At this Easter season a friend told me about a fine performance of Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion" he had heard. I have played continuo in the piece so often that I hadn’t thought much about it in recent years; a kind of surfeit has set in. And I can’t say it’s my favorite work by the Thomascantor, in spite of the series of masterpieces it contains. On the whole, I prefer the other surviving Passion, the less austere, more intimate and moving "St. John".
But for some reason – possibly related to the fact that I had just turned 70 (“officially old", according to the most candid of my daughters) and had gone all reflective – I recalled a moment during a performance under Gustav Leonhardt some time in the 1980’s. It was in the Grote Kerk in Naarden, during the yearly series of four Passions held there by the Dutch Bach Society since time immemorial. It’s a national institution; the royals and their cabinet of government ministers are expected attend, whether they like it or not. Leonhardt himself had been involved in Naarden since his youth, having grown up in the neighborhood and taken organ lessons with one of the society’s leading lights. I was first married in the pretty little Renaissance town hall across the street, with Mr. Leonhardt as my best man.
The choice of the location for the yearly event possibly had to do with the massacre of the population perpetrated within the walls of the church by the Spanish during the 80 Years War. It was the original “Spanish Fury”. A Protestant church was not a place of refuge, or even of divine worship, in the eyes of Catholic soldiers. The opposite was true as well, of course, and killing in the name of God (or gods) was practiced by all sects of most religions; a divine plague which continues to this day, and will continue until poor humanity’s rapidly-approaching end.
The moment I recalled had to do with what I have always though is the oddest movement in the work: the final chorus of Part I, on the chorale “O Mensch bewein dein Sünde groß”. It is a massive Choralbearbeitung, with simple statements of the melody in the soprano, harmonized in eighth notes in the other voices of the combined double choirs. The boys’ choir in ripieno joins in the melody. The lines of the chorale are punctuated by extremely elaborate orchestral interludes. The eight-note rhythm is strong in these, too, either staccato or slurred in three-voice phrases. The other thematic element in the accompaniment consists of lines of 16ths, slurred two by two, either linear or in a “cross motif” – one where lines drawn between the leaps yield a cross.
The weight and complexity of the accompaniment in comparison to the relatively simple contribution of the chorus is extraordinary. I think it serves to emphasize the text. During a break in rehearsals I asked Mr. Leonhardt what he thought about it. He admitted he was puzzled by the deeper meaning of the layout, but told me he had been surprised to learn recently that scholars now thought the piece derived from a lost Passion composed in Weimar, years before the first Leipzig version. We both agreed that, in its rather abstract quality, it felt like a much later work.
As I listened to the piece on each of the four performance days, I was increasingly struck by the eighth-note pulse that dominates the whole. It sounded like the ticking of a clock. Then I noticed the final, climactic lines of the text:
Bis sich die Zeit herdrange
Dass er für uns geopfert würd’,
Trug unsrer Sünden schwerer Bürd
Wohl an dem Kreuze lange.
“Bis sich die Zeit herdrange dass er für uns geopfert würd’ " are lines of incredible power, and difficult to translate; "until Time thrust itself to the moment when [Christ] was offered up for us,” is the best I can do. The emphasis is on “time”. I suddenly realized that this was the textual starting-point of the movement’s composition, what the old Figurenlehre called the locus topicus (a tautology: both words mean the same thing and were never used together by the sources from Antiquity which German Baroque theory was trying to use as a springboard). “O Mensch” is a huge clock ticking away “bis sich die Zeit herdrange…”. The stepwise sixteenths represent the road to the cross. It all ends, after the chromatic intensity of the crucifixion, with the final brief ritornello coming to an abrupt halt on a staccato eighth note, like a watch that needs to be rewound – which has, so to speak, died. It might be worth considering whether a tempo of 60 quarter notes per minute – clock tempo – was what the composer had in mind. Nowadays it is always taken much faster – too fast, like pretty much everything else is.
In the interval on that day I went to the soloist’s room to communicate my great discovery to Mr. Leonhardt. He was bantering with the singers, and an overly-excited intrusion by the lowly continuo player (one of two, in fact) was not welcome. My former teacher listened, clearly irritated, to what I had to say, but was disappointingly non-committal. “Goed, goed,” was all I got, followed by a gesture of dismissal. That was disappointing, but probably to be expected under the circumstances.
I’m still quite convinced I’m right about Bach’s intention, and have since been smug about my secret knowledge every time I played along in the Mattäeus. If the tremendous choral-orchestral work was in fact composed in Weimar it can be seen as an outgrowth of Bach's organ chorales, so many of which were composed there. No wonder Bach wanted to re-use it later in Leipzig. It could never have been surpassed.
Tag der Arbeit, 2022