This is the time of year when Bach’s Passions (St. John 1724 and, particularly, St. Matthew 1727) are performed around the world — from Boston to Auckland.
The St. Matthew Passion has inspired artists as different as Pier Paolo Pasolini (who considered casting Jack Kerouac as Jesus in his 1964 film The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and who used Bach, Prokofiev, Billie Holiday, and the Missa Luba for his soundtrack) and Dr. Jonathan Miller (who produced a remarkable and moving in-the-round staged version of the whole score in 1996).
Leonard Bernstein typically vividly described one moment at the beginning of an almost three hour journey:
Suddenly the chorus breaks into two antiphonal choruses. “See him!” cries the first one. “Whom?” asks the second. And the first answers: “The Bridegroom see. See Him!” “How?” “So like a Lamb.” And then over and against all this questioning and answering and throbbing, the voices of a boy’s choir sing out the chorale tune, “O Lamb of God Most Holy,” piercing through the worldly pain with the icy-clear truth of redemption. The contrapuntal combination of the three different choruses is thrilling. There is nothing like it in all music.
There’s an excellent website providing the original text with English translation and some informative notes (courtesy of Minnesota Public Radio).
As part of a BBC series on great composers, Jonathan Miller (after a brief set-up by Karen Armstrong), describes his reaction to the aria “Erbarme Mich” — which deals with Peter’s recognition of his three-fold betrayal of Christ. In this excerpt from the Miller production, the counter-tenor Jonathan Peter Kenny is the soloist. Dr. Miller, in his commentary, also cuts to the heart of the St. Matthew Passion‘s immediacy two hundred and eight-one years after it was written.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re an atheist or a Jew. By being an educated member of western European civilization, it is the most famous story there is. It’s in your bloodstream the way that no other story is. And it happens to be the most intensely dramatic story. You can read it again and again and again and it never fails as a piece of drama.
For those who prefer the experience unalloyed: