St Matthew Passion Day One

The following is part one of my Holy Week Reflections on J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion. I will include a little information each day along with scripture, musical examples and translated text. The Spotify Playlist at the end of each post will be to the complete highlight playlist.

I hope you will join me as we travel through just a portion of this most sublime work.

An Angel comforting Jesus before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, 1873, Carl Bloch 1834-1890,
Image Source

The Basics

Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) written in 1727 for a Good Friday service in 1727 at the Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig Germany. This is a large scale choral work, lasting 2 hours and 37 min., would have been performed in one service. 1/2 before the sermon and 1/2 after the sermon.

Written for vocal soloists, double choir and double orchestra.

Text: Matthew 26-27 following the final episodes of the life of Christ from the Last Supper, The Agony in the Garden, The Trial, Jesus’ Crucifixion and Burial. (Sung in German)

Additional Libretto materials were written by Picander. As you listen, keep in mind that Bach wrote only the music to highlight or bring the words from scripture and Picander’s poetic commentary to life. Bach was a master craftsman who came from a long line of church musicians. To compose this music that touches at the heart of the story, he demonstrates a profound understanding of our Christian faith.

The work is a blend of Recitatives, Arias and Chorales (more later)

The Opening Choral

This opening Choral Fantasie is setting the scene for the action and telling the listener what to feel as they approach the story of the Passion of Christ. In this way the words guide the Christian through a time of introspection as they are encouraged to:

Behold the Bridegroom! Who without guilt, like a lamb carried the wood of his own cross out of love.

Notice then how half way through the words are turned towards Jesus and we, as the listeners, are now speaking to him directly. The listener is experiencing how unworthy they are of such a sacrifice and asking for Jesus’ mercy.

The Music

The music begins rather abruptly as if it has been playing since before time. Bach masterfully begins by giving us the impression of opening a door into another dimension. The story begins with a magnetic pull towards the darkness and sober feelings of the crucifixion or Jesus. We know the story and we can not and will not look away.

The orchestra is made up of strings, oboes and flutes as they continue to pull us into the scene with dark harmonies and plodding bass leaving us with no doubt about the great sadness to come…

The voices rise up: “Come ye daughters, help me lament”

Then the sharp jabs of the music as the choir sings “Behold!” and the strings and woodwinds continue to imitate the melodies.

The Scripture Text

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘As you know, the Passover is two days away–and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.’ Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him. ‘But not during the Feast,’ they said, ‘or there may be a riot among the people.’

Matthew 26: 1-4 NIV

English translation:
Come, ye daughters, help me lament,

Behold! Whom? The Bridegroom.

Behold him! How? Like a lamb.

Behold! What? Behold his patience.

Behold! Where? Behold our guilt.

Behold Him, out of love and graciousness, Himself carrying the wood of the cross.

O guiltless Lamb of God, Slaughtered on the stem of the cross,

Always found patient, Although thou wast despised.

All sin hast thou borne, Else we must have despaired.

Have mercy upon us, O Jesus.

Below is the entire playlist for the week. Today we are listening and reflecting on track one.

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