In the transition from Lent to Holy Week, Bach’s assertion about the aim of music fits perfectly. Our Lenten disciplines have helped to prepare us for the events of the passion, but we need a soundtrack to keep our hearts and minds attentive to the “glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”
This week’s playlist includes only one piece of music: The Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ according to the Gospel of Matthew, aka “The St. Matthew Passion,” by Bach. Writing about the place of the Passion in Bach’s life, renowned tenor David J. Gordon writes:
An indication of the special regard he held for this work is that Bach went to considerable trouble in his old age to repair the large manuscript score of the St. Matthew Passion. This presentation-quality copy, still in existence today, is unique among Bach manuscripts: he designed it beautifully, painstakingly bound and re-sewed it by hand, and carefully highlighted the biblical words in red ink. Those few who saw it after Bach’s death considered the manuscript unperformable and left the huge work unpublished and unheard until 1829 [a full century after it was composed] when Felix Mendelssohn organized [and conducted] a performance, heavily abridged, in Berlin.
With this performance Mendelssohn revived, almost single-handedly, interest in Bach. He was only twenty, and a recent convert to Christianity.
The oratorio calls for double orchestra, double choir, and a cast of soloists, making it possible to create a wide range of combinations of instruments and voices that Bach weaves into the emotional variety of timbres that the narrative requires.
As a chorister singing the St. Matthew, there are times when you wonder if it will ever end (in some instances it can take over three hours to perform!) But then moments of incredible beauty unfold, and time stands still.
Over the days of Holy Week, I encourage you to listen to the music and consider the text, prepared by the Leipzig poet Christian Friedrich Henrici (with careful attention from Bach.) Break it down into smaller sections each day if necessary, allowing it to sink into your heart and bones.
As musicologist Tadashi Isoyama writes, “Put simply, the Passion is music that calls for mankind to reflect and to awaken. It prompts repentance, urging us to turn from vice toward freedom and salvation. It moves the spirit toward self-reflection and the exercise of the conscience.”