St. Matthew Passion – An Easter Tradition
By Daniele Foti-Cuzzola
The Easter long weekend is usually a time for traditions, whether it’s celebrating together with family and friends or travelling, but this year Easter is no doubt looking very different for all of us. However, one operatic Easter tradition that we can all still take a part in from the comfort and safety of our own homes is experiencing Johann Sebastian Bach’s sacred Ontario, St. Matthew Passion.
In 1723, Bach was appointed Thomaskantor of the Thomasschule at the Thomaskirche, in Leipzig, Germany. On the Good Friday of 1724, Bach debuted his first Passion piece, St. John Passion to critical acclaim. The oratorio retold the story of the Passion of the Christ from the Gospel of John using ariosos, arias and chorales. After the success of St John Passion, Bach composed a follow-up, the St. Matthew Passion which he debuted on the Good Friday of 1727.
The St. Matthew text was arranged by the poet Picander, whose sacred texts Bach regularly used for Cantatas. Bach interspersed Picander’s text with arias and arioso. Bach revised the work again between 1743 and 1746.
The St. Matthew Passion retells chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew, which recounts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Bach had written St. Matthew Passion to be used as part of a Lutheran church service. Instead of leaving the congregation to observe and take in the music, Bach had included a number of hymn-like chorales within the solo sections so the entire congregation could participate.
Bach used various instruments to symbolise the many characters and emotions throughout the Gospel. For example, a high chord played on strings is used to signify Jesus Christ, which sets his singing apart from the other cast and the music is reminiscent of a musical ‘halo’. The only time the musical ‘halo’ component is not used is when Jesus is on the cross and declares, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’.
Other musical moments to listen out for ‘Erbarme dic’ and ‘Können Tränen meiner Wangen’. Today St. Matthew Passion along with St. John Passion are still widely performed around the world on Good Friday. Today, Berliner Philharmoniker are streaming a free performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars. To experience this incredible operatic Easter tradition, simply visit the link here. Create an account and redeem the voucher code BERLINPHIL to receive free access to all of Bernier Philarmonkier’s concerts and films.