J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion as a Lenten Meditation

by Don O Franklin

Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion was first performed at the St. Thomas church in Leipzig as part of the Good Friday service. As was the local practice, the first part of the passion was performed before; the second part, after the sermon. Part One of Bach’s score included the “Stages of Preparation”—the washing of Jesus feet by Mary Magdalene and the Last Supper—followed by the “Agony and Arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane,” the scene described as Act I of the passion by 17th- and 18th-century Lutheran theologians. Part One lasted approximately an hour. Next came an hour or more of sermon traditionally focused on the burial of Jesus. Part II of Bach’s score followed. It was about 90 minutes long and included the remaining four acts of the passion: Act II, the Interrogation of Jesus before the High priests and elders; Act III, the Trial before Pilate; Act IV, the Crucifixion; and Act V, the Burial.

The Leipzig listeners at the first performance were familiar with the text of Matthew’s account of the passion (Chapters 26 and 27) sung by the Evangelist, Jesus, Pilate, Peter, as well as by the various crowds (the so-called turba choruses) who observed the unfolding events of the passion. They were also familiar with the chorale stanzas that Bach inserted into the biblical narrative. However, the poetic texts that Bach added to his score as musico-theological interludes would have been new to the congregation. Intended to serve as moments of reflection and devotion, the texts were written by Christian Friedrich Henrici, a member of the Leipzig city government who published poetry under the pseudonym of Picander. Bach engaged Picander to write simple, yet expressive, verses, usually no more than eight lines, to be inserted at appropriate points in the passion narrative. Picander based his text on a series of eight passion sermons by Heinrich Müller, a late 17th-century German pastor and theologian, whose writings occupied an important place in Bach’s personal library. Published in the 1670s, Müller’s writings can be described as pious—even mystical—in nature. They were instrumental in leading to a revival of devotion and piety within the Lutheran church and they also contributed to the beginnings of what, in some parts of Germany, became a separate movement known as pietism.

Picander’s verses, drawing on Müller’s themes and language, were printed in a booklet as a devotional guide for each member of the congregation. The texts underline the key events of Matthew’s narrative. Bach set them as arias or choruses and inserted them to suspend the action of the drama for a period of time (usually five to six minutes). As the congregation heard the music coming from the balcony at the back of the church, each listener could meditate on the meaning of the passage for his or her life as a believer. Though it is not possible for us to experience these passages through 18th-century ears, we can, I propose, take a moment to stop, listen, and reflect on them during this Lenten season. To that end I offer a commentary on three of the arias Bach composed to texts by Picander.

The first aria, Erbarme dich, mein Gott (Have mercy, Lord) is placed at the end of the scene in Act II that describes Peter’s betrayal of Jesus when questioned by the high priests and elders. (Chapter 26:69-75). The aria follows verse 75, “And he went out and wept bitterly.”

Have mercy, Lord, for my tears’ sake!
Look at me, my heart and eyes weep to Thee bitterly.

The piece begins with a violin solo accompanied by pulsating lower strings that conjure up the image of a weeping Peter who is a symbol of all penitent believers. The melody, heard first without text and then sung, is one of the most moving ever written by Bach. It illustrates his ability to compose music that projects the believer’s fervent pleading for mercy as well as to convey the feeling of serenity and redeeming grace that will come through the death of Jesus. Bach set the text for an alto rather than a tenor, the voice traditionally associated with Peter. By doing this, he extends the guilt to another voice and, in the process, to the entire range of humankind. During Bach’s time, a boy choir member sang the aria. He would have been an accomplished musician with eight-to-ten years of musical training. The youthful and earnest quality of his voice can today be best represented by a countertenor or a non-operatic mezzo-soprano.

The second aria, Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben (Out of love my Savior is willing to die) occurs in Act III during the trial before Pilate immediately after the crowd has shouted, “Let him be crucified,” and Pilate responds by asking, “What evil has he done” (Matthew 27:23). The aria is preceded by an accompanied recitative, whose text (also by Picander) reminds the listener that “He has done good to us all; He gave sight to the blind, the lame he made to walk,” concluding with the line, “Nothing else has my Jesus done.” The text of the aria is as follows:

Out of love my Savior is willing to die
Though he knows nothing of any sin
So that eternal ruin and the punishment of judgment
May not rest upon my soul.

