passion \pa-shun\ noun. [from the Latin passio, meaning suffering, being acted upon]

  1. often capitalized a:the sufferings of Christ between the night of the Last Supper and his death; b: an oratorio based on a gospel narrative of the Passion
  2. (obsolete): suffering
  3. a (1): emotion (2): plural: the emotions, as distinguished from reason; b: intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction; c: outbreak of anger
  4. a: ardent affection: LOVE b: a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept

The above definitions, adapted from Merrriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th edition), are just some of the many listed for the word “passion”. In our secular world, the first meaning of “passion” which usually comes to mind is the one listed under number 4 or 5 above, a definition related to intense emotion or love. The heading “Bach’s Passions” refers actually to the first definition, but the others are not unrelated. Bach’s Passions – there are three of them – are oratorios based on the gospel narrative of the Passion. But anyone who knows the Passion story knows that it is a tale filled with suffering; a tale filled with emotions, not reason; the ultimate tale of love and devotion.

The Passion Story

The Passion technically begins with the Last Supper the last Passover meal Christ shared with his disciples, on the night before he died. Christians commemorate the Last Supper every year on the feast of Holy Thursday (sometimes called Maundy Thursday). Some versions of the Passion begin earlier in the week, with Christ’s triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem; while this sets up the dramatic turn of events, as the jubilant welcome of Christ is abandoned for his death, it is technically not part of the Passion story.

There are four Passions in the Bible, corresponding to the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Bach set the Passion three times, using the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John as the sources for his inspiration. Of these, only the setting from St. Matthew and St. John survive; Bach’s St. Mark Passion was lost (a few pieces survive), and a setting of the Passion according to St. Luke was falsely attributed to him. Since the St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion are the ones which survive in their entireties, they will be the focus of these discussions.

The Passion according to St. Matthew is by far the longest. it is probably no surprise that Bach’s musical setting of this is also easily the longer of the two. (Bach’s family, in fact, called it “the great Passion” because of its enormous length.) Comparing the basic elements of the Passion story side-by-side, we can see where the Matthew and John accounts differ or agree:

St. Matthew (Chapters 26-27) St. John (Chapters 18-19)
1. The chief priests seek to destroy Jesus
2. Jesus is anointed with precious ointment
3. Judas plans the betrayal of Christ
The disciples prepare the Passover meal (the Last Supper)
5. the Last Supper
6. The Agony in the Garden
7. The arrest of Jesus 1. The arrest of Jesus
8. The hearing before high priest Caiaphas 2. Jesus is led before Annas
9. Peter’s denial of Christ, and his remorse. 3. Peter’s denial
10. Judas’ repentance and death 4. The hearing before Caiaphas
11. The trial before Pontius Pilate 5. The trial before Pontius Pilate
12. Soldiers crown Jesus with thorns, mocking him 6. Soldiers mock Jesus
13. Crucifixion 7. Crucifixion
14. Death of Jesus, followed by an earthquake 8. Death of Jesus
15. Descent from the Cross; Christ’s burial 9. Descent from the Cross; Christ’s burial
16. Chief priests demand the tomb be sealed

Although the overall scope of St. Matthew’s story is broader, individual scenes in St. John’s version are longer, most notably, Christ’s trial before Pilate.

The Passion in Music Prior to Bach

The tradition of setting the Passion story to music is almost as old as the gospels themselves. From the earliest times of formalized church music, the Passions were chanted by the priests. Since the texts are so long, many large portions of the Passion were performed on a reciting tone, where the words were sung rapidly without a set rhythm and without changing pitch. This kind of music would look like this in our modern notation:

BWV 244 Example 1

Later, composers wrote Gregorian chants to the texts of the Passion. Sometimes, different singers would represent different characters: Jesus Christ, Pontius Pilate, Judas, Peter. Since the Passion is read several times during Holy Week – the week before Easter, beginning with Palm Sunday (sometimes called Passion Sunday), there were and are numerous occasions for musical and dramatic re-tellings of the tale. In fact, as time passed, the Passion productions became more and more elaborate, and increasingly more dramatic, sometimes so much so that they had to be moved out of the church, since these productions involved the use of the vernacular, props, costumes, and acting.

But, officially, the Church likes the dramatic productions of Passions, even when they involved laymen (not clergy), since the church was not only a place of worship, but also a common meeting place and the center for the community.

As music evolved, so did the composition of Passions. In the Renaissance (c. 1400-1600), some composers alternated polyphonic choruses with Gregorian chant, reserving the chanted numbers for soloists who represented the Evangelist or Christ, while the chorus would represent the crowd. Later in the Renaissance, some composers created a particular genre of the Passion called a “motet Passion”. In a motet Passion, the entire text is sung by an a cappella choir – essentially, it is a long series of motets. The problem with this genre of Passion was that the same texture and timbre was used for everything, so individual characters in the story could not be developed or distinguished by the music. This is the most unrealistic of the musical Passion settings.

In creating his Passions, Bach drew on parts of these traditions, plus the musical practices common to his day, including the use of basso continuo, recitative, and a colorful orchestra.

The St. Matthew Passion was composed for use at the Thomaskirche on Good Friday, 1729. Bach used the entire Passion story as it appears in the Gospel of Matthew in Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible. Although he did not omit any portions of the story, his librettist – the Leipzig poet C.F. Henrici (1700-1764), who used the pseudonym Picander – interpolated a number of poetic texts into the Biblical texts.

