St. Matthew's Passion


JUANJO MENA conductor
CARLOS MENA countertenor
WERNER GÜRA tenor (Evangelist)
JAMES NEWBY baritone (Jesus)
MAY FESTIVAL YOUTH CHORUS Matthew Swanson, director
MAY FESTIVAL CHORUS Robert Porco, director
The May Festival Chorus is endowed by the Betsy & Alex C. Young Chair


The Passion According to St. Matthew, BWV 244

Part I


Part II



The Passion According to St. Matthew, BWV 244

Composed in 1727.
Premiered on Good Friday, April 11, 1727 in Leipzig, directed by the composer.

The word “Passion” derives from the Latin patior—“to undergo, to suffer”—and was taken over into the Medieval vernacular and ecclesiastical languages to indicate the suffering and death of Christ on the cross; the Oxford English Dictionary traces its first known use in our language to the hoary date of 1175. Each of the four Evangelists left an account of Christ’s crucifixion, and the rites of the early Roman Catholic Church provided that all be incorporated into the services during Holy Week. As preface to one of the two principal nodes of the Christian calendar, those pre-Easter observations formed an important focus of worship, and were distinguished by having the plainchants in which their texts were wrapped performed in a way that indicated the drama of the story: the words of Jesus were sung with a low, solemn tone; those of the narrating Evangelist in a medium voice at normal speed; and those of the crowd (known as the “turba”) in a high, agitated manner.

The earliest polyphonic settings of the Passion texts date from 15th-century England, though only the turba sections and the speeches of individuals (John, Peter, Pilate, et al.) were multi-voice movements, the words of Jesus and the Evangelist remaining in plainchant. This type of “responsorial” Passion continued through the end of the 16th century, when it drew examples from Lassus, Victoria and Byrd. As a result of the Reformation, this hybrid plainchant/polyphonic form was taken over into the German vernacular in the middle of the 16th century, and remained a viable genre until the 1670s, when the great Heinrich Schütz composed three Passions in this manner on the words of Matthew, Luke and John, though he replaced the traditional chant melodies with ones of his own invention in a similar style. In a parallel development, composers in Italy and Flanders wrote through-composed “motet” Passions entirely in polyphony, often borrowing an old chant as a cantus firmus upon which to build their new composition. It was a short step from this variety of the form to the “oratorio” Passion that, beginning after the invention of opera in 1600, came to include the idioms of aria, recitative, ensemble and instrumental interlude. When taken over into Germany in the early 18th century, such works became highly operatic in style and abandoned the traditional texts and music in favor of newly devised, sentimental verses tailored to the sometimes maudlin northern taste of the day. The best-known of these German literary retellings of the Passion story was that of Hamburg town councilor Barthold Heinrich Brockes, titled Der für Sünden der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus (“Jesus Tortured and Dying for the Sins of the World”), which was set by Handel, Telemann, Mattheson, Keiser and others. Given the strong secular influences that had encroached upon the German Passion during the first decades of the 18th century, Johann Sebastian Bach’s incomparable Passion settings represent a return to both the scriptural basis and the dignified style of earlier eras.

The fully polyphonic Passion was introduced into the liturgy of Leipzig as late as 1721, when the city’s director of church music, its “Kantor,” Johann Kuhnau, replaced the old plainchant Passion with a more modern specimen of the oratorio variety that he composed himself. The Passion in Leipzig was incorporated into the Vespers of Good Friday, and it marked the musical highpoint of the annual church calendar. This impressive service began at 1:15 p.m. with a congregational hymn on the subject of the crucifixion. The first part of the Passion music followed, then another hymn and the sermon, Part II of the Passion music, the motet Ecce, Quomodo moritur (“Behold How the Righteous Man Dies”) by Jakobus Gallus, a versicle and a prayer, and the concluding hymn, Nun danket alle Gott (“Now Thank We All Our God”). Given the scale of the German Passion and the oratorical abilities of 18th-century Lutheran ministers, the service would rarely finish in less than four hours. The Good Friday worship was given in alternate years at the city’s two main churches, St. Thomas and St. Nikolaus.

