The St Matthew Passion tells the story of the last days of Jesus. He is betrayed, tried, crucified and buried. The lyrics were compiled by Picander (the pseudonym of Christian Friedrich Henrici), probably in close consultation with Bach himself. For their theme, they took the story as told by St Matthew the Evangelist. As different groups or people have their say, the singers get different roles – Christ, Judas, Peter, a slave girl, the pupils, the high priests, the people and the soldiers, etc.
At key moments in the story, Bach and Picander added chorales and arias as a reflection of the biblical story. The action is suspended and the events are placed in the theological context of Bach’s day.
The chorale lyrics and melodies come from the Lutheran hymn book, and were well known to the congregation in Leipzig. Even though Bach’s harmonies were new, everyone would have recognised the melody and the words. The lyrics for the opening and closing choruses and the arias were brand new, however. Both the arias and the chorales often link up seamlessly with the evangelical words.
In his lyrics, Picander distinguishes between two groups of people: the ‘Daughters of Zion’ (Jerusalem) on the one hand, and the faithful souls on the other. Picander often puts these two groups in dialogue with one another. Bach reinforces this dialogue effect by having two separate ensembles of singers and instrumentalists, which he refers to as coro I and coro II. Each of the two ensembles has its own function. The first choir is part of the story and provides the most important emotional reactions, as in the arias ‘Erbarme dich’ and ‘Aus Liebe’. The second choir asks questions, provides commentary and draws conclusions.
In the chorales, Bach combines the two ensembles, and the whole group supports the spoken word. He also uses both choirs together where he wants to portray the furious crowd to maximum effect, as in ‘Lass ihn kreuzigen’. The first choir always takes the lead, and the second follows.
The ‘Dutch’ passion
Whether or not they are lovers of classical music, practically everyone in the Netherlands knows the St Matthew Passion. Every year, there is a real ‘Matthew madness’ in the month before Easter. Each town has its own performance and any reasonably large concert hall has at least two or three. The first performance of the St Matthew Passion in the Netherlands was in Rotterdam in 1870. Amsterdam followed suit in 1874. With the Concertgebouw orchestra, Willem Mengelberg then instituted a Passion tradition in Amsterdam that still continues today. In reaction to the Mengelberg performances, the Netherlands Bach Society was formed in 1921. The founders thought that the St Matthew should be performed where it belonged – in a church. The annual performance by the Bach Society in Naarden grew to become ‘the’ Dutch St Matthew Passion.