The History of the J.S. Bach St Matthew Passion

If Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel is to be believed, Bach set the St Matthew Passion twice, once in Weimar, where he was resident from 1708 – 1717 under the patronage of the Duke of Weimar, and once in Leipzig. C.P.E. Bach, in his father’s obituary of 1751, makes reference to five settings of the Passion, two of Matthew, two of John and one of Mark. The score of a setting of the St Luke Passion in Bach’s hand does exist. It is thought, however, that he did not compose this, but merely copied it for the purposes of performing it. Only the Leipzig settings of the John (1724) and Matthew (1727) survive. The manuscript for the earlier St Matthew Passion was discovered amongst the possessions of C.P.E. Bach after his death in 1790, but has subsequently been lost. The manuscript for the Leipzig St Matthew is currently in the Berlin library, where it has been since 1841. It is Bach’s longest work, and also the one which calls for the largest array of performing forces he ever used in a single composition.

Composed in 1727 for performance at the service of Good Friday vespers in St Thomas’s, the St Matthew Passion was written to exploit fully the acoustic possibilities of the building, which had two organs, in two organ galleries, directly opposite each other on either side of the nave at a distance of about 80 feet and a height of about 60 feet. The two choirs and continuo players were placed one in each gallery. At ground level, one to the east and one to the west, were the two orchestras. One can only imagine how thrilling a sound this must have been – the antiphonal effects of both choir and orchestra coming not only from opposing sides of the building, but also from ground level and high up. The congregation, seated in the pews in the middle of all of this, would have heard this work in true stereophony. The singers and instrumentalists were all male, women having no access to active participation in religious or liturgical ceremonies. The soloists were drawn from the boys and men of St Thomas’s church choir. According to the payroll records at St Thomas’s, the original performance would have had a total of about 30 singers, divided between the two choirs, making a total of about 60 performers including the instrumentalists. 

After its first performance Bach gave further performances on the Good Fridays of 1729, 1736 and 1744. Inconceivable as it may seem, there was little interest in Bach’s music after his death in 1750 as the new, fashionable, classical style emerged and the musical focus switched to Vienna. Even towards the end of his own lifetime, Bach’s style was considered by some to be outdated and turgid. Numerous criticisms appeared in print in the late 1730s and 1740s, written by various Leipzig journalists and musicians, accusing Bach of being “out of touch” and “too serious”. It is revealing to note that C.P.E. Bach, during the last twenty years of his life spent as Kappelmeister in Hamburg’s five principal churches (a position very similar to his father’s in Leipzig), chose not to perform a single work written by his father. 

The St Matthew Passion lay dormant until 1829, when the nineteen-year-old Mendelssohn gave a performance of it in Berlin, directing over 400 singers and instrumentalists from the piano, in a fund raising performance for, of all things, the Berlin Sewing School for Indigent Girls. It is presumed that Mendelssohn, a native of Hamburg and student at the Berlin Singakademie, exhumed the work from Christian Zelter, Principal of the Singakademie, who had acquired some of Bach’s scores from St Thomas’s. Mendelssohn’s concert was a huge success. He directed several more performances of it in the following weeks, and within a few months the first printed editions of the work were published, subsequently prompting an enduring revival of interest in the works of Bach. It was not until 1841, again under the baton of Mendelssohn, and rescored by him in places to include clarinets and some brass in order to meet the expectations of the German Romantic public, that the work was performed again in Leipzig.

William Sterndale Bennett formed the Bach Society (later reformed as the London Bach Choir) in 1849 with the sole intention of introducing this work to the English public. Helen Johnston (a student at Queen's College London) translated the libretto, and Bennett conducted the first British performance at the Hanover Square Rooms London on 6th April 1854.

The first recording of the St Matthew Passion was issued on 78 r.p.m. discs in Leipzig in 1941. On this occasion the text had to be shortened and altered to satisfy the demands of the Nazi Party. 

The first performance in Scotland was in St Machar’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, on Tuesday 2nd April 1912. Easter Sunday was on 7th April that year (exactly one week before the sinking of the Titanic).  

This concert has been planned deliberately to mark this centenary. 

Notes by Peter Parfitt ©2012 Aberdeen Bach Choir

⇐ Music of the Bach St Matthew Passion