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Join our Good Friday tradition of a master work by J.S. Bach. His St. Matthew Passion invites the listener to reflect on the perspectives of the different players in this beautiful and redemptive account.
Bach St. Matthew Passion
Isaiah Bell – Evangelist
Daniel Okulitch – Christus
Estelí Gomez – Soprano
Allyson McHardy – Mezzo-Soprano
Asitha Tennekoon – Tenor
Daniel Lichti – Baritone
Grand Philharmonic Children’s Choir and Youth Choir
Grand Philharmonic Choir
Mark Vuorinen – Conductor
Good Friday, April 19th, 7:30pm
Centre in the Square, Kitchener
The singing of the Passion narrative has been part of Holy Week liturgies since at least the fourth century. Early forms began as recitations by a single cantor, intoning all of the roles. By the ninth century, manuscripts reveal that indications for the tempo, relative pitch and volume of the recitation of these texts had been prescribed. In the 12th century, fixed pitches for the words of the Evangelist, Christ, and the crowds had been set by using symbolic letters in the margins. These printed rubrics are the precursors to fully composed polyphonic settings, which abound in the voice of all four Gospel-tellers from at least the fifteenth century on. These texts form the backbone of the Christian faith and have served as the seeds of profound musical composition for centuries.
From the middle of the 17th century, composers began to add non-biblical texts to the Passion in the form of arias and choruses as well as independent instrumental movements. Familiar Lutheran hymns or chorales were interpolated in Protestant Germany reminding the participants that the ownership of this liturgical practice belonged squarely to the people.
When Johann Sebastian Bach arrived in Leipzig to take up the post of Cantor at the Thomaskirche in 1723, the singing of elaborate settings of the Passion narrative was a relatively new tradition. Historically, Good Friday at the Thomaskirche saw the singing of a simple four-part setting of the Passion from the 16 th Century by Johann Walter, a contemporary of Martin Luther. The conservative leadership of the Thomaskirche may have liked to see that tradition remain. But, ever since Georg Philipp Telemann had written a Passion oratorio for the ‘New Church’ across town in 1717, Bach’s predecessor, Johann Kuhnau, had tried to persuade the Leipzig consistory to allow for the performance of a new “figural style” Passion to be sung on Good Friday. Eventually, the consistory, observing churchgoers flocking across town to the ‘New Church’ for Good Friday liturgical celebrations, relented and allowed Kuhnau to prepare, and perform a new setting of the St. Mark Passion with biblical narrative, reflective chorales and free poetry in the form of arias in 1721. And so, by the time of Bach’s arrival in Leipzig two years later, a new tradition for the afternoon Vespers liturgy on Good Friday had emerged. It is a point of great interest, and perhaps a little pride, then, that the long tradition of singing Passion oratorios on Good Friday by this choir, in Waterloo Region, has a longer history than that which Bach inherited in 1723.
The St. Matthew Passion was first performed on Good Friday, April 11, 1727, though documentary evidence suggests that Bach had started on it much earlier, perhaps hoping that it would be ready for his second Easter in Leipzig in 1725. But, it would be another two years before his second Passion setting was ready. So a revised version of the St. John Passion, heard in 1724 was remounted in 1725, and a year later Bach returned to a St. Mark Passion he had performed some years ago in Weimar by Friedrich Nicolaus Brauns. Bach, it seems, wanted to make his second Passion setting a personal triumph, taking the necessary time to complete what would become his grandest work.
First Bach had to set out to find a text. One of the requirements of the Leipzig consistory for Passion texts was that biblical narratives didn’t stray from their biblical sources. This stipulation meant that the popular models by librettists like Barthold Heinrich Brockes, which were in wide use elsewhere would not pass muster at the Thomaskirche because they substituted biblical text with rhymed paraphrase. Eventually, Bach settled on a libretto that interpolated contemporary poetry and Lutheran chorales into the biblical account of the Passion according to Matthew by Christian Friedrich Henrici, known by his pen-name Picander. Whether Bach set out to commission Picander for a text or Picander came to Bach is unclear. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the two artists worked
closely on the collaboration.
Picander’s text and Bach’s music set two full chapters, 26 and 27, of Matthew’s gospel. With a careful ear to a sense of pacing Bach and Picander interposed fifteen reflective texts of free poetry. Each brings the dramatic activity to a brief pause, allowing the personal, collective voice of the aria texts to comment on the action that has just taken place. The narrative is made entirely personal through these extraordinary meditations: Peter’s guilt in denying Christ is made universal in the stunning aria Erbarme dich and the collective mourning that follows Christ’s death is reflected in the beautiful Mache dich, mein Herze rein. These, of course, are just two examples. It is these reflective pillars take that take on the character of a musical Stations of the Cross, each encouraging Bach’s congregants towards a truer, purer devotion.
In the St. Matthew Passion Bach used every available musical form: recitatives, which relate the story, ariosos and arias, chorales and chorale fantasias (such as the opening and closing movements of Part I). He uses dance forms in the arias and many of the choruses and sets apart the words of Christ by surrounding them in a halo of strings. And, the use of the unusual (for Bach) double choir and orchestra demonstrate that his ambition for this work was far beyond that of any other of its kind.
Demonstrating that he believed the St. Matthew Passion to be his most significant work, Bach returned to his St. Matthew Passion three more times at the Thomaskirche and took extraordinary care in creating a calligraphic fair copy score, meticulously reproduced and restored by its composer.
We, as performers and listeners, have inherited a truly masterful work and are the beneficiaries of its unequalled genius.
Notes by Mark Vuorinen