Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Passion According to Johann Sebastian Bach

It might have been Igor Stravinsky (or was it Felix Mendelssohn??) who listed the three greatest pieces of music thusly:

1. Bach B Minor Mass
2. Bach B Minor Mass
3. Bach B Minor Mass.

Seemingly, however, Stravinsky was forgetting something--Bach's St. Matthew Passion, which is every bit as beautiful and ingenious as the B Minor Mass. I try to spend time with this piece at least once a year, and is there a better time than now?

Below is a recording of the first movement of this enormous (2.5 hours in duration) work. After the orchestral introduction, the choir begins a kind of narrative: "Come daughters, help me lament...." While this commentary continues, a boychoir comes in singing the chorale O Lamm Gottes unschuldig (O Lamb of God unspotted), a text that is composed as a prayer. This makes for a most dramatic juxtaposition.

Unlike certain other oratorios and oratorio-like works, this is not concert music. This Passion would have been sung in the context of the Lutheran service.

And you thought chanting the Passion was long...

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