Forgive the seriousness of what follows. It is not possible to fully experience the St. Matthew Passion without entering into the spirit of the work.
Yesterday I attended the annual presentation of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (complete, in English) by The Bach Choir and Florilegium, David Hill conducting, this year presented in the Royal Albert Hall. This is a religious occasion as The Messiah is at Christmas in honor of passion-week, and the work was presented with no applause until the end after the music had died away.
The ending is not well translated. In English it says “We bow our heads in tears and sorrow. Hearts cry to Thee, O Savior blest. Rest thou softly, softly rest. But in German we are there beside the grave: “Here we sit down and weep, and call to you in the grave, rest softly, softly rest.”
The meaning of the passion is that we are following the savior as he prepares for his death, as he is betrayed, as he is scourged, as he is denied and finally as he dies. The added texts are our words. The difference in the two languages is stark. “Make thee clean from sin, my heart, giving welcome unto Jesus,” says the English score. “Make yourself pure, my heart. I want to bury Jesus myself,” is the literal translation. It is the Lutheran equivalent of the stations of the cross. We follow Jesus on his spiritual journey, and experience it ourselves.
For me Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is the most deeply Christian and profoundly spiritual of all musical works. It is intended for Good Friday worship. Perhaps the personal nature of the work would be emphasized if we sang the chorales ourselves instead of merely observing others sing them.
All of Bach’s art is there. I remember analyzing the “Erbarme dich” and happily finding 9th and 11th chords. Bach’s intentions are spiritual. He sees the tools of his era—the complex harmony and counterpoint, the use of one emotion per movement, the polarized bass and treble texture, the use of continuo, the solo instruments that perform with the singers—as tools of the spirituality he wants to impart.
It was artfully performed. Noteworthy were the expressive and well-trained chorus, Matthew Best as Christ, Roderick Williams baritone and Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo.