Diego Velásquez: Cristo Crucificado
© Wikipedia | Public Domain

The tradition of presenting the last hours of Christ in a dramatised form goes back to medieval times. In churches today, either on Passion Sunday (the week before Easter) or Good Friday, it’s still common to hear a simple dramatized reading of the Gospel, with members of the church community taking the parts of the different characters in the story. Composers through the centuries have written musical settings, but above them all stand the dramatic and emotionally complex Passion settings by Johann Sebastian Bach.

As part of his role directing the music at St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, Bach had to produce a weekly cantata, a musical response to the Bible readings set for that Sunday. The canatas allow their listeners to reflect on the Bible reading using a mixture of narrative recitative, solo arias that offer a response to the Bible reading, chorales, based on familiar melodies and more complex choral movements to frame the structure. The two surviving Passion settings by Bach, those of St John and St Matthew, sit within these cycles of cantatas, and share the same elements and structure, just on a much grander scale.

The basic narrative of the Passions is the same: Jesus, betrayed by Judas, one of his disciples, is put on trial and subjected to an agonisingly slow and public death; even his close friend Peter abandons him and denies knowing him. Both end with Jesus being laid in his grave. Beyond this basic framework though, Bach uses the different theological standpoints of the Gospel writers to produce two very different responses to the story.

The first to be written, the St John Passion, is the shorter and more dramatic of the two, and the first turbulent waves of the overture create the momentum for the whole work. The St John has motion and direction; there are arias about following Christ or hurrying to Golgotha. And we’re told right at the start what the destination is, when the chorus burst in, calling on God to display his glory through his Passion, and there are references to heaven throughout the text. The story hurries along too, propelled by the energetic chorus movements in which the singers take the part of the High Priests and the howling mob, urging Pilate to convict Jesus. When the priests pedantically quote chapter and verse of the law, Bach makes their music pompous and sanctimonious, using a mixture of angular staccato jabbings and slithering chromatic lines, whilst a sneering flute bustles around viciously above them. The mob howl enthusiastically for blood with long biting dissonances, and even while Jesus is dying on the cross, there is still movement and action: we hear the rattling of dice running through the chorus as the soldiers beneath the cross gamble for Jesus’s clothes.

When Jesus dies though, everything stops, with two lovely arias releasing the tension, bringing stillness and space – the alto’s Es ist Vollbracht – “It is finished”, followed by the soprano in Zerfließe, mein Herze, encouraging us to release the tears. The gorgeous closing chorus of the St John Passion is almost a lullaby, a gently sighing farewell in which Christ’s tortured body is laid to rest and welcomed into heaven, and the chorus also expresses quiet joy that heaven is now open to all of us. Bach underlines this with a final chorale after the chorus, which offers an ecstatic vision of our souls being carried to heaven by angels, ending the St John with a burst of praise and triumph.

There’s none of that in the St Matthew Passion. This time, Bach tells the story with uncompromising bleakness, forcing us to examine all our human weaknesses and failures. The opening chorus calls on everyone to weep over our guilt, as the innocent victim dies for us, and at the end, after more than two hours emotionally draining music, the chorus laments and weeps again as Christ lies in the tomb. This time there’s no talk of heaven. If I were to pick a painting to accompany the St Matthew, it would be Holbein’s "The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb", which shows Jesus shockingly, humanly dead, his body beginning to show signs of decay.

Hans Holbein: The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb and detail. Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel
© Wikipedia - Public Domain

In the St Matthew Passion, the story is slowed down, and turns inwards, and although this time Bach reflects far more on humanity’s collective role in Christ’s tragedy than in the St John, he does so through the intimacy of solo voices. Musically and technically, the chorus have a much easier time, as the big crowd scenes are fewer and shorter: the demands Bach places on the chorus this time lie instead in the soul, as the chorales force the singers and listeners to reflect unflinchingly on what they’ve just heard. Consider the aria Erbarme Dich. This plea for God’s mercy comes in response to Peter’s denial of Christ, and is an expression of unimaginable heartbreak. A solo violin plays a tender, grief-stricken melody with little sobbing ornaments, while the alto sings a sustained, simpler version, giving the effect that words alone are an inadequate response to such distress. Out of the silence that will inevitably follows comes a chorale: even though I have strayed, I have been able to return, say the words. Life has to go on, and it’s the chorus who must gently pick up the pieces and help everyone to accept forgiveness.

A similar moment comes at the very bleakest point of the St Matthew, at Christ’s death. Up to now, every time Christ sings, his music has been clothed with a protective covering of violins, until at the crucifixion, the violins fall silent, leaving Christ naked, exposed and absolutely alone as he cries out that even God has abandoned him. Following Christ’s death, the famous Passion Chorale tune makes its final appearance, low and quiet, with words that implore God not to forsake us in our last hour. There’s no mention of heaven or glory here, just a feeble human appeal that we might be spared the desperate loneliness in death that Bach has just shown us.

In both of Bach’s Passions, the instruments often have as much to say as the singers, and it is the conversation between singers and instruments that make some of the arias so special. One particularly effective, and distinctive combination is that of the soprano accompanied by flute and oboe da caccia, a baroque instrument pitched a fifth lower than a standard oboe. We hear this grouping in Zerfließe, mein Herze in the St John and again in the haunting Aus Liebe in the St Matthew. The soft purity of the oboe da caccia set against the wooden baroque flute, darker and huskier than its modern equivalent, create a distinctive timbre, and to my mind makes the case for hearing the Passions performed on period instruments, whatever one’s views on historically informed performance. Bach uses very specific string instruments too. The viola d’amore has sympathetic strings set off by the vibrations of the bowed strings, giving a sweet, shimmering sound, and Bach uses a pair of these in St John’s Erwage, to create a tonal quality that mirrors the rainbow described in the text. The viola da gamba, a larger viol played between the legs like a cello adds its raw plangency to two St Matthew arias, the tenor’s Geduld and Komm, süßes Kreuz for bass.  

It’s a fun game on social media or in the pub to debate the merits of Bach’s two Passions, and to ask people which is their favourite, but in truth although they tell the same story, they are so different that comparing them is impossible. As a chorus member, however, I’d always pick St John as my favourite to sing; it’s a massive adrenaline rush, and great fun to throw yourself into those vicious, energetic crowd choruses. But it’s St Matthew that I turn to when life gets troublesome, particularly at times when the whole world seems unsettled and confusing. Bach’s St Matthew doesn’t give comfort, or easy answers, but because it confronts the fundamental human emotions that we all share, it puts everything in perspective. It also reminds me that however awful humanity is, whatever brutal things we do to each other, we also created Bach, and that in itself is a consolation.