Monday, March 07, 2016

“The Noblest Sacred Work in Existence”

These were the words with which Sir Edward Elgar described J.S. Bach’s setting of the St Matthew Passion. This formidable work, also known as the ‘Great’ Passion, is something of a musical Mount Everest; its scale and complexity are a considerable challenge to both singers and players. Bach’s first setting of the Passion, the St John, was first heard in Leipzig on Good Friday in 1723, and the St Matthew followed a few years later. Both his Passions are for soloists, choir and orchestra, although the later St Matthew expands on the forces of the St John by dividing the forces into two choirs and two orchestras, and even adding a third ‘Ripieno Chorus’.
J.S. Bach’s autograph MS
of the St Matthew Passion
Bach employs four distinct musical elements: the first of these is Recitative, largely sung by the Evangelist but also by the other characters such as Christ, Pilate and the High Priests. Secco, or dry, recitative, allows large amounts of text to be conveyed with great economy, whilst also giving the singer enormous expressive freedom. The Continuo accompaniment, mostly played by organ and cello, provides a sparing accompaniment, although a particular innovation which Bach brought to the St Matthew setting is the ‘halo’
 of strings which surrounds Christ each time he sings, emphasizing his Divinity.

Secondly, there are the Choruses sung by the full choir. With the exception of the large opening and closing choruses, which buttress the entire work, the other choruses are turba (crowd) choruses, in which the choir represents variously the disciples, the high priests and their entourage, the soldiers who mock Christ, or simply the angry mob.

Thirdly there are the Arias and their smaller relatives the Ariosos (with texts written by Picander, the pen name of Christian Friedrich Henrici), which break the Gospel narrative to allow pause for thought. The Ariosos provide commentary, whereas the Arias provide reflection, sometimes accompanied by a chorus which interjects and vocalises the thoughts of the listener on their behalf.

Fourthly, the Chorales, Lutheran hymns which are strategically placed throughout the Passion. These hymns would have been well-known to the congregations in Leipzig, though they would not have joined in, instead listening to Bach’s exquisite renderings of these much-loved melodies using harmonies which seem to achieve utter perfection. Of the twelve Chorales which appear in the St Matthew Passion, five use the ‘Passion Chorale’ melody which many will know as the hymn ‘O sacred head sore-wounded.’

The Thomanerchor performing at
the Thomaskirche, Leipzig
I will have the privilege of directing the London Oratory Schola, the Oratory Junior Choir and the Belgravia Chamber Orchestra in a performance of the St Matthew Passion next week, forces similar to the Thomanerchor, Bach’s own famous boys’ choir, still singing to this day, and having recently celebrated its 800th anniversary. Aside from the roles of Evangelist and Christus, performed by Nicholas Mulroy and Marcus Farnsworth, two leading singers of the professional world of music, all of the other roles and Arias will be sung by boys from the Schola. I can’t begin to describe how hard the choristers have worked for months in preparation - the St Matthew is more of a project than a piece. Even the sheer organization required in terms of marshaling the singers and players through the rehearsal on the day of the performance requires meticulous precision, ensuring that the soloists, choruses and instrumentalists (the wind and strings of both orchestras) are there at the right times. (I am most fortunate in this regard to have an orchestral manager who very much has his wits about him.)

During the rehearsal we will start with all the Recitatives, then some of the Arias & Ariosos, followed by the Choruses and Chorales, and finishing with some remaining Arias. What this means is that the Passion is not heard by any of us from start to finish until the performance itself. It is rather like preparing a vast number of different ingredients, before assembling an incredibly elaborate meal, like Babette’s Feast. The fact that there is just one performance, one chance to hear it, one chance to get it right, gives both the listener and the performer a real sense of focus on the Mystery of the Passion. Please keep us all in your prayers next Tuesday, and if you can, come along.

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