The necrology issued upon Johann Sebastian Bach’s death in 1750 noted that he had composed five Passions. The St. John (1724) and St. Matthew (1727) survive complete, while the St. Mark exists only in the fragments Bach excerpted from it for his 1727 Trauer-Ode (“Mourning Ode,” a memorial for Queen Christiane Eberhardine, who renounced her claim to the throne of Poland rather than deny her Protestant beliefs); the St. Luke that has come down to us is apparently spurious, and the fifth Passion, perhaps composed when Bach was organist and music director at the court of Weimar from 1708 to 1717, has disappeared without trace. The St. John Passion, first presented at Leipzig’s St. Nicolaus Church on Good Friday, April 7, 1724, occupies a significant place in Bach’s life and work. He had assumed the duties of the city’s Kantor the preceding May, after two more illustrious candidates, Georg Philipp Telemann and Gottlieb Graupner, had refused to accept the post, and he composed music with staggering prolificacy in the months following his appointment—a new cantata every week for two years, a Magnificat, a motet, a Sanctus, numerous organ works. The St. John Passion was his first contribution to the venerated Holy Week services. Though no contemporary reports survive concerning the reception of this musical epic at its first performance, it must have found favor—Bach remained Leipzig’s Kantor until his death 26 years later.

Bach returned to the form of the Passion in 1727, when he collaborated with a local post office employee and sometime poet, Christian Friedrich Henrici (who adopted the pen name Picander), on a version based on the gospel of St. Matthew. The words of the Evangelist, Jesus, the crowd and the individual characters were taken directly from the Bible, but Picander provided poetic meditations to serve as texts for the arias and choruses. The premiere of the St. Matthew Passion was given at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig on Good Friday, April 11, 1727. Bach had some 60 musicians for that first performance, divided about equally between singers and instrumentalists. Such a large aggregation of performers was unusual for Leipzig during Bach’s time, and required the pooling of his students from the St. Thomas School, the town’s seven salaried musicians and their apprentices and helpers, some recruits from the University, one or two paid assistants, and a few alumni who returned for the solemn occasion. Bach valued this work highly, and performed it again (with slight revisions) in 1736, 1739 and 1745. For this last presentation, he prepared an excellent reference copy of the score in his own handwriting in which the Biblical verses were written in red ink. The St. Matthew Passion fell into neglect when the elaborate Good Friday services were discontinued in Leipzig in 1766, and not performed again until Felix Mendelssohn revived it in Berlin in 1829, a century after it was first revealed to the world. The score was published by Schlesinger the following year, and the work has ever since been regarded as one of the monuments of Western culture, “the deepest and most moving expression of devotional feeling in the whole of musical literature,” according to Charles Sanford Terry.

The text of the St. Matthew Passion is woven from three strands: Biblical, Lutheran chorale hymns, and Picander’s poetry. The Biblical quotations, taken from chapters 26 and 27 of the Book of Matthew, are allotted to the Evangelist, who threads together the incidents of the drama with his secco recitatives (“dry,” i.e., accompanied only by “continuo,” keyboard and a bass instrument); to the turba, or crowd, whose brief interjections are assigned to the chorus to portray variously the High Priests, Disciples or Jews; and to the individual characters—Judas, Peter, the High Priest, two Witnesses, two Handmaidens, two Priests, Pilate, Pilate’s Wife—who deliver them as secco recitatives. The words of Jesus are surrounded with a “halo” of shimmering string sonorities. Bach himself chose the chorales for the Passion from the existing repertory of Lutheran hymns, making special use of the melody known as Herzlich tut mich verlangen (“I Long Most Ardently”), the so-called “Passion chorale,” which appears five times in different harmonizations throughout the work. Picander’s texts, with their prefatory recitatives, are contemplations for the soloists and chorus on the events unfolding before them, and serve as the emotional link between the individual listener and the words of the Scripture.

The St. Matthew Passion is divided into two large parts, the first tender and introspective, the second dramatic and tragic, each preceded by an introductory chorus, or exordium. Each part comprises several “scenes”:

Part I:

The Anointing in Bethany
Judas’ Betrayal
The Last Supper
Jesus’ Despair on the Mount of Olives
The Prayer on the Mount of Olives
The Seizure of Jesus

Part II:

Jesus’ Interrogation by the High Priests
Peter’s Denial
Judas in the Temple
Jesus before Pilate
The Scourging of Jesus
Simon of Cyrene
The Crucifixion
The Descent from the Cross
The Burial

The final chorus, the quintessential manifestation of tragedy in music, leaves the dramatic tension of the crucifixion unresolved: Christ has died, mankind mourns. The sun must rise twice again before the story finds its triumphant conclusion in the glory of Easter, the rebirth of the spirit and the church for which the St. Matthew Passion stands as incomparable preparation.