OT Bach's birthday and the St. Matthew Passion
- The St. Matthew Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach (his three hundred andtwenty-fifth birthdayÕs today!) is probably my favorite piece in the entire repertory of classical music. I can point to various aspects and features that make this work great, but ultimately music is a subjective thing, and I cannot really justify my taste. I just know what I like. Fortunately, I am lucky enough to be in the company of many outstanding music scholars, conductors and musicians.
Bach wrote the work in tandem with Christianus Henrici, alias Picander, his longtime librettist and friend. The folder for one of my records describes the poet as Òa facile literary hack of no unusual talent.Ó
I wonder if thatÕs really fair. I donÕt think Bach would have
collaborated with the man for so many years had he been nothing but a
slight dabbler. I think the words, the lyrics, of this work, deserve
consideration and respect, too. Interestingly, the St. Matthew Passion
is a product of teamwork. Bach wrote the music. Picander wrote the
poetry. And ninety years later, when precious original Bach
manuscripts were being used by butchers to wrap fish (!), Felix
Mendelssohn received, as a birthday present from his grandmother, an
autographed score of the St. Matthew Passion. His music teacher
discouraged him from ever staging it, feeling that no human performance could ever do the work justice. But he vowed that he would not rest until he had performed this work, and restored BachÕs music to the level of esteem and acclaim that it so richly deserved. He did perform the piece, to overwhelming acclaim. I suppose itÕs that aspect of teamwork and collaboration that make this work so unique. And adds to its great mystery.
I like the beautiful chorales from this work. I think the chorales are
the most accessible pieces from the St. Matthew Passion, and they are
suffused with a devotional imagination that I really like.
Most people are familiar with many aspects of the Passion story- the
Last Supper, the agony in the garden of Gethsemene, the betrayal and
crucifixion. At one point in the story, Jesus asks his disciples to
remain awake with him, and to pray through the night. He is troubled
and wants them to pray with him. His disciples, unfortunately all fall
asleep. And when the temple guards come to arrest Jesus, guided by the
traitor, Judas, all of his disciples run away. ThereÕs an interesting
chorale that occurs at around this point in the St. Matthew Passion.
The text is:
Ich will hier bei dir stehen;
Verachte mich doch nicht!
Von dir will ich nicht gehen,
Wenn dir dein Herze bricht.
Wann dein Herz wird erblassen
Im letzten Todessto§,
Alsdenn will ich dich fassen
In meinen Arm und Scho§.
The meaning is (my translation):
I would stay here beside thee,
O send me not away!
I will never go from thee,
Though it break thy very heart.
When thy heart shall be seized
In the final pains of death,
Then, then shall I hold thee,
Upon my lap, and to my breast.
Upon hearing this chorale, you will realize that the melody is
chilling. The music combined with the words creates an effect that is
at once overwhelming and pathetic. I like how the poet inverts the
actual situation of the Passion. In the narrative, his disciples sleep
when Jesus asks them to stay awake, and abandon him at his time of
greatest need. But here, the poet is taking the exact opposite
posture; he is speaking perhaps from the perspective of a devotee in
the audience: ÒI will never leave you.Ó
Another chorale I like occurs near the end of the Passion, at the time
where it depicts ChristÕs Crucifixion:
Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden,
So scheide nicht von mir,
Wenn ich den Tod soll leiden,
So tritt du denn herfr!
Wenn mir am allerbngsten
Wird um das Herze sein,
So rei§ mich aus den ngsten
Kraft deiner Angst und Pein!
This translates to:
When I must someday leave,
Then do thou not leave me!
When I must my death suffer
Come forward and stay by me!
When my heart shall swim
In the sea of tears and anguish,
Stay by me, in the last hour
And lift my sorrow with yours.
It is sung in quietly, almost hushed. I like this chorale because it
reminds me gently of my own mortality. Sri Chinmoy once wrote, and I
am quoting this poem unofficially as I canÕt find source book at the
moment. It is, however, from a book in his "My Christmas New Year Vacation Aspiration Prayer" series:
Life is short;
Hope is long;
Promise is vast;
Is perfect perfection.
Let me say that between these two chorales, the listener has
experienced some of the most intense, hypnotic and passionate arias
ever written. Maybe some other time IÕll discuss the arias from the
St. Matthew Passion. But, it makes that this chorale would have a
soothing, consoling tone, considering it comes at the end of a
breathtakingly beautiful and sad work.
The Crucifixion was, of course, ChristÕs supremely great ÒPromise
fulfillmentÓ. Interestingly enough, Sri Chinmoy wrote that the
greatest sacrifice that spiritual Masters make is not their death, but
their birth. Christ made his greatest sacrifice by coming into this
world in the first place. I really like the poem Sri Chinmoy gives to
Peter, in his own artistic rendering of the Passion story, his drama
An ant like me to save,
You came into this world of dust and clay;
A beggar like me to love,
And give me a role sublime in Your cosmic Play.
(- Sri Chinmoy unofficial)
With warm wishes to all Bach-lovers, music-lovers and God-lovers and