'Bach's Great Passion'

In his setting of Matthew Ch. 26-27 and Picander’s devotional poetry, Bach depicts a story ‘seminal to Western History’. Its sheer length, chorus deployment and devastating drama defy precedent. Nonetheless, there has been debate over both Bach’s alleged religious allegiances and the distinction between sacred and secular music. Should the Passion be viewed as a 'quasi- opera'? What were Bach's intentions behind the rich symbolism and allegorical devices which underscore the compositional setting? Whilst scholars have dismissed Bach's faith and theology, we know that these had an enormous effect on the way the piece was written: this too has affected our understanding of the societal context within which this work was conceived.

It is clear that Bach, like his contemporaries, possessed an astute understanding of theology and was aware of the integral position of the Passion. His sacred book collection comprised 52 titles, including 15 volumes of Luther’s own writings: two editions of his work and copies of the Tischreden, thus expounding his connections between theology and music.

Following the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation, Luther stressed the centrality of theologia crucis: his meditation on Christ’s Passion states ‘it is more beneficial to ponder Christ’s Passion just once than to fast a whole year or to pray a psalm daily’. Development of this theology linked the Passion with human suffering: for him ‘cross and suffering as pathos [became] the key to divine revelation’, Theologia crucis in this context becomes a subjective genitive. The greatest way to know God was from the foot of the cross and the physical suffering of his passion. Moreover, Luther placed considerable emphasis on doctrines of atonement and guilt in suffering, themes visible in Bach’s setting. Luther’s theology interprets Christ’s suffering as resultant of earthly transgressions: ‘When Christ is tortured by nails penetrating his hands and feet, you should eternally suffer the pain they inflict and the pain of even more cruel nails’. Bach’s music is appropriately guilt-ridden. His change of voice for Peter continues this theme: originally sung by a bass soloist, his aria of remorse, immediately following the Denial, Erbarme dich is sung, unexpectedly, by an Alto. This suggests the collective responsibility underscoring Luther’s meditation; ‘it is a matter for the general human condition and not the personal tragedy of the individual sinner’.

The Matthew Passion’s abundance of chorales would have resonated with the Leipzig congregation: through these, the sinner’s complicity is also underscored. Luther’s flock was institutionally raised to sing, whether in weekly congregational rehearsals of the chorales or in private, in the family. Within the Passion, the chorales drive much of the pathos, frequently interrupting the drama. The first chorale comes as the third movement, following merely eight bars of narrative: Heermann’s self-examination establishes the guilt paradigm that prevails thereafter. The second chorale (no.10) has an even greater impact, halting the scene, and prolonging Christ’s response. Collective complicity resounds throughout its first person pronoun usage in the disciples’ questioning: ‘Herr, bin ichs?’, adding new dialogue to the Gospel story. The only aria to be followed immediately by a chorale is Erbarme dich, Peter’s denial of Christ, a device also employed at the same point in the Johnannes-Passion; its theme of Christian repentance in the context of betrayal exemplifying the Passions’ approach to chorales. Here the structure effectively echoes Luther’s temporal dichotomy, that is, a Christ who suffered historically on the cross, but suffering with the Faithful. Inclusion of such chorales of self-culpability at these core structural moments emphasise the Passion’s role beyond its text.

Through the priority given to collective responsibility, Bach and his librettist raise the issue of subjectivity; a philosophy developing concurrently with Bach’s life. As Butt observes its growth and centrality: ‘the focus of the individual as someone with responsibilities of self-development and constructed through the application of a discipline is endemic to Protestant practice in general’. Subjectivity was significant in Lutheranism, and distinguishes the work from the operatic sphere. Bach’s assignment of the arias is anathema to operatic convention. Coupled with the heavy presence of a poetic ‘I”, the libretto establishes the work on a different level of engagement, soliciting in its listener a ‘development of emotion and consciousness’, most subjectively Lutheran in nature.

Highlighting the physicality of passio, John Butt argues Bach exposes the tensions between truth and fiction, creating ‘a sort of believable fiction through its own world of emotion’. He suggests moments such as the octave inscription ‘Ich bin Gottes sohn’ go beyond a neutral presentation, bringing out the semantic qualities of the words which would not have been relevant had the words been simply dialogue. Bach’s reliance on what may be termed ‘word painting techniques’ seem to transcend their implied limitations. An uproar is evoked, in the turba scenes, by the interjection of eight voices; the fires of hell are embodied in the idiosyncratic auditory effect of Sind Blitze, Sind Donner; and Erbarme dich’s unbearable quantity of sighs physically imply someone mourning. Moreover, the suffering of the cross is felt in the considerable challenges Bach sets his solo singers. With often unconventional and difficult lines, frequently relying on sevenths and tritones, Bach again articulates a Lutheran focus on suffering.