There were essentially eight categories of influences and compositional devices that affected the composition of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. These can be summarized as follows:

  1. The Doctrine of Affections: which stated that music had an emotional effect on people, and that a single movement or piece of music should attempt to reflect or create in the listener’s mind one and only one emotion.
  2. Word-painting vs. lyric reflection: Word-painting occurs when the music directly reflects what is stated in the text. For example, when the text mentions “heaven”, the music get higher. Lyric reflection means the text is contemplating, without the use of word-painting, the meaning of some actions that were previously described.
  3. Stile antico: Literally, the old style. That is, the polyphonic style of writing found in the late Renaissance.
  4. Stile nuovo: literally, the new style. Specifically, this means the use of recitative.
  5. Basso continuo: The basso continuo is a major feature of Baroque music and is present in virtually every movement in the St. Matthew Passion. But when it’s missing, it is just as significant.
  6. Use of obbligato instruments: Obbligato means “Obligatory”. You must play this part. Obbligato instrumental parts are independent melodic lines played by instruments (that is, they are different from what is being sung at the same time). The inclusion of obbligato parts make the texture much thicker and more complex.
  7. Use of both biblical and poetic texts
  8. Every genre known in Bach’s day: there are recitatives, da capo arias, other types of arias, choruses, chorales, chorale fantasias, ariosos, and many more.

Since the St. Matthew Passion is such a monstrous work (remember, even Bach’s family called it the “great Passion”), we cannot make general summaries about the musical content. Rather, we will look at some notable representative pieces for each of the eight categories listed above.

The first piece to examine is the soprano aria “Aus Liebe” (No. 49). This is one of the most famous pieces from the St. Matthew Passion. The entire text and English translation appear below:

Aus Liebe,
Aus Lieve will mein Heiland sterben,
Von einer Sünde weiß er nichts.
Daß das ewige Verderben
Und die Strafe des Gerichts
Nicht auf meiner Seele Bliebe
For love,
for love my Savior is now dying,
Of sin and guilt He knows not.
So eternal desolation
And the Sinner’s righteous doom
Shall not rest upon my spirit

It is a short text, which Bach stretches out over nearly five minutes of music. In this, we see the following influences (described above):

  • Poetic text, rather than Biblical
  • Lyric reflection and word painting
  • Use of obbligato instruments
  • Basso continuo
  • Use of several different genres in one piece

Let me explain. Obviously, the text is poetic, not derived from the Bible. It is the singer’s lyric reflection, in a luxurious, slow-paced solo, on the image of Christ nailed to the Cross just before he dies. The fact that there are some lengthy melismas is an indication that this is a lyric movement. The melismas are placed carefully on important words to give them emphasis, in particular the words “Liebe” (love) and “sterben” (to die). Thus, Bach links forever those two words: because of God’s love, he forces His Son to die. Bach also adds a melisma on the word “ewig” (forever), giving it more length, as forever lasts longer. This is an example of word-painting – when the music reflects the specific words at that moment.

There are additional examples of word-painting within this short movement. For example, twice on the word “sterben” (die), Bach writes a prominent tritone (in each case, written as an augmented fourth) – the most dissonant interval in the Western tonal system, known to Medieval musicians as “diavolo in musicus” (the devil in music) – a leap from C up to F#. This is then followed by the descending passage D#, C, A. The combination spells out a fully-diminished seventh chord, the most dissonant chord in tonal music. You can see this passage below, in the soprano line:

BWV 244 Example 2

This is the ultimate example of word painting in the St. Matthew Passion, and perhaps the most subtle. Look at the score:

BWV 244 Example 3

At the same time, the two oboes da caccia play always the same rhythm, providing a chordal structure beneath the solo soprano and solo flute, so they assume the role that the continuo group would otherwise have. This means that we can interpret this piece as having three basic parts: two melody parts (solo flute and solo voice), and a chord group. Therefore, we can think of this piece as being a trio sonata, one of the most popular genres of Bach’s day. (A trio sonata has two melody parts and a bass group, which provides chord structures.) What genres, then, are part of this piece? Well, it is obviously an aria, and a trio sonata. And with the opening and closing flute solos, one could look at this as also being a sort of flute sonata! What a genius was Bach! A sort of musical magician, throwing all these seemingly disparate elements into his musical hat and pulling out a magnificent work of art.

The second piece for us to examine occurs fairly late in the Passion, but at a crucial moment in the story. This is the recitative No. 63a-b for tenor and chorus entitled “Und siehe da”. The tenor here represents the Evangelist (Matthew) and acts as narrator. The text from the Bible (Matthew 27:51-58) is as follows:

And behold, the veil of the temple was ripped in two, from the top to the bottom, and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent. And the graves were opened, and there arose many bodies of the saints which had slept, and came out of the graves after His resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying: “Truly this was the Son of God.”

This is a very dramatic movement; the drama is caused in large part by Bach’s combination again of several of the influences described above. The tenor here is the Evangelist (Matthew), drawing on the older Passion tradition of having a single singer present the Evangelist. Immediately from his first words, the bass line lashes out in a furious series of scalar runs, representing bolts of lightening hurling across the sky and down to the earth below. The bass line “settles” on a rapid tremolo (the rapid repetition of a single pitch), signifying the trembling earth, as the tenor prepares to sing the words “Und die Erde erbete (and the earth did quake).” This tremolo gradually ascends chromatically, signifying both the ongoing tremors and the unsettled feeling the soldiers and other observers certainly must have had at seeing this terrifying sight before them. Here is the score for this recitative:

BWV 244 Example 4

This recitative ends with the crowd saying, “Truly this was the Son of God”. Immediately, the recitative merges with a brief chorus, where the entire chorus represents the multitude of people watching the crucifixion. This itself is another example of word painting. The entire mood, however, has changed, and is surprisingly quiet, reflecting the awe the crowd doubtless felt in this scene. Although it is only two measures long, this passage is also more stable, clearly written in the key of A-flat major. While that choice of key might not mean anything, the fact that it is stable is an indication of the certainly of the crowd’s statement: truly this was the Son of God.

BWV 244 Example 5