Bach’s setting of these lines is remarkable on several counts. First, his instrumentation includes an obbligato flute, which in its baroque form was constructed of wood rather than metal and whose sound was more languid than intense. The flute is accompanied by two oboes da caccia, a form of tenor oboe with a brass bell, which Bach used frequently in association with texts concerned with God’s redeeming love. The aria is sung by a soprano (also a boy choir member), a voice Bach uses in his cantatas and passions to represent the soul of the believer. The fact that all three wind instruments, as well as the voice, sound in the treble range, with no bass instruments as an “earthly” anchor, suggests the non-human, extraordinary, quality of the love portrayed in the aria.

The third aria, Komm süsses Kreuz (Come, sweet Cross) is inserted in the Crucifixion section, after Matthew’s narrative refers to “a man of Cyrene, Simon of name; this man they compelled to carry the cross” (Act IV: Chapter 27:32).

Come sweet cross, I will say then:
My Jesus give it always to me.
Should my pain become too heavy, then help me
Thyself to carry it.

Once again, Bach’s choice of voice has theological connotations. In this case he associates the bass voice with Vox Christi, the voice of Christ. Heard at this point in the narrative, however, the association of the bass voice with Christ takes an unusual form. The bass who sings the aria had just finished singing the part of Jesus, whose role in the passion story has come to an end. By designating the same bass soloist to sing the aria of Simon of Cyrene, Bach associates the Cross not only with Simon, the first human to carry the cross of Christ, but also with each believer who is to take up his cross and follow Christ. The bass, like both the alto and soprano, would have been in his late teens or perhaps early 20s, and would have remained in the choir after his voice broke, as is still the practice today in the St. Thomas choir.

Bach’s choice of the viola da gamba as the obbligato instrument also carries theological connotations. Shaped like a cello, but with six strings, it has a thinner sound. It was already considered old-fashioned, even antique, in Bach’s time. Bach, as well as his predecessors, frequently used the instrument in movements whose text spoke of death, often the death of Jesus. In this aria, the effect of the broken chords that begin the piece reflect not only the effort and strain of the player to realize the music Bach has written (which is extremely difficult) but also suggest the sense of the struggle required to carry the cross of Christ. The dotted rhythms played by the gamba begin the procession to Golgotha.

After the aria comes the crucifixion which is followed by the last Act, the Burial of Jesus. Bach concludes with verses by Picander set as a simple setting for soloists and chorus that inspires devotion and brings solace both to the crucified Christ and also to the believer. “Now the Lord is laid to rest. My Jesus, good night! The pains are past that our sins have caused him…Rest, you exhausted bones: your grave and sepulcher may for the tormented soul be a soft pillow and the soul be at peace and, contented, the eyes fall asleep.”

To reflect on these texts and the passion as a whole, I highly recommend the performance by the Bach Collegium Japan, directed by Masaaki Suzuki. This recording renders Bach’s score with baroque instruments and, to the extent possible, the vocal quality of Bach’s singers. (Only the soprano does not have enough baroque quality for my taste.) Suzuki, a Japanese musician who lives in Kobe, studied in Europe. He is the son of a Protestant minister and he leads his group in a Bible study of the texts of any Bach work before they perform and record it. The recording is available on BIS, a Swedish label: CD 1000/1002.

Other recordings with period instruments include performances directed by Phillipe Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi, CD 951676, and by John Gardiner on Archiv, CD 427648. All three recordings are available on www.Amazon.com and www.tower records.com/classical. An English translation of the German text usually is included with the recording and a translation can be found online at www.uvm.edu/~classics/faculty/bach/BWV244.html.

For further devotional reading on the Acts of the Passion described above, I recommend the series of homilies, known as the House-Postils, that Luther gave to his circle of family and friends during Lent. They are available in English translations in Sermons of Martin Luther: the House Postils, ed. and trans, Eugene F.A. Klug (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1996: www.bakerbooks.com) pp. 372 ff.

For commentary on other portions of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, contact Don Franklin at dof@pitt.edu.

Don Franklin is Professor of Music at Pittsburgh University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

See all articles by Don O Franklin