March 16, 2011
I first sang Bach’s St. Matthew Passion about twelve years ago when I was a member of the Oratorio Society of New York. There was something about the scope of it that made it truly sublime, almost overwhelming in its majesty. It is an emotional work, to be sure, filled with drama and pathos, but it is also a miracle of musical construction, neat and brilliant. We classify the St. Matthew Passion as an oratorio (more specifically, a Passion Oratorio), which is essentially an unstaged opera with a religious plot. Oratorios became popular because operas couldn’t be staged during Lent, a solemn holy season for Christians. But opera fans could get their fix of recitatives and arias if the story was sacred, and if there were no sets, costumes, or staging.
Bach wrote no operas, but the St. Matthew Passion (Bach also set St. John’s Passion story) has enough drama to overcome the lack of sets and costumes. One interesting dramatic device was Bach’s setting of the Vox Christi, or voice of Christ. When Jesus sings a recitative, Bach included the string instruments in the accompaniment. Recitatives by other soloists do not have this instrumentation. The effect has been termed Christ’s “Halo,” and there is only one time when it does not appear: when Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a moment of despair and heartbreak, his most human moment, and therefore it has no halo. You don’t have to be a Christian, or even religious, to hear the agony and desolation in that moment. Bach shows us, through subtleties, exactly what emotions the characters are experiencing.
The aria from the St. Matthew Passion on the program is “Erbarme dich, mein Gott.” It is a breathtaking aria from Part II. There aren’t many words to this aria, something like, “Have mercy, Lord. I weep bitterly for you.” Both the singer and the solo violin weep in the music. It is a highly emotional moment, and yet, it does not cross over into overwrought melodrama. Bach maintains an enviable balance between the heart and the head.
Bach was born more than three hundred years ago, and yet his music sells CDs, inspires debate, and challenges performers. Books, articles, and dissertations are still written about Bach every year. There is something extraordinary about this music that can reach through centuries and touch us. There is something exquisite in Bach compositions that will continue to intrigue the professional and please the aficionado. It is fitting to celebrate his birthday with music. Here’s to another 326 years.
On a personal note: I’ve sung the St. Matthew Passion three times, in total. And even throughout all of the rehearsals and performances, the piece holds up. One of the most emotional performances I can remember happened in a classroom at USC with just a piano as our orchestra. Our choir director, Dr. Lynn Bielefelt had just told us that she was battling cancer. Since this was a relapse, we knew her news was very serious. She told us that she wasn’t afraid, and then she told us to sing. We sang the finale for her, through our tears, and through our own fear. She died a few months later. I will always remember her, and I will always remember that Bach was able to say for us what we could not say ourselves: “We lay ourselves down and cry to you….Rest your eyes and sleep in contentment.”