The German Passion Tradition
Bach’s settings of the Passion are so much more well known than any others that it would not be surprising if some people imagined that he invented the form – in fact the first examples date from over 500 years ago. The story of Christ’s Passion during Holy Week being chanted from the Gospel as the priest’s voice carried better than in speech in large resonant buildings. The next development was the use of different voices representing the story teller (Evangelist) and the various characters. These early settings were sung in plainchant but were followed by compositions that used an unaccompanied chorus to represent the crowds, priests and wider observations; examples were Victoria in Spain Byrd in England and Lassus in the Netherlands. At this stage everything was sung in Latin. In the early 16th Century books of hymns (chorales) appeared in the vernacular and Luther’s translation into German resulted in composers setting the story for audiences that expected to hear and understand the words. Styles developed with the increased use of different instruments and varying voice textures.
Upon this stage strode JS Bach with firstly his St John Passion (1723) and then the St Matthew Passion in 1729. The St Matthew Passion is a work of beautifully balanced proportions, in which the lyrical interpolations are blended with the Gospel story to achieve perfect artistic unity. It consists of a series of short dramatic tableaux, interspersed at significant points with devotional meditations. In most cases the reflective solo arias are preceded by short ariosa recitatives that comment directly on the scene just enacted, providing a link between dramatic narrative and lyrical arias.
Bach’s use of two separate choruses of both voices and instruments allowed him to provide a wide range of colour and tone, from quiet accompaniment to soloist, though large set-piece chorales, to high energy antiphonal numbers when the crowd either mocks and chides, or shares the shock of Jesus’s betrayal and capture. The dedicated continuo group of chamber organ (later harpsichord) and cello provides the Evangelist with an intimate setting within which to tell the story, and this is contrasted with the responses from Jesus – always accompanied by a full string group.
After Bach’s death in 1750 the musical initiative passed fro stern Lutheran Germany to the Catholic south of Europe – notably the Viennese school of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert – who naturally wrote for the latin texts of the Mass and the Requiem. When Mendelssohn revived the St Matthew Passion (exactly a century after its first performance in Leipzig) all contact had been lost with the older cultures and the musicians were astonished by the revelation of the hidden treasures of the past. It took another 150 years to reach what most musicologists regard as the appropriate tempi and style that Bach would have recognized – his use of dance rhythms and inner fugues, the urgent flow of the narrative and the use of modest instrumental and vocal forces rather than the huge orchestras and choruses so often used.
We have chosen to use a contemporary English version of the work by Neil Jenkins – the first major review since that by Elgar/Atkins in the early years of last century. The choice of English was made for the same reason that Bach originally set the work in German – to allow the maximum impact and understanding not only by the audience, but also the musicians.
The choice of venue was also important – St Stephens Church possesses the best combination of acoustics and sight lines of any Guernsey church, it has sufficient area between the alter and the audience seating to comfortably suit the small forces. There is an fine re-built organ that has the unique asset of choir stops that sound in the choir area. A recently refurbished hearing loop widens the enjoyment of the work to the hard of hearing.