A Guide to Bach's St Matthew Passion

my name is James Gilchrist and I’d like to welcome you to this musical tour through Barths and Matthew Passion listen Matthew Passion is a big piece in a great many ways it’s quite long of course and uses lots of players but it takes us on a huge emotional journey and has become one of the most important works in the whole of the history of Western music but in essence it’s very simple in the Lutheran Church in the church service shortly before Easter there had grown up a tradition of in toning the biblical reading of The Passion of Christ that’s to say his trial and execution and perhaps it’s no surprise that over the years this tradition allowed the performance to become more embellished different people would sing the roles of the different characters Jesus the narrator Pilate and so on instrumentalists were brought in to provide harmonic support for the complicated vocal lines and arias were added non biblical texts that allow the audience and the performers a moment to reflect upon the unfolding story at the heart of the work are the corrals the Lutheran sung hymns that were so well known to the 18th century members of the congregation in Bath’s church and indeed are still quite well known today and indeed the first movement despite its size is in essence an embellished choral melody two orchestras and two choirs invite us to join in the remembrance of the telling of this story but the music reaches its climax when the ripieno choir comes in with the chorale hardy over the top of it all alum got us one foolish Oh guiltless Lamb of God [Applause] [Applause] and then we’re straight into the story which seems to begin almost mid-sentence the first action sets up two themes first Jesus is preparing himself and his disciples for his death and second the Pharisees are plotting to arrest and kill Jesus notice how the story is told quite straightforwardly with a complement of only cello and organ played here by Thomas Pitt and Christopher bacchanal and the singer declaiming the story in more or less speech rhythm and see how bar uses his two choirs and two orchestras the chorus is used in this way as part of the drama but they can play various

roles the Pharisees as we’ve just heard but also the disciples the Romans Pilate even or the crowd baying for blood the story moves to the Last Supper where Jesus picks out Judas his betrayer and where he encourages the disciples to remember him and what his death signifies every time they eat together this beautiful music for Jesus instituting the Eucharist shows us how Bar uses all the strings of orchestra one to provide a halo of sound around Jesus every time he speaks the action moves to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane we see Peter the role is played here by William Crane vowing that he will stand by Jesus no matter what happens and Jesus warning him of his inability to keep his word and we see here huh Bar uses the corals as comments on the action we are perhaps asking ourselves whether we would have done any better than Peter the text of the Quran says that we wish to stand by Jesus throughout his agony [Applause] all too soon but prayerful mood is interrupted by the arrival of Judas and an armed crowd of soldiers from the high priests and elders Jesus is identified by Judas and the soldiers arrest him at this moment of high dramatic tension ba introduces one of the few duets in this work soprano and Alto soloists here Sophie Bevan and David all sob shadowed by flute and oboe we’ve long sinuous lines perhaps suggestive of the snake of betrayal the coils of rope over a constantly moving line of other strings the true bass of the orchestra is silent making us feel strangely at sea the chorus is futile attempts to stop what is going on erupt into rage and astonishment at the absence of a God inspired reaction to this outrage Thunder earthquake where are you

[Applause] [Applause] Peter flails with his sword but Jesus takes command this has to happen the disciples flee and that is the end of the first part of barsen Matthew Passion Jesus has been arrested and taken to the high priests and his disciples have fled and we the congregation reflect upon our part in humanity’s guilt in allowing this to happen that our innate sinfulness has necessitated Jesus’s suffering we reflect of course in a Corral woman the vine dines Indigo’s o mankind weep for your great [Applause] [Applause] we begin the second part with Jesus being interrogated by the high priest false witnesses are sought when Jesus speaks of the Son of man sitting at the right hand of God the Pharisees become incensed and immediately resort to violence here what bark does at this point he manages to have the words of Jesus sung here by Matthew Rose maintained nobility beside the demonic rabble of the Pharisees [Applause] boys for Narnia especially toss near city not still police phenomena has slowed Mustufa tightness heart his headquarters mr. hungar boys [Applause]

and here how the violence against Christ is immediately followed by the chorale they are hot dishes or Govardhan who is it that has struck you thus [Applause] the attention focuses on Peter he had promised to stand by Jesus and we witness his failure to do so exactly as Jesus had predicted and Peter is overwhelmed by his uselessness and guilt that follows one of the most famous and beautiful areas in the whole of this work our bomber dish have mercy Lord the sobbing motifs of the voice and the violin over sustained chords in the upper strings and pizza Carter bass allow this pleading for mercy to be perfectly painted the violin is played here by a boy on Church who is the leader of the Academy of ancient music Judis full of remorse at his actions throws down the thirty pieces of silver at the high priest’s feet bar expresses this impotent remorse in another stunning aria for violin obbligato in other words with the violin taking a duetting role with the voice the aria is sung by william gaunt and the violin played by Rodolfo Rishta a-flying notes of the violin are perhaps the flashes of silver as the coins tumble onto the ground [Applause] Jesus is brought before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate Barabbas is released Pilate washes his hands of the whole affair and the crowd pays for blood in an ever-increasing frenzy amidst all this high tension bar follows

pilots question what evil as Jesus done with an accompanied soprano recitative listing all Jesus’s good works and there follows a beautiful soprano Aria with flute obbligato played here by Rachel Beckett where the flute delineates gloriously supple lines over spec ATO crotches given by over to capture while the baseline of the orchestra is silent the cello and the organ and the double bass have ceased to play and the effect of this is to lift us out of the drama it feels momentarily as if time has stopped [Applause] [Applause] [Laughter] [Applause] [Applause] [Applause] [Applause] the reality of violence mockery and persecution returned with force Jesus is humiliated with a crown of thorns and a purple robe and he’s led away to be crucified Simon of Cyrene II is called upon to carry the cross the Aria Here Come looses coins as the singer wishing himself to be the bearer of this cross and bar uses what even in his day would have been a slightly old-fashioned instrument a viola da gamba played here by Rico EGC and the dotted rhythms in the gamba part spanning the whole range of the instrument from top to bottom allow us to share in the weight of the cross and the struggle to carry it we arrive at Golgotha and Jesus is crucified his clothes are divided among

the people and he is further mocked his last words Ailee Ailee lama sabachthani my god my god why have you forsaken me are set by bar without the halo of strings that have surrounded all his previous utterances in this piece jesus’ abandonment is painted in music soon after this Jesus dies the chorale that follows begs that Jesus should be with us the moment of our own death it is the passion chorale that we have heard so many times during the course of this work the story is done there remains only the burial Jesus is suffering is at an end the music following pilots last utterance truly this was the son of God moves into the key of E flat major and there’s a sense of completion of calm of release the key of E flat of course has three flats in the key signature and perhaps this is significant at the moment of the appearance of the Trinity the warm color is carried through into the last area of the piece mahadesh my announcer rhyme we wish our hands to assist those of joseph of arimathea as he buries the body of Jesus and the text seems to look forward to the Eternity that wakes Christ and us very gay world depart Jesus’s body is laid to rest bus some Matthew Passion ends with the chorus and indeed all of us weeping beside the tomb Christ’s Agony’s over

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