Tonight we have an Easter special for you, two works that fall within the top rank of compositions written for use during Easter observances. Both of them take the form of Passion narratives, a musical tradition that dates all the way back to the 8th century. There are 9th century manuscripts that indicate which part of the Passion narratives are to be intoned, and later manuscripts would specify exactly which notes to sing. So, to a certain extent, , we can find one of the seeds of organized music within the tradition of the Passion narrative.
Among the numerous written Passion compositions, our two pieces are some of the best. Both were written by Johann Sebastian Bach, and both are considered masterpieces of the Baroque era. We will begin with a performance of Bach’s St. John’s Passion. Bach wrote the piece in 1724 for the Good Friday Vespers service, and used John Chapters 18 and 19 (as found in the Luther Bible) as the guide for the composition, with the Evangelist part quoting those scriptures verbatim (Bach also inserted two events that were described in Matthew). The writer of the additional poetry used in the piece is unknown. After the initial composition and performance, Bach made three subsequent revisions (1725, 1728-1730, and finally in 1749), as well as a partial autograph score in 1739. The fourth and last revision, from 1749, essentially returns the work to the original 1724 version, with modifications to remove some parts for instruments that were fairly antiquated even in 1724 (i.e. lute).
A major part of Bach’s compositional plan was his conscious effort to retain the spirit of a standard worship service. The Passion was an important part of Lutheran tradition, an emphasis that began with Martin Luther himself, who placed special value on the Passion. During the post-Reformation years, a number of Passion-related works were written for the Lutheran Church (one such work, Heinrich Schütz‘s St. Matthew’s Passion, we heard earlier on The Galaxy). To that end, Bach used chorales from Johann Heermann, Martin Luther, Paul Gerhardt, Paul Stockman, Michael Weiße , Valerius Herberger and Martin Schalling. In addition, he used a poem by Christian Weise, and adapted an aria from an existing Passion by Christian Heinrich Postel, fitting it to a melody by Johann Hermann Schein. However, while he wanted the piece to have a congregational feel, the piece was not intended for congregational participation.
Bach appears to have intended the piece for a smaller orchestra, as small as 16 or 17 members, with a similarly small choir. This is not surprising, given the stage of Bach’s career (1724, relatively early in the Leipzig period), and the use of smaller choirs and orchestras has become a fairly common performance practice for the work. Tonight’s recording is a excellent 1993 recording, with Angela Maria Blasi, Marjana Lipovsek, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Robert Holl, and Anton Scharinger. Nikolaus Harnoncourt directs the Concentus Musicus Wien, with the Schoenberg Choir.
- Anthony Rolfe Johnson obituary (guardian.co.uk)
For our second work this evening, we’re going to hear one of the absolute epic works of the Baroque era, both in terms of length and content. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was first performed on Good Friday, April 11, 1727. He revised and performed it again in 1736, and then again in 1742. It received further revision between 1733 and 1746, during a late-life period during which Bach was making revisions to his major works. This work was also a major part of the renaissance in the public awareness of Bach’s catalog, when Felix Mendelsson conducted a revised version of the work in Berlin. It has since become a part of the Easter Week tradition in many churches around the world.
Bach scored the Passion for double orchestra and double choir, probably with 12-16 voices per choir. The double-choir format is important to the integrity of the work, as Bach arranged the piece to create a sort of dialogue between the two sides. In recent years we have seen a number of St. Matthew Passion recordings done in HCAD. While it would certainly be helpful to hear the piece in surround sound, careful listening to the piece can allow the listener to detect the shift from one choir to the other – the dialogue effect is most interesting.
Tonight’s performance comes from a lovely 1999 Harmonia Mundi set, a package that includes a lovely CD-rom that goes into depth on the history of the piece. Philippe Herreweghe leads the Collegium Vocale Gent & Orchestra, with soloists Ian Bostridge, Franz-Josef Selig, Sibylla Rubens, Andreas Scholl, Werner Gura, and Dietrich Henschel.
- Sellars’ on Bach’s Matthäus-Passion (operachic.typepad.com)
- Classical music: For Easter and Passover, for both believers and non-believers of all kinds, J.S. Bach offers the perfect piece of spiritual music. (welltempered.wordpress.com)
- What Catholics Owe Bach – and What Bach Owes the Catholic Tradition (catholicphoenix.com)
We close the show with a few selections from Heinrich Schütz‘s Kleine Gestliche Concerten (trans: Little Sacred Concertos). Schütz, who wrote an early opera that is now lost, wrote two sets of these in the 1630’s, during the Thirty Years’ War. They consist mostly of duos and trios, essentially chamber pieces that match duo and trio voices to organ accompaniment. But the small scale of the composition in no way minimizes their quality – this is truly special music. Tonight we heard four such pieces: Sei gegrüßet, Maria; Rorate Coeli Desuper; Joseph, Du Sohn David; and Hodie Christus Natus Est. The Concerto Vocale was conducted by Rene Jacobs.