The career of Johann Sebastian Bach, the most illustrious of a prolific musical family, falls neatly into three unequal parts. Born in 1685 in Eisenach, from the age of ten Bach lived and studied music with his elder brother in Ohrdruf, after the death of both his parents. After a series of appointments as organist and briefly as a court musician, he became, in 1708, court organist and chamber musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, the elder of the two brothers who jointly ruled the duchy. In 1714 he was promoted to the position of Konzertmeister to the Duke, but in 1717, after a brief period of imprisonment for his temerity in seeking to leave the Duke's service, he abandoned Weimar to become Court Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, a position he held until 1723. From then until his death in 1750 he lived in Leipzig, where he was Thomaskantor, with responsibility for the music of the five principal city churches, in 1729 assuming direction of the university collegium musicum, founded by Telemann in 1702.
At Weimar Bach had been principally employed as an organist, and his compositions of the period include a considerable amount written for the instrument on which he was recognised as a virtuoso performer. At Cöthen, where Pietist traditions dominated the court, he had no church duties, and was responsible rather for court music. The period brought the composition of a number of instrumental works. The final 27 years of Bach's life brought a variety of preoccupations, and while his official employment necessitated the provision of church music, he was able, among other things, to provide music for the university collegium musicum and to write or re-arrange a number of important works for the keyboard.
Traditional Roman liturgy involves the singing of the accounts of the suffering and crucifixion of Christ on four days preceding Easter. On Palm Sunday the first account, from the Gospel of St. Matthew, is sung, followed on the Wednesday of Holy Week by the narrative of St. Luke, with that of St. Mark on Maundy Thursday and that of St. John on Good Friday. The accounts of the Passion as found in the four Gospels naturally lend themselves to performance by more than one singer, with the words of Christ, Pilate and other individuals given to different singers. This seems to have become the practice by the thirteenth century, when an element of drama had already become a regular part of Easter and Christmas ceremonies. By the early sixteenth century an element of polyphony had been introduced as a possible elaboration of the liturgical tradition. Various forms of sung Passion were taken over by Martin Luther, and by the early eighteenth century German Lutherans had elaborated these earlier types of Passion. The form used by Bach was that of the oratorio Passion, as developed in North Germany in the middle of the seventeenth century. Here the biblical text is interrupted by meditative episodes, occasional instrumental passages and newly harmonized chorales.
Bach composed five Passion settings, of which those based on the Gospels of St. Matthew and of St. John survive. His St. Mark Passion is lost and a fourth, using the text of the Gospel of St. Luke, is considered spurious, while the fifth, referred to in Bach's Obituary, may be a single-choir version of the St. Matthew Passion. The St. Matthew Passion in its full surviving version was first performed, according to current Lutheran custom, on Good Friday, either in 1727 or in 1729, and repeated with minor revisions in 1736 and in 1740.
The text of the St. Matthew Passion is taken, in the first place, from the Gospel of St. Matthew in the translation by Martin Luther. The narrative is sung by the Evangelist, a tenor, with the words of Christ, Peter, Judas and others are allocated to different singers. In addition to the biblical text there are recitatives and arias that offer reflection on the events of the Passion and chorales that allow the chorus to add its own more familiar meditation. The additional texts newly written for Bach are by Picander, the pseudonym of the Leipzig poet and civil servant Christian Friedrich Henrici, who wrote the additional text of Bach's St. Mark Passion and of a number of cantatas. The whole work is in two parts, the first of these taking the narrative from the events leading up to the Last Supper, to Gethsemane and the Betrayal of Christ. The second part, after a contralto aria, opens with Christ before the High Priest and goes on to St. Peter's denial of Christ, the attempt of Judas to repent and Christ before Pilate, His condemnation, scourging and crucifixion, ending as Pilate orders a watch to be kept on the sepulchre.
The first part of the St. Matthew Passion opens with a chorus and a chorale. The chorus Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen (Come, you daughters, help me mourn) bids the daughters of Zion moum, in a series of questions and answers and the boys' choir sings the chorale O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig (O Lamb of God, guiltless). The contralto aria Buß' und Reu' (Penitence and sorrow rend the sinful heart in two), with obbligato flutes, follows the anointing of Christ with precious ointment, to the scandal of his disciples. The next aria, for soprano, Blute nur, du liebes Herz (Bleed now, thou dear heart) reflects on the betrayal of Christ by Judas. In the following aria Ich will dir mein Herze schenken (I will give Thee my heart), with obbligato oboes, the soprano offers thanks for the gift of the Last Supper.
The first tenor aria, with chorus, Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen (I will watch by my Jesus), with oboe obbligato, echoes the words of the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane. The bass reflects on the words of Christ: If it be possible let this cup pass from me, in the aria Gerne will ich mich bequemen (Gladly will I submit). The next aria, for soprano, contralto and chorus, So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen (So my Jesus now is taken), following the seizing of Christ, allows the chorus the dramatic appeal to the elements Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden? (Have lightning and thunder vanished in the clouds?). The first part of the Passion ends with the chorale O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß (O man, lament thy great sin).
The second part of the Passion opens with the interrogation of Christ before the high priest. Peter's denial, the crowing of the cock and his bitter tears lead to a contralto aria Erbarme dich, mein Gott (Have mercy, my God), with obbligato violin. The bass aria Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder (Give me my Jesus again), with solo violin, reflects on the blood-money offered to Judas. Christ is brought before Pilate, who offers to release a prisoner to the people, but they shout for the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Christ. The contralto aria Können Tränen meiner Wangen nichts erlangen (The tears of my cheeks can do nothing) submits to the sacrifice. The scourging of Christ is followed by the chorale O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (O sacred head, sore wounded). The deposition, after the crucifixion, is succeeded by the bass aria Mache dich, mein Herze rein (Make thee clean, my heart, I will bury Jesus). The chorus offers a final meditation on the Passion in Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder (We sit in tears), bidding Christ rest now in the sepulchre.
ReviewsJust in time for this year's Carmel Bach Festival comes this 1994 recording, live from Sweden, conducted very much in the Bruno Weil manner by the world's greatest living choral director, Eric Ericson. The tempos are brisk, the singing superb...Let's face it, Victorian Bach - heavy on the strings, legato and sentiment - is guilty pleasure, like Twinkies. - T. Hashimoto, San Francisco Examiner, June 2002