Bach's St. Matthew's Passion

by Alison Young, Minnesota Public Radio
April 21, 2011

St. Paul, Minn. — It all started in the Middle Ages.

Churches began re-retelling the story of Christ's crucifixion in music. It was simple at first; just chanted bible verses. But it would eventually become ambitious projects that underscored the passion of Jesus' death.

By the 1720, we get one of the greatest musicians who ever lived -- Johann Sebastian Bach -- writing one of the greatest monumental feats in all Western music, his St. Matthew Passion.

With two orchestras, double (and even at one point, triple!) choirs, and non-scriptural choruses and arias, this passion is exceptional even in the florid Baroque for its musical richness and grand scope.

It's long, but filled with interest -- musical textures that range from the simplest aria sung with just a couple of instruments to complex counterpoint.

Dramatically, we shift from the narration of the Evangelist to the actual words of Jesus and his disciples -- and then to reflections of individual followers.

In Bach's hands, the effect is one of a single, sustained meditation -- appropriate for Good Friday -- and for a work that was first performed as part of a church service.

Scholars believe the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion happened on Good Friday in 1727. And then 100 years passed and it was forgotten -- until a young Felix Mendelssohn presented it to grateful ears -- and the modern Bach revival was born, one that continues today.

You can follow along with the original score posted below, and read more about St. Matthew's Passion and check out the text of the piece here.

Download a PDF of the original manuscript here or here.

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