Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Johann Sebastian Bach, St Matthew Passion

A Bit O’ Review

A page from Bach’s manuscript of the St Matthew Passion
A page from Bach’s manuscript of the St Matthew Passion; as indicated in the quote above, he wrote texts taken directly from Scripture in red, in order to differentiate them from the words of his librettist, Christian Friedrich Henrici (also-known-as “Picander”

To recap something of yesterday’s Music History Monday post, Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion is a massive, roughly three-hour-long sacred oratorio that sets to music the story surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection as told in chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew.  Musically, it is a full-blown religious opera presented in concert form, with a narrator, a cast of characters, two adult choruses and a separate boys’ choir, eight vocal soloists and two orchestras. It is replete with arias, recitatives, choruses, and action music of every stripe.  With a libretto by Bach’s long-time collaborator Christian Frederic Henrici (known as “Picander”, 1700-1764), the St Matthew Passion features 68 different musical numbers, divided into two acts, or parts: Part One featuring 29 numbers, and Part Two 39 numbers.

In terms of its scope, spiritual and expressive power, range of expression, and sheer (frankly inexplicable) beauty, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is, as a work of art unique, sui generis, one-of-a-kind: an artwork defined only by itself, comparable only to itself.  

Bach biographer Karl Geiringer writes:

“The St Matthew Passion represents the climax of Bach’s music for the Protestant Church. His own conception of its importance is clearly revealed in the exquisite score he made of it, a score which is unique even among his many beautiful manuscripts.  He worked on it with a ruler and compass, and he used red ink for the recitatives of the Evangelist [the Passion’s narrator] to distinguish the divine [Biblical] message from the rest of the text.  The motto Beethoven placed in front of his Missa Solemnis – ‘It comes from the heart-may it go to the heart – can well be applied to this work as well.”

The first version of the St Matthew Passion received its premiere on April 11, 1727, 295 years ago yesterday.  Bach continued to rewrite and rework the Passion for 19 years, until 1746.  …

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