THE Passion Of The Christ (You may call this an article)
Consider the effect a church or cathedral would have on a person in Medieval and Renaissance times (1100-1650), and even beyond into the 18th century. It would be so dissimilar to anything we experience today. In the case of a cathedral, one would enter an immense sacred space full of magical color from stained glass windows--"The Eye of God" as rose windows were known. Art--paintings, sculptures, woodcuts--unlike anything a person of those ages would encounter in their daily lives, abounded as churches and cathedrals competed against each other for the finest paintings and sculptures. Bibles themselves were encased in covers bedecked with gold and jewels. The beginning of each chapter would be graced with a beautiful illumination--the oversized ornamental first letter.
A reason for this grandeur stemmed from the belief that the Holy Spirit was much more apt to dwell in a space adorned with the greatest art. God must be praised with only the finest works humans could create. To offer anything less was to slight the Almighty.
But, it can also be said that churches relied heavily on artists to explain--to bring to life--concepts and mysteries not fathomable through the superficiality of mere words regardless of whether those words came from a priestly sermon, or the Bible, itself.
And until Martin Luther (1530s) those Biblical words were in Latin, a language understood only by the clergy and those fortunate enough--usually aristocracy--to have received some education. Consequently, art, in its various forms, was traditionally called upon to serve as the bridge between the Bible and the congregation.
It is not surprising that much art dealt with the Passion--the events leading up to, and including, the crucifixtion and burial of Jesus. While not all of this art dwelt on the gore of crucifixtion--Michelangelo's Pieta, for example--images of the crucifixtion itself were, dare I use the words, most popular; especially among the painters. Views from the crown of thorns down, from the nailed feet up, from the front, from the back, from every angle in between, overflowed from the brushes of these artists, many of whom are considered even today to be supreme masters.
Churches, however, offered an additional artform decidedly absent from the lives of most.
And that would be music.
Music, by the very nature of its intangibility, allows a single work to be present simultaneously in many different places. Still, there are distinct cases where a musical work no matter how universal its appeal, becomes identified as "belonging" within, if not, to, certain buildings.
(Note: there have been failed efforts to restrict pieces of music to specific locales. Mozart, for example, literally pirated Gregorio Allegri's "Miserere mei, Deus" out of the Sistine Chapel--not by stealing the written parts, but by attending a performance and memorizing it.)
It is within music, however, that one comes upon the single greatest testament to the Christian faith. Here, though, it is unnecessary to seek out an ornate cathedral. A large parish church in the German city of Leipzig suffices.
Within the sacred space of the Thomaskirche, (St. Thomas' Church) one becomes primed to hear the voice of God. Here is a space like no other--a space containing a potent energy, an expectant vibration, a coiling of a great spring awaiting release. And it was on Good Friday of 1736--270 years ago--that a towering masterpiece to the glory of God became inexorably linked with the Thomaskirche.
Referred to simply as BWV244 in the catalogue of works composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, the St. Matthew Passion is an unsurpassed telling of the Good Friday story. But, as music, the great Passion pierces the soul of believers--and non-believers--as no other work of sacred art. Indeed, the SMP perhaps transcends even the Bible itself.
Bach, the Lutheran Cantor of the Lutheran Thomaskirche between 1723 and his death in 1750, seems to have recognized the greatness of BWV244. He took extreme care to leave behind an impeccable handwritten score, which was not always true with the rest of his compositions. And further, when his score suffered some sort of accident--it is not known what--Bach meticulously spliced new sections in place of the damaged ones. Clearly, this was a work he wanted to leave beyond his own days on earth.
And, with the St. Matthew Passion, simply looking at the pages of his music--the German text for the two choirs is written in different colored inks, for example--takes one beyond other images of the Passion. But, then to hear the music which arises from these pages, astounds the listener both physically and spiritually.
