“Seht — wohin? — auf unsere Schuld”

Johann Sebastian Bach, The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to Saint Matthew (BWV 244)

Dating in its received form from the 1730s or 1740s, the work is a musical setting of Luther’s translation of the Gospel of Matthew interspersed with arias and recitatives for which the German poet Picander supplied the lyrics. These essentially function as meditations, didactic distancing, or an opportunity for various (and only very vaguely identified) forces to interject who do not have a voice in the gospel itself: the faithful; various personified emotions, etc. And they are, needless to say, the good parts.

Stretch and get a glass of water; this is going to take a while and be kind of intense. Movement 1 is a chorale that begins the multi-hour work in the epic style, by telling you everything that’s about to happen (spoiler alert: Jesus dies in the end), why (to redeem humans), and whose fault it is (ours):

Mvt. 1, “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen” (John Eliot Gardiner/English Baroque Soloists & Monteverdi Choir)

Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen,
Sehet – Wen? – den Bräutigam,
Seht ihn – Wie? – als wie ein Lamm!
O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig
Am Stamm des Kreuzes geschlachtet,
Sehet, – Was? – seht die Geduld,
Allzeit erfunden geduldig,
Wiewohl du warest verachtet.
Seht – Wohin? – auf unsre Schuld;
All Sünd hast du getragen,
Sonst müßten wir verzagen.
Sehet ihn aus Lieb und Huld
Holz zum Kreuze selber tragen!
Erbarm dich unser, o Jesu!

(Inline translation – and this goes for the whole work – is available here; then cf. this and this).

The piece is scored for two complete orchestras and choirs standing side-by-side, and the call-and-response structure of this first choral movement is done between the two: one says “Look”, the other asks “where?”, and the answer comes: upon our guilt.

But one of the interesting things about this work is that it doesn’t proceed exclusively as an epic; it is almost an epic and a drama in parallel, closely following one another but independent nonetheless. At the end of the last supper, the apostles are optimistic to the point of cluelessness, and their expressions of loyalty (the soprano sings a part that might broadly be called “joy”) are sincere but light-minded:

Mvt. 13, “Ich will dir mein Herz schenken” (Ton Koopman/Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra)

As the situation gets a bit more serious, though, they have to reach for a bit more determination, here struggling to stay awake on the mount of olives as Jesus tries in vain to negotiate with his father about backing out of this whole crucifixion thing. Bach lets the oboe take over the heavy lifting of conveying the urgent striving:

Mvt. 20, “Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen” (Georg Christoph Biller/Thomanerchor zu Leipzig – A cool detail about this recording: Biller is the director of the Thomanerchor, which is the same position at the head of the same choir that Bach was in charge of when he premiered this piece in the 1720s.)

This is definitely a hallmark entry in my list of Killer Bach Oboe Solos. And the dialogue, the duet, if you like, is between the instrument reaching for the divine aspirations of the apostles and the singer, the human actor, unable to follow through. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

In the same way, the bass soloist, the voice of devotion to Jesus, the urge within his followers that would take his place if it could, offers, continuing Jesus’ metaphor, to drink the same poisoned chalice of crucifixion. This is also the point at which the musical commentary on what’s going on beings to pick up the tension noticeably:

Mvt. 23, “Gerne will ich mich bequemen” (Ton Koopman/Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra)

But of course, just like only Nixon could go to China, only Jesus could die on the cross. Apostlebros are powerless to stop it, and when Jesus reminds them of that, they loudly protest that they will stand by him no matter what (Mvt. 16, 17, 24). You know the story: Peter is horrified by Jesus’ statement that before the cock crows, Peter will have denied him three times. Which he promptly does. How does Peter – how do we – face God in our utter failure to live up to the things we’ve promised him? That’s one of the central mysteries of Christianity, one that extends beyond the story of Peter into everyone’s relationship with Jesus, and it’s why, when Peter has collapsed in failure, it is not his voice that asks for forgiveness, but the alto, the voice of sorrow.

(She does so in the most famous aria of the Matthäuspassion and, honestly, probably Bach’s most directly moving vocal works. This is him stretching his baroque contemplative detachment to the limit, standing on a cliff of pathos that overlooks all of Romanticism and Wagner in the future, but somehow remains above it.)

John Eliot Gardiner put it like this:

The emotional centre of the St. Matthew Passion is “Erbarme Dich”, Peter’s plea for forgiveness having denied his Christ. In comes the violin announcing “Erbarme Dich”, and the violin can convey, in a way that the human voice could not convey,this concentration of lamentation, of grief, of contrition, of utter, abject horror, yet taken onto a spiritual level because the voiceline of the violin becomes an agent of compassion and forgiveness. And that’s before the singer has sung a note. (ref)

Mvt. 39, “Erbarme dich” (Karl Richter/Münchener Bach-Orchester feat. Julia Hamari)

I will withhold in the interest of giving you something to discover on your own the incredibly intricate, restrained dissonance at the death of Jesus, but here’s a taste of how, as the epic reaches its climax, the dramatic grits its teeth and, as it intensifies, retreats further inward at the same time: the crucifixion is something that we have to solve for ourselves:

Mvt. 49, “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” (Christian Fliegner – Performance note: in Bach’s time, sopranos were boys and altos were countertenors. This is bog-standard HIP.]

And, last thing – just go bloody listen to it – my favorite aria. Right at the end. Jesus is dead, the world is in darkness, and Bach, though in mourning, is absolutely irrepressible:

Mvt. 65, “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” (Phillip Herreweghe/Kölner Philharmonie 2010)

A link to the complete work is available here, and my favorite recording is far and away this one.