My head has been in the St. Matthew Passion. For a few weeks already. Yes, that is pretty strange for me, having grown up in a house where Bach’s music was played often, but only on the Sundays and holidays for which it was written (read more about that in this blog post). However, it can happen when one sings in a Bach Choir in the United States. While in The Netherlands all 180 (!) St. Matthew Passion concerts happen in the weeks before Easter, here in the USA the piece is presented much less often, and the only classical music performances with a strong seasonal tie are those of Handel’s Messiah in the weeks before Christmas.
But working on the St. Matthew Passion and this Weekly Cantata blog at the same time has been a blessing, as the two areas of study influence each other. Nine months of research for this blog have inspired me to read more about the St. Matthew Passion and study the music in more detail. In that process I have learned many new things about the piece I thought I already knew so well. And experiencing the composition Bach’s sons referred to as their father’s Great Passion on a deeper level has, I believe, improved my understanding of Bach’s cantata writing.
Let’s just look at the opening chorus of this week’s cantata 48 Ich elender Mensch, written for the 19th Sunday after Trinity (October 3 in 1723).
I listened to Bach Collegium Japan (with Robin Blaze and Gerd Türk), Koopman (with Bernhard Landauer and Christoph Prégardien), Gardiner (with William Towers and James Gilchrist), Harnoncourt (with Paul Esswood and Kurt Equiluz), and Herreweghe (with Damien Guillon and Thomas Hobbs), and find Herreweghe’s interpretation the most moving. Herreweghe is also the only one who uses a tromba da tirarsi in the opening chorus, and I love that sound. Listen to Herreweghe’s recording on YouTube or on Spotify. Please consider supporting the artists by purchasing the recording on Amazon: click here for USA, here for UK, here for Germany, or here for France.
The main music is hauntingly beautiful (It’s not just the Herreweghe sopranos that give me goose bumps this time – the altos and tenors move me to tears, and none of this could happen without the basses providing that wonderful foundation for everyone to build on) but extremely downcast. It is clearly full of Elend (misery), in reference to the Gospel text of the day.* The same holds for the main music and words of the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion. It is clearly full of klagen (lamenting), and paints the picture of the Via Crucis, Jesus on his way to the cross.
However, in the midst of all the misery, a J.S. Bach opening chorus almost always provides a preview of the salvation that is to come later in the piece, or that is implied in the Gospel. In the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion he does this by superimposing the German Agnus Dei – the chorale O Lamm Gottes Unschuldig (O Lamb of God, unspotted), sung by a treble choir in G major, over the lamenting E minor of the two other choirs and orchestras. The repeated auf unsre Schuld (for our sins) of Choir I is answered by the treble chorus with: All Sünd hast du getragen (you took away all sins).
The congregation in Leipzig, where the St. Matthew Passion was first performed on the afternoon of Good Friday in 1727, would have sung this German Agnus Dei earlier that day at the conclusion of the morning service. Back to this week’s cantata for October 3, 1723: in that Sunday service, the congregation might have sung the chorale Herr Jesu Christ, ich schreie zu dir:
|Herr Jesu Christ ich schreie zu dir
Mit ganz betrübter Seele:
Dein Allmacht laß erscheinen mir
Und mich nicht also quäle.
Viel grösser ist die Angst und Schmerz.
So anficht und turbirt mein Herz,
Als daß ich kan erzählen.
|Lord Jesus Christ, I cry to you
With a soul that is wholly troubled:
Let your almighty power appear to me
And do not punish me in this way.
Far greater is the anguish and pain
That challenge and confuse my heart
Than I can explain
The congregation might thus have heard those words in their head, when two bars after the soprano entrance the tromba da tirarsi starts playing this melody, later followed by two oboes in unison. In this way, these three instruments accompany every choral passage with a new line from the chorale, and the chorale thus starts forming the frame of the opening chorus.
After this preview message in the opening chorus that Jesus might be able to offer salvation, we have to wait until the tenor aria for the all-around convincing message that everything will be OK, in music as well as in text:
Vergibt mir Jesus meine Sünden,
If Jesus forgives me my sins,
So wird mir Leib und Seele gesund.
then my body and soul will become healthy.
Er kann die Toten lebend machen
He can make the dead live
Und zeigt sich kräftig in den Schwachen,
and shows himself to be mighty in those who are weak,
Er hält den längst geschloßnen Bund,
he keeps the covenant made long ago
Daß wir im Glauben Hilfe finden.
that in faith we find support.
Wieneke Gorter, October 1, 2016, links updated October 15, 2020.
* The Gospel story for this 19th Sunday after Trinity was the miracle of Jesus healing a cripple. From the time the Gospel was written through Bach’s time, unfortunately, having a disability or illness was seen as carrying a sin. When Jesus heals the man, he also takes his sins away.