The fact that it was performed on Good Friday is important to understanding the work. The St. Matthew Passion is intended only for performance on Good Friday. The easiest analogy for those of today is to imagine Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" without the Easter scene at the end. The St. Matthew Passion has no trumpets, no horns, no timpani. No instruments of triumph, no royalty. There are no "glorious" choruses similar to "Hallelujah!" from Handel's The Messiah. In Bach's world, the triumph, the trumpets would not come for 2 days yet...on Easter Sunday. Good Friday was a day for contemplating Jesus' death and sacrifice. Thus, the St. Matthew Passion strictly adheres to the events of Good Friday. It ends, for example, not with dramatic, crashing chords of exultation, but rather with a chorus reminiscent of a lullaby, "Wir setzen uns" ('We sit with flowing tears, and call to you in the grave, Rest softly, softly rest')
However, exactly what was heard by the congregation in the Thomaskirche 270 years ago is, forgive the pun, the subject of passionate debate.
Certainly the definitive form of the St. Matthew Passion as we know it today was performed then for the first time. The SMP had been given twice before, during the late 1720s in the Thomaskirche; but, without the massive chorale fantasia "O Mensch, bewein' dein Sunde gross" (O Man, bewail thy sin so great) which concludes Part 1.
(Note: a sermon of close to two hours length was given between the two parts of the St. Matthew Passion. Considering that the SMP, itself, is three hours long, one would hope that members of the St. Thomas congregation were able to find comfortable positions in the wooden pews.)
What is also somewhat known is how Bach arranged the two choirs spatially within the Thomaskirche. One choir and group of instrumentalists was located in the main organ loft at the west end of the church. The second choir, also with an instrumental ensemble, was located in an organ loft called the "Swallows Nest" even higher up on the east wall --around 50 meters away from the performers in the west end. The sound falling from above upon a congregation unused to hearing music in stereo must have been revelatory (though this seems to go well beyond simple stereo).
Additionally, the choirs would have been strictly male in makeup. Though I suspect Bach may have wished otherwise, women did not sing music in church at that time (St. Paul's admonition that women should be silent in church was taken literally). The choirs would have been largely made up then of students from the Thomasschule (the school attached to the church), possibly augmented in the tenor and bass by students from the University.
(Note: Bach's Leipzig choir, the Thomanerchor, celebrates birthday number 794 this year. Choir members--Thomaners--still attend the Thomasschule, now a co-ed Leipzig high school. However, according to the current Cantor of St. Thomas, admission of girls into the Thomanerchor remains a "closed" subject.)
Soprano and alto parts--including solos--would have been sung by boys (not counter-tenors; and, certainly NOT castrati. Castrati were strictly an Italian thing). Bach's choirboys, however, were not at all like the waifs heard in boychoirs of today. Voices apparently broke later in Bach's time--Bach's own did not change until he was 17. It is said that in the early 18th century, voices of 14-16 yearolds would sound more like the voices of today's 12-14 yearolds. The advantage for Bach, however, was that these 14-16 yearold voices had the benefit of extra years of musical training--training vital to the performance of his complex works.
The St. Matthew Passion was given once more in the Thomaskirche around 1742. It then remained dormant for nearly a century. When it was revived, a new performing style had emerged. The choirs, now featuring women sopranos instead of boys, were massive, sometimes reaching into the hundreds. The orchestra grew to Wagnerian proportions. The soloists--again including women--were opera stars of the highest stature. And also, the work was performed not in churches, but in concert halls--and on days far, far removed from Good Friday.
Certainly, hearing the SMP performed in such a monumental manner can be a staggering experience. Some argue that Bach would have done it this way himself, had the resources been available to him. As such, a grandiose performance practice of the Passion ensued; a practice which is still not uncommon today.
However, in the late 1960s, efforts were made to perform Bach, in general, and specifically the St. Matthew Passion in a form thought to have been heard in the Thomaskirche on that Good Friday in 1736. Orchestras were pared down. Smaller choirs reverted to the use of men and boys--though except in a few isolated instances, women and counter-tenors took the soprano and alto solos.
