumentalists in his orchestra, including an organist and a man at the harpsichord. Of these he said, "Modesty forbids me to speak at all truthfully of their qualities and musical knowledge. Nevertheless it must be remembered that they are partly retired persons and partly not at all in such practice as they should be."

From his seventeen singers Bach chose those who sing the principal roles in the sacred drama. These include the baritone who sings the words of Jesus, the tenor evangelist who carries the narration along in the magnificent recitatives that are among the work's chief beauties, and the soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass who sing the solos which, at salient points, comment on the action. In addition to these there are brief passages for Judas, Peter, Caiaphas the High Priest, Pontius Pilate and his wife, the two maids who join in accusing Peter, plus two priests, and two witnesses.

Before Bach sets out on St. Matthew's words, he has the chorus and orchestra, with added boys choir, sing an opening passage in which the Daughter of Zion, and the Chorus of Believers engage in a dialogue lamenting that the Bride-groom, like a lamb, is now , out of love and graciousness, carrying the wood of the cross. After this turbulent beginning, representing the crowd that fills the scenes surrounding our Lord in his passion, the biblical story begins. Almost at once we hear our Lord speaking: "Ye know that after two days is the feast of the passover and the Son of Man is betrayed to be crucified."

Bach, a staunch Lutheran of the most ardent faith, had a burning love for his Lord for which the Germans have a special word: Jesusminne. Over and over in his hundreds of cantatas, and in his passion settings, Bach shows us this in the way he handles the words of Jesus, in the intimate manner of address, saying, "Goodnight, my Jesus," or, as in the St. Matthew Passion, by the glowing radiance with which he accompanies the words of his Lord. Here every remark of our Lord is supported solely by the strings of the orchestra, after the manner of early Italian composers. The sound creates an aura, a kind of halo around the Lord. Only once does Bach depart from this custom. With his unerring instinct for painting pictures in his music, he silences the strings at that moment when, from the cross, come the words, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" Here, only the organ, quietly, almost bleakly, plays barren chords.

It is music's power to portray scenes of terror, of anguish, or of vast power that Bach exploits at every moment in setting the Matthew Gospel. He loves to give us parallels in his music to the precise situation he is describing. Thus, when, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus has taken with Him Peter and James and John, Peter sings one of the arias which Picander and Bach insert into the midst of the action.

His aria, "I would beside my Lord be watching," shows us how firm is his intent. Underneath this extended song, in which the tenor soloist and the oboe carry on a duet, Bach has the chorus add the refrain, "So all our sins have gone to sleep." They sing it ten times, once for each of the disciples, other than Peter and the now missing Judas, who are gradually falling asleep.

Earlier, at the Last Supper, after our Lord's prediction that one of the twelve gathered there would betray him, the chorus sang the probing question, "Is it I?" eleven times, as Bach implies that each disciple asks the question, excepting only Judas. It is not only by such devices that Bach heightens the intensity, the heart-rending beauty of the drama. Nowhere else in the entire realm of music has man's sense of human weakness and sorrow at having failed his God been made so unbearably poignant as in the episode of Peter's denial of his Lord.

Bach gives to the narrator the task of describing Peter's profound shame and grief. After the cock crows, and Peter remembers the words of Jesus, "Thou shalt deny me thrice," the narrator sings, "And he went out and wept bitterly," with unforgettable emphasis on the word "wept". On this word Bach composes what we call a melisma: a long, florid phrase on a single syllable, as in Gregorian chant when the mood of the moment demands an expansion. Up, up, to the top of the tenor's range flies the sorrowing voice.

Then there follows one of the most heavenly arias in all of music. Bach, to whom the sense of God's forgiveness of man's sins, no matter how black they might seem, is one of the solid pillars of faith, writes music that holds within it the essence of much that is great and singular in what we call Baroque music. The violin soloist, one of many instruments that performs alone during the Passion, pours forth a torrent of notes, mirroring the flood of tears that marked Peter's repentance as he realized the truth of his beloved Master's foresight.

The drama of the crucifixion would not be what it is for us today without the intense humanity of Peter. Around this rock of a man, Bach draws a painting in sound that no oils could surpass. It is the aural equivalent of El Greco's The Repentant Peter. No excess of notes is possible, no emotion too great to tell us the depth and sincerity of Peter's grief.

This is but one of the instances in which Bach, taking advantage of music's power to penetrate, its adding of a dimension, a new art, to our longstanding knowledge of the Gospel story, intensifies each individual feeling that may move us as we contemplate anew the supreme sacrifice.

There is violence in Bach's music, when the story is violent. Mighty chords cry out "Barabbas!" in answer to Pilate's squirming question. And when the veil of the temple is rent, and the earth quakes, Bach's harpsichord, that constant mark of all music written in the Baroque era, makes a roaring sound as it rushes up and down in agitation, amplified by the heavy sounds of the bass viols. There is calm, too, a peace beyond measure, when Bach seeks to describe the quiet of evening after the beloved body has been laid in Joseph of Arimathea's new tomb. Here we have a brief aria, an "arioso," for the bass soloist, "When Adam's fall was manifest."

There is grandeur, too. When the centurion, standing by the cross speaks with that gift of clear, certain knowledge, "Truly this was the Son of God," Bach is equal to the moment, in simple, but all-embracing chords that establish finality of fact in faith just as unequivocally as they do in music.

Activity Source: Family Liturgical Customs No. 4: Easter by Ethel Marbach, Abbey Press Publishing Division, St. Meinrad, Indiana, 1964