Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (c. 1725)is one of the greatest works of music ever composed. A passion, in the musical world, is a setting of the narrative of Christ’s suffering and death according to one of the Gospels. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is certainly the king of them all. It is something like a cathedral: everyone sees its towering grandeur, admires its beauty, marvels at its craftsmanship. And yet, also like a cathedral, the Passion is not intended for the academic spectator or the casual tourist—it is intended for the Christian. It movingly directs his heart to meditate on and wonder at what Jesus has done for him.
Even though the St. Matthew Passion was made for us Christians, its nature as a “cathedral of a work” makes it a bit intimidating to just stroll up to it and wander inside. After all, the thing is huge—about three hours long—and it’s all sung in German, which leaves most of us clueless. How can we still enjoy this stunning work of art that Bach has crafted for us?
First of all, it helps to recognize that St. Matthew Passion is uniquely Lutheran. Others before Bach had composed passions that used versifications of the Gospels (that is, retellings that follow a meter and adapt the words of Scripture), but Bach insisted on using the direct text of Scripture itself. He knew the necessity of the pure, inspired Word of God. In his 1735 manuscript of the St. Matthew Passion, he even wrote all the Evangelist’s lines in red ink! Bach was also very eager to use well-known Lutheran hymn stanzas, or chorales, within his passions. The content of a passion consisted of Scripture passages “recited” in song (a movement called a recitative), interspersed with reflective poems also set to music (a movement called an aria), and perhaps an occasional chorale. But Bach included chorales prolifically. Listeners would immediately recognize the tunes and probably get excited, as we do today: “Hey, I know that hymn! We sing it in church!”
Second, the St. Matthew Passion quickly moves from intimidating to splendid when we simply observe how beautifully it is arranged.In the opening chorus, for example, two choirs are calling and responding to one another: One of them, “Zion,” tells the other, the “Faithful,” to lament as they behold Christ, the Bridegroom and Lamb, bearing the cross and taking their guilt. Then suddenly—the listener hears it, woven within the choirs’ dialogue—there is a boys’ chorus singing the familiar chorale “Lamb of God, Pure and Holy.” It is a masterful marriage of music and texts! In another instance, when the narrative tells how Jesus was beaten in the court of the high priest, the Jews’ demand of “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” is immediately followed with the chorale stanza, “Who is it that hath bruised Thee? / Who hath so sore accused Thee / And caused Thee all Thy woe? / While we must make confession / Of sin and dire transgression. / Thou deeds of evil dost not know” (TLH 171:3). Perhaps the most moving sequence of texts follows Peter’s denial: a tearful aria pleading for God’s mercy, followed by a tender chorale of trust in Christ’s forgiveness. One doesn’t have to be a musical architect or a master poet to recognize the beauty in these things—one simply has to be a Christian.
This Lent, I hope you get a chance to enjoy the St. Matthew Passion and reflect with Bach on the suffering and death of our Savior. (There is a wonderful performance available here, and a German-to-English translation available here!)