Instruments of Bach's time became the norm (wood flutes and oboes, for example). The tuning sometimes reverted from today's equal temperment to Bach's "well" temperment (sharps and flats were tuned somewhat sharper or flater than in equal temperment). "A" was much lower--around 415 cps--than today's common 440 cps. Tempos were speeded up.
The resulting sound (called HIP--Historically Informed Performance) for modern listeners is often as revelatory as it must have been for those in 1736. And certainly, these performances were much closer to those of Bach's day. But, were they close enough?
About 25 years ago, a new theory about the "authentic" Bach sound was put forward which said that even HIP was too large. Bach, it alleged, wrote and performed the St. Matthew Passion, not with two choirs of, probably, 12-16 voices each, but rather with choirs of only four voices--one soprano, one alto, one tenor, one bass. And instead of separate soloists...well, for example, when a soprano solo came up, the soprano from the choir would simply step forward and sing it. This performance practice is now known as OVPP (One Voice Per Part).
Since the St. Matthew Passion was written for a double choir, this meant it would be performed with only 8 voices (there are a few other very minor parts such as Pilate's wife who has only one line; and Pilate, himself, who has not much more. In OVPP, this increases the number of performers to 12). The arguments for OVPP are generally sound, and the practice has attracted a number of adamant supporters. I, personally, don't think this is what Bach intended. If, indeed, he did give the St. Matthew Passion in a OVPP manner, it was probably due more to circumstance than an artistic preference.
Nonetheless, controversy rages within the Bach community as to how the St. Matthew Passion should be performed; and, specifically, what was heard during that Good Friday performance in 1736. My own guess is that since Bach performed the SMP--a work he thought to be, perhaps, his greatest composition--no more than four times during his life, then he did it with as large a force as he could muster--a force that severely overtaxed the resources of the school, the church and, in general, the entire Leipzig musical community. A force, then, so large, that only sporadic performances, separated by years, could be considered.
After speaking with such fervor about the St. Matthew Passion, I would be remiss if I failed to offer some listening suggestions. There are any number of stellar recordings. Gustav Leonhardt, Phillippe Herreweghe, and John Elliot Gardiner all offer relatively HIP performances of the highest quality. There is a fine English language recording led by Sir David Willcocks. My current favorite is a large scale recording led by the Mauersberger brothers which came, ironically, out of Godless communist East Germany in the 1970s.
(Note: On DVD, a version from 1971 led by the esteemed Karl Richter conducting the Munich Bach Orchestra and Choir has recently become available. A thrilling DVD from 2000, featuring the Thomanerchor and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in a live performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor (the St. Matthew Passion's greatest rival, so to speak, for supremacy among sacred music) in the Thomaskirche is highly recommended, if for no other reason than the intimate views of the church.)
Within the St. Matthew Passion itself, try:
The opening chorus "Kommt ihr Tochter" ('Come you daughters, help me lament'). This powerful opening statement becomes even greater when, after 30 bars of music, a chorale, "O Lamm Gottes unschuldig" ('O guiltless Lamb of God') sung by the highest sopranos begins flowing over top of the music.
The last 15 minutes of Part 1--from the duet "So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen" ('So my Jesus is now a prisoner') until the end--offers an extended section culminating in the earlier mentioned chorale fantasia "O Mensch, bewein' dein Sunde gross".
The "signature" music--that which might be recognizeable to those otherwise unfamiliar with the SMP--is the 5 settings of the 'Passion Chorale' which some know as the hymn, "O Sacred Head Sore Wounded". Each setting, interspersed throughout, is in a different key in the following sequence: 4 sharps (E), 3 flats (E flat), 2 sharps (D), 1 flat (F), 0 (the 'perfect' key of C). This is just one example of the many numerical games Bach played with his music.
Finding time for a work of three hours duration; finding time for such music in our age of commercialism, cacophony, superficiality, and weak musicianship is to step into a world far removed from our own. And for some, this is a radical step--a step too complicated, too difficult, too...uncool.
And that is, perhaps, the burden, as well as the strength, of the St. Matthew Passion--the flawless masterwork of the most learned of composers.