Though liturgy had presented a place in the week’s services for each evangelist’s version of Christ’s Passion, those of St. Matthew and St. John had for a long time won first claim on the attention of composers This was partly because Palm Sunday and Good Friday were the main days in Holy Week (and the days appointed for those Passion settings), but also because these two are the most inspiring stories, the most stimulating to a composer St. Matthew’s story is particularly detailed, and its incident allows great scope for meditation; almost every event poses a question in posterity’s mind, which can be expressed and perhaps answered in posterity’s voice, by some form of arioso or aria Other German composers of the St. Matthew Passion had provided many of these: Bach’s are fewer than usual, but very considerable in length, so that his seems the most monumental Passion setting of all — an impression deepened by the sublime quality of almost every meditative number The monumental effect is heightened because Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is laid out for double chorus and double orchestra, as well as soloists, and a third chorus of sopranos only in the first and last numbers of part one, but nowhere else Bach graded the music of his three choirs in difficulty: what he calls Coro I has the more demanding and subtle music; Coro Il, who were amateurs, are less taxed Nowadays Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is all too often performed with two choirs of some 200 voices apiece, and to appreciate Bach’s care in apportioning the tasks of his choirs it is as well to remember that he copied out no more than eight vocal parts to suffice both choirs, which means not really more than four singers per part, two choirs of 16 voices at most apiece — and they were not all efficient voices either: in 1730 Bach submitted a report to the Leipzig town council on the requirements of “a well-appointed church music, with certain modest reflections on the decline of the same” After explaining that singers in these days have to perform music of all kinds, in all styles, from all countries (today choirs know this problem still better), often written for virtuoso professionals, he concludes that the singers at his disposal must be categorized as follows: “17 usable, 20 not yet usable, and 17 unfit” His instrumentalists numbered 28, and he commented, “modesty forbids me to speak at all truthfully of their qualities and musical knowledge Nevertheless it must be remembered that they are partly retired persons and partly not at all in such practice as they should be” The first performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion took place, almost certainly, on 15 April, 1729, in St. Thomas’s Church, Leipzig, and we would have thought it terrible to listen to, one suspects from reading Bach’s remarks which refer precisely to the people who performed it There were other singers and instrumentalists in Leipzig, and we might suppose that they were all pressed into service for the first performance of what most people feel is the greatest piece of sacred music in the world For Leipzig in 1729 Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was an also-ran; the event of that Good Friday was a Passion by Gottfried Frober, a promising candidate for the cantorship of the New Church, and it was there that most people went Leipzig was musically reactionary, and Bach’s music sounded to them absurdly modern and extravagant, even unecclesiastical In 1732 Christian Gerber recalled a performance of a modern Passion setting, which may well have been Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: “when this theatrical music began, all these people were thrown into the greatest bewilderment, looked at each other and said, ‘What will come of this?’ An old widow of the nobility said, ‘God save us, my children! It’s just as if one were at an opera comedy’ But everyone was genuinely displeased by it and voiced just complaints against it” Bach’s choral requirements have been mentioned He used solo voices, picked from the choir, not imported, for the Evangelist, Jesus, two Maids, two false witnesses, Pilate’s wife, Peter, Judas, Pilate, Caiaphas, two priests, and at least four soloists for arias — conceivably 18 voices (Bach was to declare that only 17 were to be trusted) His orchestras, disposed each with one choir in two organ lofts, numbered flutes, oboes (changing to oboi d’amore, and oboi da caccia which we call cor anglais) , bassoons, strings, and keyboard instruments he had only one organ in use but may also have used at least one harpsichord Among his strings he required two solo violinists, a solo ‘cello, and a solo viola da gamba (which is similar to a ‘ceilo but with more strings to its bow). St. Thomas’s Church is not big but spacious, and its acoustics in 1729 were very favourable to quick music for double chorus (as in “Sind Blitzen und Donner”)

The Good Friday service in St. Thomas’s was a long one. It began at 1.45 p.m., and consisted as follows: Chorale: Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund Passion Music, first part Chorale: O Lamm Gottes Chorale: Herr, Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend Sermon Passion Music, second part Motet, Ecce quomodo moritur justus (by Jacobus Gallus) Passion Collect Chorale: Nun danket alle Gott Blessing Each of the chorales consists of several verses, the sermon will have been some 45 minutes long, and Bach’s setting lasts about three and a half hours Bach probably gave the St. Matthew Passion on several Good Fridays. His original set of parts, but not the score, has survived; what does exist is his manuscript full score made in the 1740s when he had inserted “O Mensch, bewein” in place of the plain G major chorale “Jesum lass ich nicht von mir”, at the end of part one. A feature of this manuscript is that the words of holy scripture are written in red ink We know that Bach must have been dissatisfied with the manner in which his greatest work was performed on that Good Friday in 1729; his memorandum bluntly tells us so We know also that musicians in the 1960s make music in ways altogether different from their eighteenth-century colleagues: our instruments are made, fitted, and played quite otherwise; even our amateur singers use a different vocal technique; and all of us have lost touch with interpretative methods that were completely spontaneous to Bach’s Leipzigers Our organs are noisier, our violins play with vibrato all the time, our singers and our woodwinds produce a woollier though more alluring sound; Bach’s musicians, on the other hand, added trills and grace-notes (though probably not cadenzas, which Handel’s Messiah requires) that he did not need to write down, and everybody took it for granted that a melody, when repeated, never sounded twice the same; it had always to be varied more or less. We cannot hope, and would not want, to perform the St. Matthew Passion as the Leipzigers of 1729 heard it; we can only try to make the music sound as nearly as we are able, after careful study and thought, like what we believe Bach would have wished. END

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