Last night – Lenten fare. Stanford’s Schola Cantorum performed Johann Sebastian Bach‘s St. Matthew Passion, widely considered to be the master composition of the entire Western canon. I attended the performance at Stanford’s magnificent Memorial Church with a friend – and with a good many others, too, since it looked to be a sold-out performance.
In my googlings, I found this lively and informative post from Princeton’s Bernard Chazelle at “A Tiny Revolution”:
“Bach thought highly of his St. Matthew Passion. He called it his best work. Alas, few of his contemporaries shared the sentiment. After a performance in St. Thomas Church on Good Friday, 1735, the powers-that-be in Leipzig whispered into Bach’s ear that, as long as he kept that theatrical crap out of the Lord’s House, everything would be all right. He took the hint and applied for a job in Dresden, 70 miles away, submitting his Mass in B Minor as part of his application package. He was turned down. Perhaps that’s because Dresden had high standards and, after all, the Mass in B Minor is considered by many to be only the second greatest composition in Western music. The greatest? For Seiji Ozawa, it is ‘without a doubt, the St. Matthew Passion.’
Bach’s two surviving passions (the other two were lost! Imagine literature without Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet…) fell into oblivion after a couple of performances. They were too hard, too long, too demanding, too operatic for Lutheran sensitivities. Ignoring friendly advice, Mendelssohn re-premiered the St. Matthew Passion 100 years later. By doing so, he invented what we term ‘classical music’ today, i.e., the modern view of a concert hall as both a school and a mausoleum. Music had never before looked to the past. On that day in 1829, Bach became immortal. …
Bach made it very clear he was writing neither for humans nor for posterity. He was writing ‘for God.’ (If I lost 10 children, as he did, maybe I’d be doing the same thing, too.) He never gave in to any pressure to appeal to the local musical tastes. He was a big, tough guy, who was known to brawl in bars in his youth. He was even jailed once. When the local authorities threatened to block his promotion (which they did) if he didn’t “simplify” his music, his only reply to them was a loud ‘Screw you!’ Bach was fearless. But his Leipzig years were not happy ones. He had a much easier life composing for the Court (as the Brandenburg concertos make it very clear). But he chose to move to Leipzig to work for the church and take a huge salary cut. That was his own decision: a very Coltrane-like spiritual awakening. Sure, he was convinced his music was superior, but it’s fascinating to hear his reasoning: ‘My music is better because I work harder. Anyone who works as hard as me will write music that is just as good.’ At least the first sentence is partly true: he did work harder than anyone. It took him one year to write the St. Matthew Passion, and it was performed only twice in his lifetime. It’s humbling to think I’ve listened to it more often than Bach himself.”
Humbling for Humble Moi as well. However, I’m ashamed to admit to my barbarism: last night was the first occasion I have ever listened to it, beginning to end, with the libretto in hand. It’s quite an experience, and an exhausting one – not only because it is three-and-a-quarter hours long (actually, longer than that last night).
The composition, with all its interspersed hymns, entreaties, and prayers, reminds me of one of those Flemish paintings a few centuries before Bach – say, the Crucifixion triptych of Rogier Van der Weyden – where an event is witnessed by the painter’s pious contemporaries. Usually the donors, often with supernumerary saints, are kneeling or rapturously praying among the Biblical figures. They are in, but not of, the event. And in their role inside and outside of time, they invite you to join them, in witness. Bach’s Passion forces you back on yourself, to take a position about the music, the ideas, the words you are hearing – and not just to think about them, of course, but to feel them, so the pondering and the pity transform you in the process. (That’s one reason why the program notes’ generic words about how the composition “speaks to us of conscience, courage, compassion, acceptance, and hope” are so impossibly banal.)
I’ve always been especially fond of the haunting “Blute Nur,” and to a lesser extent the final bass aria, “Mache Dich.” But in later years, I’ve been especially attentive to the “Erbarme Dich” – not because Yehudi Menuhin called it the most beautiful piece of music ever written for the violin (Bernard Chazelle has lots to say about this aria, too). My reason lies in the words of Adam Zagajewski.
The Polish poet wrote in his Another Beauty: “When asked if European music has a core, that is, if one work or another might be called its heart, B. answered, “Yes, of course, the aria ‘Erbarme Dich’ from Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew.’”
While corresponding with Adam Z. in 2006, I asked him to elaborate, fully expecting him to dodge behind the alias “B.” But he didn’t: “Erbarme Dich – Bach represents the center and the synthesis of the western music. To say, as I did, that this particular aria is the center of western music is a leap of faith, of course. I couldn’t prove it. I love this aria.”