The following is part three 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 the complete highlight playlist.
I hope you will join me as we travel through just a portion of this most sublime work.
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.
Bach wrote this music at age 42. He had been serving as the church music director of St Thomas’ Church in Leipzig for over two years now. It is well known that Bach was not the church’s first or even second choice for this job but Bach had proven himself as he produced new music for each weekly worship service. The Lutherans would have had several weeks of silence, as there was no music during the Lenten season, allowing Bach more time to focus on the construction of the Passion. Still a work of this magnitude must have been germinating inside him for years.
Bach captures the moment of Peter’s Denial of Christ in an Aria for tenor and violin. In vocal church music and opera, the Aria is a moment where the action stops and one of the main characters expresses their inner most feelings. Through this music, we can experience the bitter impact of Peter’s realization and feel the full weight of his inner pain. He can’t turn back the clock, there is no going back and the anguish of his failure wells up from deep within his soul. Notice how Bach choose the violin to represent “Wept bitterly” and how it perfectly sets up the soul crushing pleading of Peter’s confession.
Peter sings: Erbarme Dich — Have Mercy
The Scripture Text
After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, ‘Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.’ Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, ‘I don’t know the man!’
Immediately a rooster crowed.
Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: ‘Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.’
And he went outside and wept bitterly.Matthew 26: 73-75
My God, for my tears sake; Look hither,
Heart and eyes weep before thee Bitterly.
Below is the entire playlist for the week. Today we are listening and reflecting on track three.