PROGRAM NOTES  by Donald Draganski

for the June 3, 2001 concert of the North Shore Choral Society


The earliest appearance of the Passion liturgy dates back to the fourth century.  (The word comes from the Latin pati, passus, to suffer.)  The bare Gospel accounts which had hitherto been read as lessons were now recited and chanted during Holy Week, with several members of the clergy assigned to portray the roles of various characters in the narrative. 


A parallel development can be traced to the medieval guild “mystery” plays which by the 13th century began to incorporate the Passion story into its dramatic presentations.  This tradition survives today in Bavaria at the Oberammergau festival. 


These two traditions gradually began to coalesce, and by the fifteenth century simple plainchant tones in the Church gave way to elaborate dramatic presentations.  With the advent of the Reformation, Lutheran composers began integrating vernacular chorales into the service.  The vocal writing became more and more ornate as operatic conventions began to insinuate themselves into church music. 


This incipient theatricality led to greater elaboration and interpolations; indeed, by the time of Bach, the Oratorio Passion consisted not only of the actual Gospel texts, but also included non-Biblical meditations (usually written by some local versifier), as well as choral melodies, instrumental interludes, and all of the other devices and decorations that typify vocal music of the High Baroque.  This sumptuousness was not always received with favor, particularly by worshipers accustomed to a more austere form of service, especially during Holy Week.  The following account from 1732 describes how one congregation reacted to a performance of a fairly elaborate Passion setting:


When in a large town this Passion music was done for the first time, with many violins, many oboes, bassoons, and other instruments, many people were astonished and did not know what to make of it.  In the pew of a noble family in church, many Ministers and Noble Ladies were present, who sang the first Passion Chorale out of their books with great devotion.  But when this theatrical music began, all the people were thrown into the greatest bewilderment, looked at each other, and said: “What will come of this?”  An old widow of the nobility said: “God save us, my children!  It’s just as if one were at an Opera Comedy!”  Indeed, everyone was genuinely displeased by it and voiced just complaints against it. 


Despite these objections, dramatic intensity was not to be denied, and the Passion as a quasi-theatrical piece became very much the norm.  Nineteenth century oratorios by Beethoven (Christ on the Mount of Olives), Spohr (The Last Hour of Our Saviour) and Stainer (Crucifixion) were, notwithstanding their concert venue, very much part of the Passion tradition.  In our own century there has been a return to more understated settings.  Distler’s Choral-Passion and Pepping’s St. Matthew Passion harken back to earlier models, while the Luke Passion of Penderecki takes on a new dramatic intensity, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar revives the tradition of flamboyant theatricality.




Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) composed no less than five Passions, if we are to believe a 1754 obituary prepared by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel.  Two versions survive: the Matthäuspassion and the Johannespassion.  Of the St. Mark setting, only the text survives, while most of the Luke Passion is now considered to be spurious.  (We know nothing about the fifth Passion mentioned by Carl Philipp.)  Considering the great care that Bach took in preserving the two surviving versions and his evident neglect of the others, we needn’t concern ourselves unduly over any serious loss.  We can take heart from the fact that throughout his professional life Bach made a practice of re-using music material, and we can safely assume that he dismantled and recycled any lost Passion music that he considered worth saving into his two hundred-plus Church Cantatas.


The Matthew Passion, the later of Bach’s two surviving settings, was first performed in 1727, at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.  It was presented again in 1729, 1736, and 1742, alternating during these years with other Passion settings.  Performances during Bach’s time were limited to a force of not more than thirty-four singers and thirty instrumentalists.  The Passions were customarily cast in two parts, separated by a lengthy sermon.  Unlike the earlier John Passion which sticks to the Gospel narrative very closely, the Matthew Passion is more contemplative as it follows the meditative poetry of Picander’s text.  The tenor voice, accompanied by a bare basso continuo, takes on the duties of the Evangelist as narrator.  The voice of Jesus, by contrast, always appears with a sustained accompaniment of strings, suggesting the aural equivalent of a halo. 


If there is any single work of Bach that sums up his life’s work, the Matthew Passion easily accedes to that honor.  In a surviving manuscript, Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena, refers to the score as belonging to “zur gross Passion,” a fair indication that the family circle was well aware of the importance of this work.  Bach draws on the full repertoire of forms found in the music of his day, both sacred and secular.  He incorporates a lifetime of harmonic experimentation as evidenced by the wide-ranging choice of keys throughout this work, and he enriches his tone palette with a full spectrum of instrumental sonorities




Bach’s posthumous reputation rested primarily on his keyboard music; we know that Beethoven was trained on the Well-Tempered Klavier, and in 1802 Johann Forkel was already referring to Bach’s keyboard music as a “national treasure.”  His unaccompanied Motets had also been published; otherwise, the remaining body of his vocal music was largely unknown outside of Leipzig.  The turning point came with Felix Mendelssohn’s revival of the Matthew Passion.


Mendelssohn, while still a student, had become familiar with several of Bach’s large-scale choral works by examining manuscript copies that were in the possession of his teacher, Carl Zelter.  Mendelssohn was captivated by what he discovered and, sharing his enthusiasm over these discoveries with his friend, the actor Eduard Devrient, the two arranged (over Zelter’s initial objections) for a full-scale presentation of the Matthew Passion.  The performance was subsequently given in 1829, almost eighty years after Bach’s death, with the twenty-year-old Mendelssohn conducting the Berlin Singakademie.  Devrient, in his published recollections, conveys the impact of this performance on our perception of Bach today:


Our concert made an extraordinary sensation in the educated circles of Berlin.  The resuscitating of the popular effect created by a half-forgotten genius was felt to be of epochal import.  All the world of today knows how the sensation made by these performances caused other towns to make similar attempts; how the other Passions of Bach were taken in hand; how attention was then turned upon the instrumental production of the old master; how they were published, made into bravura pieces for concert use, etc.  The worshipers of Bach, however, must not forget that this new cult of Bach dates from March 11, 1829, and that it was Felix Mendelssohn who gave new vitality to the greatest and most profound of composers.


Copyright © 2001 by Donald Draganski