Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: St. Matthew Passion

The St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche) in 1723, the year Sebastian Bach was appointed Cantor; the St. Thomas School, where Bach taught, is on the left
The St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche) in 1723, the year Sebastian Bach was appointed Cantor; the St. Thomas School, where Bach taught, is on the left

We mark the first performance on April 11, 1727 – on what was Good Friday 295 years ago today – of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion at the St. Thomas Church (or Thomaskirche) in the Saxon city of Leipzig. The Passion was performed three more times in Bach’s lifetime, all under his direction in Leipzig: on April 15, 1729; March 30, 1736; and on March 23, 1742. Bach revised his St Matthew Passion between 1743 and 1746, and it is this revised version that we will hear in performances and recordings today.

The St. Thomas Church today
The St. Thomas Church today

Our game plan for this post will be, one, to discuss what a “Passion” is and what the “gospels” are; two, to observe the structure and scope and make some blanket observations about the artistic quality of Bach’s St Matthew Passion; three, to discuss “the masterpiece syndrome” and some of the good and bad things that phrase implies; four, to once again venture into the unmapped minefield that is contemporary identity politics and attempt to create a meaningful context for the St Matthew Passion; and finally, five, to speculate on how the parishioners and church officials who, having filed in and taken their seats at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche on Good Friday, April 11, 1727, reacted to hearing the St Matthew Passion for the first time.

The Passion

The “Passion” is the story surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion as told in the gospels. The word “gospel” comes from the Old English word “Gōdspel”, which means “good news” or “good tidings.” The gospels in the Bible’s New Testament, then, tell of “good tidings”: the story of Jesus’ birth and Baptism; his ministry of teaching and of healing; and his sacrifice: his trial, death, burial, and resurrection.

There are four such gospels in the New Testament: Mark, Matthew, John, and Luke. (These names notwithstanding, all four of the gospels were written anonymously between about 66 CE and 100 CE.)

These four gospels – Mark, Matthew, John, and Luke – make up 4 of the 27 books of the New Testament. The story of the Passion itself, that is, Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, takes up but a small part of each gospel. In Mark, the Passion story is told in chapters 14 and 15; in Matthew, Chapters 26 and 27; in John, chapters 18 and 19; and in Luke, chapters 22 and 23.

Sebastian Bach set three of the four Passions to music: the St John Passion in 1724; the St Matthew Passion in 1727; and the St Mark Passion in 1731. Tragically, Bach’s St Mark Passion has been lost; we have the libretto – its words – but its music is gone.


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