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St. Matthew Passion

posted Apr 9, 2017, 11:38 AM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Apr 9, 2017, 11:38 AM ]
By the Middle Ages, churches had begun observing Holy Week by retelling the story of the crucifixion in music instead of reading it as we do today. At first scripture was set to simple chant melodies—but by the Baroque period, the music and numbers of musicians became increasingly ambitious. So for Good Friday services in 1727 at St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig, Johann Sebastian Bach composed this sacred oratorio for solo voices, double choir and double orchestra based on chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew. Its original Latin title Passio Domini nostri J.C. secundum Evangelistam Matthæum translates to "The Passion of our Lord J[esus] C[hrist] according to the Evangelist Matthew".

Bach then revised it for Good Friday, 1736, into the version that has survived. It’s divided into two parts, originally performed before and after the sermon of the Good Friday service. Highlights of the first part include the last supper and the betrayal and arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the second part, the music turns softer and more somber — signaling the inevitability of the story — as it depicts the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, concluding with Joseph of Arimathea asking Pilate for the corpse for burial, while officials remind Pilate of the talk of resurrection and ask for guards and a seal for the grave to prevent fraud.

The vocal part of Jesus is distinguished from the others by an original effect for that time: his solos are always accompanied by a group of string instruments, endowing his role with what is often described as a ‘halo’. It is only when he is on the cross and declares ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ that this effect is removed.

There are numerous English recordings and videos online if you find you want to listen to some of it…