Friday, 22 April 2011

St. Matthew Passion - Die Matthaeus Passion

For Good Friday - a day of contemplative reflection

"Christ, the Lord of life and light, faultless his behaviour,
Captured like a thief at night, though he was our Saviour,
Led before unholy men falsely was indicted,
And, as prophets had foreseen, spat on, mocked, derided."

St. Matthew Passion - Die Matthaeus Passion

by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach - 1769


Ton Koopman - 2002


Among the most lasting musical impressions on the youthful Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach must have been the first performances of his father's St. Matthew Passion (1727? and 1729) in which he would have taken part, either as a singer or instrumentalist.  In 1750 he received the complete performing material - score and parts - as part of his inheritance.  It is hardly surprising that the work should have been specifically mentioned in an obituary, written jointly with his Berlin colleague and former pupil of his father Johann Friedrich Agricola, amongst the five Passions that the Leipzig music director and Thomaskirche organist supposedly left behind.  The St. Matthew Passion remained an insider tip among Bach's pupils and admirers, for although a performance of the monumental work could scarcely be realised in the 18th century, a surprising number of copies were made of it.  They formed an important stepping-stone to the glorious revival heralded by Felix Mendelssohn-Bardholdy's memorable performance of the work with the Berlin Sing-Akademie in the spring of 1829.

The post of Hamburg Music Director which Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach took over in 1767 from his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann resembled in many ways the position held by his own father in Leipzig for over a quarter of a century.  Certain that the provision of Passion and Eastertime music in the spring of 1768 would be his first official duty in Hamburg.  Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach turned to Georg Michael Telemann, grandson of his deceased predecessor who had interim responsibilities tor church music there, at the beginning of December 1767 requesting more information about the task facing him.  One of the most pressing questions was what kind of Passion music was performed there: "Is a Passion performed every year, and when?  Is it a historical rendering, with an Evangelist, in which all the characters appear in person, or does it rather assume a contemplative oratorio form in the style of  (the librettist) Ramler?"

Although the young Telemann's reply is lost, we do know from other sources that an oratorio-style Passion according to one of the Gospels was sung each year.  A tradition had been established since the late 17th century in which the Gospels were alternated, in the order Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, so that each one came round every four years.  Whereas the Passion music performance in Leipzig was shared between the two main churches, performed in the context of a newly created Good Friday Vespers and thus representing the culmination of the church year, in Hamburg all five main churches - St. Petri, St. Nikolai, St. Katharinen, St. Jakobi and St. Michaelis - had to be served.  Additionally, the organist was responsible for Passion music in the subsidiary churches so that, according to a report on church music reform dating from 1789, no less than ten performances within a few weeks were expected.  Despite the size of the Hamburg churches, the choirmaster had only seven singers and an orchestra of not more than 15 persons at his disposal

The Hamburg Dom in the 17th Century

The Hamburg Passions from the second half of the 18th century are modest in comparison to Johann Sebastian Bach's monumental works.  The biblical narrative is taken up much later than in the Leipzig Passions and ends immediately with Christ's death; the dramatic events thereafter and the Redeemer's burial were not set.  A certain pragmatism on the part of the Hamburg congregation was the main reason for this, as Johann Mattheson reported in 1756.  Passions were originally in two parts, framing the sermon, but since many worshipers only arrived in time for the sermon itself, the first half of the music was simply done away with.  their incorporation into regular Sunday services and the resulting brevity meant that the Hamburg Passions were not suitable for liturgical purposes elsewhere, explaining why Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's and Telemann's Passions remained practically unknown during the 18th century.  Luckily, the original manuscripts stayed long enough in the families before coming into the possession of discriminating collectors in the 19th century and finally ending up in libraries - the former royal library in Telemann's case and the Berlin Sing-Akademie in Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's case.

St. Michaelis church, Hamburg, build during the 17th century, the most beautiful Baroque church in North Germany


"Fuerwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit und lud auf sich unsere Schmerzen.
Christus, der uns selig macht, kein Boes's hat begangen,
Der ward fuer uns in der Nacht als ein Dieb gefangen.
Gefuehrt fuer gottlose Leut', und faelschlich verklaget,
Verlacht, verhoehnt und verspeit, wie denn die Schrift saget."

"Christe, du Lamm Gottes, der du traegst die Suende der Welt,
gib uns deinen Frieden!"

"Lord Jesus Christ, Lamb of God, 
who takest away the sins of the world, grant us Thy peace."

Ein besinnlicher Karfreitag.

Original German text of  C.P.E. Bach's history by Dr. Ulrich Leisinger
Translation: Roderick Shaw
Last image: Krypta Muenster Breisach


  1. Thank you for a most reverential and apropos Easter post. Blessings to you and yours.

  2. Wonderful post!! Thanks for assiting us in the reflection of this day. Be blessed.
    Angela and Renee