Johann Sebastian Bach

St. Matthew Passion

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: 160–180 Minutes
Genre: Oratorical Passion
Time of Creation: Before 1727
World Premiere: April 11, 1727 (Leipzig)

Table of Contents

Bach's St. Matthew Passion in 5 Sentences

With his St. Matthew Passion, Johann Sebastian Bach created a milestone work of Protestant church music. In terms of performance duration (depending on the performance, up to three hours!) and instrumentation (soloists, two (!) choirs, two (!) orchestras), the St. Matthew Passion is Bach’s most extensive work and thus clearly surpasses the Mass in B minor in its dimensions. The content is about the suffering and death of Jesus Christ on the basis of the Gospel according to Matthew. The history of the work’s impact is remarkable: after Bach’s death, it fell into oblivion, but was then decisive for Bach’s “rediscovery” when Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy performed it in a shortened version in 1829.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Bach's St. Matthew Passion

Highlight 1: Opening Chorus

The effect of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is monumental. Because Bach uses two choirs and orchestras each, there are always “dialogues” between the groups. It is difficult to pick out individual highlights from the work. Overwhelming, however, is in any case the large-scale opening chorus:

Highlight 2: a chorale as a structuring element

In the course of the St. Matthew Passion, the chorale “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” is heard a total of five times. In various textures and harmonizations, the dramatic events are thus “commented on” again and again:

Highlight 3: "Lord, is it me?"

Now comes something for all fans of number symbolism. To Jesus’ words, “One among you will betray me,” the startled disciples respond with the question, “Lord, is it me?” We hear this question eleven times in a wild jumble. But how many times would it have to be if all the apostles asked? Exactly, twelve times. One is missing. Judas.

Highlight 4: BARABBAM!!!

And then there’s that famous passage that gives you goosebumps 😊 Pilate asks the people who he should release – Jesus or Barabbas? And the people answer with a tremendous outcry:

3 Questions and Answers about Bach's St. Matthew Passion

Question 1: What are the forms in Bach's St. Matthew Passion?

Bach uses a wealth of different musical forms in his St. Matthew Passion, including recitatives, arias, chorales, and so-called “turba choruses” – here crowds of people who are directly involved in the action sing, for example, the disciples, the Jewish people, and the soldiers.

Question 2: What are the text genres in Bach's St. Matthew Passion?

There are three distinct text genres, to each of which Bach assigns his own musical forms (see above): Bible texts (recitatives and turba choruses), free poems (recitatives, arias, and free choruses), and hymn texts (chorales).

Question 3: What are the solo parts in the St. Matthew Passion?

There are the solo parts Evangelist, Jesus, two maidens, Pilate’s wife, two witnesses, Simon Peter, Judas Iscariot, high priest, two priests, and Pilate.

2 Recommended Recordings of Bach's St. Matthew Passion

Recording 1: Netherlands Bach Society, Jos van Veldhoven (live, 2014)

A wonderful performance with a lean, transparent sound throughout comes from the Netherlands Bach Society conducted by Jos van Veldhoven:

Recording 2: Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Thomanerchor Leipzig, Andreas Reize

This performance features the choir for which Bach wrote his St. Matthew Passion – the Thomanerchor Leipzig:

1 Quote about Bach's St. Matthew Passion

This week I have heard the St. Matthew Passion three times, each time with the same sense of immense wonder. Whoever has completely forgotten Christianity really hears it here like a gospel; this is the music of the negation of the will, without memory of asceticism.

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