Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Bach's Passions: Guides from NPR & More

Careful writers think twice before using superlatives, but it's safe to say that Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is the greatest musical work ever written for Good Friday services. It is sometimes called “the opera Bach never wrote,” but I doubt it,  in part because Bach calibrated it for use in Leipzig’s liturgy, and in part because, as musicologist/performer John Buttonce told me, it goes far beyond Baroque opera in its musical, dramatic and psychological complexity. 

Butt noted that a typical Baroque opera is dramatically simple. It has two temporal dimensions: either the action proceeds through dialog in “recitatives” (half-sung speech), or time stops as the characters step out of the frame to express themselves in music. By contrast, as Butt discusses in his recent book Bach's Dialogue with Modernity, the St. Matthew Passion cuts between many subjectivities and "time zones" in a way that presages the modern novel. That's part of why it still compels us as an independent work of art - something Bach almost certainly never imagined.

Want to learn more about these unique works? Here are some resources:

There's one more reason for doubting that the St. Matthew is Bach's opera-in-disguise: directors have found that it doesn't work when staged as an opera. After all, the arias and chorales are sung not by the Biblical characters as their story is unfolding but rather by timeless, unnamed individuals or groups struggling to understand the meaning of that story (I'm paraphrasing Butt). Thus, Bach assigns the role of Peter to a bass, but the reflective aria that follows his moment of drama is sung by an alto.  For whatever reason, the only staging in memory to gain international renown took a radically different approach -  what its directorPeter Sellars called a "ritualization." The singers act, but not "in character" or costume; some of the singers are even placed among the audience. Berlin Philharmonic music director Sir Simon Rattle, who commissioned and premiered the production, considers it to be artistically "the single most important thing we ever did here," and even hard-boiled orchestral members agreed, saying things like "everything we've done seems almost secondary after that." At this late hour I'm not able to figure out exactly how to acquire the streaming video [UPDATE: HERE'S THE LINK! - thank you, Israeli musicologist Uri Golomb] - although I can see it is not free! - but here's a sample if you'd like to judge for yourself (I am, for obvious reasons, eager to see it, once I do figure it out!):

Sellars and Rattle, this year, tried something similar with Bach's other Passion, the St. John - here are details. Meanwhile, in this work, John Butt recently took an approach almost 0pposite to Sellars. Instead of re-imagining the St. John Passion for a modern concert experience, he and the Dunedin Consort recorded it in the context of a reconstruction of a Leipzig Good Friday afternoon service. It became one of my favorite CDs of 2013. I found it thrilling, for example, to hear the opening chorus emerge not out of silence, as in a modern performance, but rather "set up" by an improvisatory-sounding organ prelude, as would have been done in Bach's church. Here's a "trailer" for the CD, including that moment.:

Finally, here's one more deeply felt response to the St. Matthew Passion, this time, with an Iowa connection. David Lang, who earned a graduate degree in composition at the University of Iowa, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008for a work called the little matchgirl passion. When Lang undertook to set Hans Christian Anderson's story of a poor child who freezes to death on the streets, he found the creative key in his favorite work by his favorite composer, the Matthew Passion by Bach. Lang notes thatBach's Passion settings "include texts other than the story itself. These texts are the reactions of the crowd, penitential thoughts, statements of general sorrow, shock, or remorse. These are devotional guideposts, the markers for our own responses to the story, and they have the effect of making the audience more than spectators to the sorrowful events onstage....the Passion format—the telling of a story while simultaneously commenting upon it—has the effect of placing us in the middle of the action, and it gives the narrative a powerful inevitability." Lang's English-language text begins with his own translation of the opening words of Bach's St. Matthew Passion: "Come, daughters, help me cry":

Here's a performance of the little matchgirl passion

Barney Sherman is a Senior Music Producer and Classical Music Host