The Saint Matthew Passion
A “Passion” is a piece of music that tells the Christian story of the last part of Jesus’ life. It is traditionally sung during Holy Week (the week before Easter). In this context, the word passion means suffering.
In early traditions the Passion was sung out of the bible by a priest. Later, a choir was added. During the Baroque period the tradition was expanded to include soloists, choirs, an organ and other instruments. Bach wrote the St. Matthew Passion in 1727 and it is the most famous Baroque Passion. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion takes nearly 3 ½ hours to perform!
Some of the words of the St. Matthew Passion are partly taken straight from the Bible and some were written by the poet Picander. The words from the Bible are used to tell the basic story. They are sung in recitative style - which means that they are sung to simple melodies that almost sound like speech. Basically, they are sung by a narrator called “The Evangelist”.
Between the sections of recitatives there are songs called arias, which are sung by different soloists. There are four main soloists in the St. Matthew Passion, a soprano, an alto, a tenor and a bass. The arias are accompanied by the orchestra and they comment on what is happening in the story and describe what is going on in the people’s minds.
The two choirs in the St. Matthew Passion represent the crowd of people in the story and their parts are comments about what’s happening. Many of the choir parts are chorales. Chorales are hymns that were originally written by Martin Luther. Chorales were an important part of the Lutheran Church service and everyone knew how to sing them. Bach is famous for writing four part harmonies for more than 375 chorale melodies.
The main chorale of the St. Matthew Passion is heard five different times in the piece. Each time it's in a different key and has a different harmony. Bach used the keys and harmonies to express the different emotions that were happening but still keep the audience interested since they knew the melody. Listen to these statements of the chorale - can you hear how each one is different?
I recognized the chorale the first time I heard the St. Matthew Passion - but not as something that Bach wrote! I knew it as "American Tune" by Paul Simon.
I wonder what Bach would have thought about this?