A detailed ‘analysis’ of the opening movement, Kommt ihr Töchter, shows the ease of applying hermeneutical frameworks to the music: the throbbing bass line, evoking the earthly Italian pastorale, becomes related to the eimage of the lamb we are called to mourn over; the French tombeau use suggests Jesus’ regality. Although Butt correctly dismisses finical hermeneutics, we should not neglect the significance of tonal allegory and importance of scriptural exegesis to Lutheran music. In a preface to a cycle of church cantatas for the year 1709-10, Kunhau made it clear that church composers should not ignore the art of exegesis, and his work demonstrated a tradition of allegory, whereby theological concepts were emphasised through musical devices. His setting of the beginning of Psalm 1 demonstrates a split between the ungodly and the pious, whereby he prescribed different tonal or harmonic shifts to emphasise the discrepancy, using hard dissonance for mentions of the term ‘Gottlosen’ and foreign tonalities for the word ‘sünder’. Ideas of symbolism and multi-layered interpretation are found in the ideas of Luther and his followers; Medieval theologians believed that each Bible text had literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical interpretations. Symbolism represented for Bach an ‘age old tradition’,which was relied upon by the theologians of Bach’s library. Ignoring such a precedent is surely detrimental to our understanding.

The Passion also articulates the significance of a flat and sharp dichotomy. The sharp and flat genera were the cantus durus and mollis of the old hexachord theory, and Chafe’s work has shown how Bach gives expression to their suggested states. Durus keys, traditionally representative of masculinity and strength are assigned to movements predicting the Kingdom of God, the dissemination of the Gospel, and the Resurrection. Mollis, indicative of femininity, is used for sections of sufferance and weakness: Christ’s tribulation on the Mount of Olives, the ultima verba Christi on the cross and anticipations of his betrayal and denial all evoke flat extremities. Thus, analysis of the overall key shape of the Passion are revealing, primarily the antithetical relationship between the durus e minor beginning, and the mollis ending marking the ultimate return of C minor. In accordance with Baroque theory, this transformation might suggest some form of spiritual journey, also reflecting the nature of Matthean theology, emphasising Christ’s suffering.

Furthermore, this emphasis is reflected in the work’s structure. All mentions of the resurrection are in Part I, structurally separate from the agonies of Part II. All but three utterances from Christ are in Part I. Sharp keys are dispensed with altogether after the ‘Gottes Sohn’ inscription, thus distinguishing it as a major structural point. As the tenth utterance of the turba, Smend suggests this moment highlights a theological transition: the ten turba are representative of the Old Law (the Ten Commandments), which give way to the New Law represented by Christ’s ultimate sacrifice.

Bach emphasises C minor and E minor, the first representing movements of tranquility, the latter stages of the crucifixion drama itself. E minor in Baroque practice held significance, associated with works of lamentation, including Schutz’ Seven Last Words. Its characteristics largely stemmed from its relation to the phrygian mode, the traditional mode of lachrymose affections. Chafe identifies it as the tonic until Andern hat er geholfen, and indeed it returns at major sturctural points: So ist mein Jesus, the dialogue with the High Priest, Er ist des Todes schuldig and the close of the trial scene. Its disappearance as the tonic and the loss of sharp keys suggests the abandonment of Christ, and for the final sixth of the passion, the flat key pull towards C minor, a distinction underlined by the sudden semitone modulation to e flat at Ach Golgotha! This sudden switch to flat keys, and the orchestration of pastoral instruments belies a warmer and temperate image, far removed from the agonies of Golgotha: In Sehet Jesus hat die Hand, the effect is ‘pastoral benediction’, an affect also solicited in Mache dich, after the Crucifixion. This may appear contradictory, however, such juxtaposition is discernible in the semantics of the libretto from these points. Mache dich is concerned with heart imagery and the believer’s entombment of Jesus. The section, highlighted by its flat implications and departure from the harsh sharp-driven messages of atonement, expresses the ultimate paradox of the Lutheran faith: the epitome of love emanating from the Cross.

This might be coincidental; however, nothing so sophisticated is seen in the rest of the period. Handel’s opera arias begin and end in unrelated keys, and even Bach’s other major works, the B minor mass, Easter Ascension and Christmas Oratorios do not employ this level of sophistication. The Matthäus-Passion is unique.


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© 2019 by LUCEAT.