Performance Thursday, March 28, 2013 | 8 PM

Orchestra of St. Luke's

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Last season at Carnegie Hall, two of New York’s most admired and established performing groups—the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Musica Sacra—teamed up with Iván Fischer for a noteworthy performance of Mozart’s Requiem. This season, they return for a must-hear evening that features Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
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The Program

St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244

About the Composer

Bach spent the last 26 years of his life in Leipzig, where he was in charge of the music at the two principal churches, especially St. Thomas. One of the largest single services for which he provided music was the afternoon of Good Friday, when he performed a very large piecerunning several hours in performancethat replayed the events of Jesus's Crucifixion, ending as dark fell in the late afternoon, leaving worshippers to pass Saturday in contemplation and to return on Sunday for the glorious outburst of joy that would open the Easter service. Everything about the St. Matthew Passion bespeaks Bach's profound theological understanding and his ability to convert both abstract and concrete ideas into astonishing music.

About the Work

The basis of the Passion is Matthew's narrative of the relevant events, chapters 26-27 of the Gospel. Bach sets these two chapters to music in their entirety, in a quasi-dramatic way. A tenor, the Evangelist, sings the narrative passages, as if he is recounting the story to the congregation. Direct quotations in the text are sung by various singers as if they are part of an opera (though without costumes or acting). The narration is divided into short "scenes," each of which is followed by musical commentary.

Bach enriches and extends the narrative framework with two specific kinds of text. He draws from the poetic work of C. F. Henrici, who wrote (under the pen name Picander) a series of recitatives and arias that offer the personal emotional response of individual singers to the events being narrated. And usually, after such a personal response from a soloist, the choir sings a chorale, one of the hymns that formed the communal part of the Lutheran service and that would have been immediately familiar to every member of the congregation.

Thus, overall, the score moves from a dramatic scene reenacting the story of the day's events, to a solo reaction of a highly personal nature, to a choral response representing all of Christendom.

A Closer Listen

From all the diverse elementsdramatic recitative, expressive arioso, reflective aria, chorus, and choraleBach constructed the score as a mosaic of different textures and sonorities. The thread that runs throughout is the Gospel story, broken up into individual "scenes" and related in light, rapid recitative. Bach paid careful attention to the declamation of words and provided imaginativeeven daringharmonic underpinning to shade the sense of each phrase or significant word. The scenes in recitative are the heart of the Passion, a direct link to the manner in which the tale has been reenacted liturgically for centuries.

Luther himself emphasized the central significance of Scripture and the importance of preaching the Word. Everything in Bach's score is a response to Luther's injunction. Rhythm, harmony, melody, and orchestral color are at the service of the text. Some commentators have gone so far as to note the tiniest details of Biblical exegesis in Bach's setting. An example is the chorus "Herr, bin ich's?" ("Lord, is it I?") sung by the disciples after Jesus has predicted, "One of you shall betray me." One analyst notes that the question "Herr, bin ich's" appears in that brief chorus 11 times; Bach, he says, is telling us that only 11 of the 12 disciples have asked the questionJudas, the betrayer, is silent.

While analysis of this sort is intriguing, a much more powerful experience to be heard here is the way that the recitative and chorus lead up to the chorale. No sooner have the troubled disciples asked, "Lord, is it I?" than all of Christendom, represented by the simple chorale, replies, "It is I; I should atone … it is my soul that earned them." Thus, at every point, Bach brings home to the listener, with intense conviction and dramatic power, the theological significance of the dramatic scene.

In addition to the framework provided by the Biblical story, Bach opens and closes each part with a large musical set piece to anchor the action. The very opening is one of the most brilliantly conceived passages in all of music. It begins dramatically in the middle of the story, imaginatively depicting the slow and painful procession in which Jesus carries His cross to Calvary, the place of execution. The orchestra plays a dragging, halting march that seems at first to be rooted to its somber E minor. The choruses represent the crowds in the street calling to one another to come and witness the sight. Precisely at the moment when the choirs sing "See Him!How?Like a Lamb," Bach adds on top of everything the chorale melody "O Lamm Gottes unschuldig" ("O innocent Lamb of God"), traditionally sung by the boys' choir.

This immense opening chorus is both a dramatic sample of events to come and a commentary on those events. If there were no text at all, it would be called a chorale prelude, one of many examples (usually for organ) in which Bach interprets the significance of a chorale melody with an elaborate musical setting. Thus the opening chorus suggests by its size the immense scope of the work to follow while at the same time giving a taste of its expressive power and offering a theological interpretation, all the while working into the story a particularly striking dramatic elementthe procession to Calvarythat is treated very briefly in Matthew's telling. Has any work's opening movement ever served more simultaneous functions with such expressive and technical success?

One special feature of the recitative in the St. Matthew Passion was taken by Bach from a tradition that goes back at least as far as Heinrich Schütz a century earlier: The words of Jesus, unlike all the other dialogue in the story, are accompanied by the strings. In the 19th century, this device came to be called a "halo." It appears throughout the work every time Jesus sings, except in His last utterance, "Eli, eli lama sabachthani" (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?), at the moment of His death. This one purposeful omission of the string accompaniment generates a powerful sense of mortality.

Following the sermon, which in Bach's day no doubt further explored the ideas already presented in the music, Part II begins with an aria of lament. A soloist, standing halfway between a character in the Biblical account and the congregation in Bach's church, laments the betrayal of Jesus, which she has just witnessed. This music could be the emotional highpoint of any Baroque operaan expression of the most serious lossexcept that the words would be unsuitable and no opera composer of Bach's day would have had the daring to combine the aria with the chorus's sympathetic, supportive response. Nor would an opera composer have ended the aria with such dramatic powerin the wrong key, dying away on the dominant, as if the soloist had no strength left.

The second part recounts, in vivid detail, the interrogation, the scourging, and the execution of Jesus. Pilate finds no evil in Him and offers to release Him as an act of mercy at Passover time, but the crowdin dissonant, hammering chords-cries out that they want Barabbas released instead. As in Part I, each fragment of the story is interpreted at once for the audience. When Pilate asks, "What evil has He done you?" the tenor immediately responds in an arioso, "He has done good to us all," and the soprano continues with the aria "Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben" ("My Savior will die out of love").

Finally, after the body of Jesus has been given over to Joseph of Arimathea for burial and Pilate has posted his guard at the tomb, the chorus ends the Passion with one more set-piece: a gentle and subdued final chorus, a lullaby closing with the words "gently rest." This consoling music, suggesting only a going to sleep, is for Bach and his congregation the suitable conclusion to the horrors of the Crucifixion. They know that Good Friday, which ends in darkness and despair for the disciples, will be followed by Easter morning. The catharsis of grief that has been expressed here will be changed to great joy; in the meantime, they must ponder on the message of the powerful drama they have witnessed on this Friday afternoon.

© 2013 Steven Ledbetter


This performance is part of The Three Bs, Orchestra of St. Luke's, and Orchestral Thursdays.