Entering the Story of Holy Week
Entering the Story of Holy Week
Bach's St. Matthew Passion
Come, Daughters. Help me lament...
Before it is anything else, Christianity is a story. The story of a God moved by love to give himself in love. And in his greatest masterpiece, Bach artfully invites us into that story.
On her essay on Glenn Packiam's blog Mystery of Faith, Terri Moon, a highly skilled and educated musician writes the following...
"Altogether, the St. Matthew Passion of Bach is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of classical sacred music, and Bach possibly the greatest composer of any kind of music that has ever lived. But his music is not just any kind of music, it is Christian music, expressing a deeply personal faith, born out of Luther’s Reformation and one of the highest artistic achievements of his time period. Bach fleshed out Martin Luther’s idea that the way we worship forms what we believe, not the reverse. His gift to us includes the original congregational song, instead of the exclusively Latin music sung only by the choir of pre-Reformation days. Is this not the heritage of the church even today? It speaks to us across the centuries, and even challenges modern skepticism. One of the world’s most noted living conductors who specializes in Bach’s music, John Eliot Gardiner, has spent a lifetime studying Bach and authored the book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. An agnostic, he says he comes close to becoming a Christian when he performs Bach...."
John Eliot Gardner makes an important point: this piece of music is powerfully moving because it inhabits the story of the Triduum (the three days leading up to Jesus' death). Bach does not blugeon us over the head with doctrines or creeds, but instead invites into the story of Christ's final days. In that story, we feel a pungent reality. Something in seems like enough to account for the aches and pains and beauties of the world.
So, whether you are a believer, someone who knows this story as your own, or not a believer, but perhaps see some value in this story, or someone who wishes they could believe but struggles, I, with Bach, invite you into this story. In my opinion, it is the best story ever told.
St Matthew Passion - Gardiner
This version of the Passion is the one I played in parts of the podcast. It is a masterful version. You can also find it on iTunes; it is well worth the purchase! Below are some guides to listening to it, along with Terri's full essay...
Elements of the Passion...
1. Recitatives: The recitatives are simple melodies sung by one person. In the passion they include the text taken directly from Matthew 24-26. They are my least favourite part, but they are important because they relay the events of the passion of Jesus, without which everything else would be meaningless.
2. Chorales: The chorales are a very important part of this piece. Bach has two choirs assigned for the St Matthew Passion, allowing for complex overlapping harmonies. The chorales represent the congregations, and more broadly, humanity's response to the story of Jesus. It allows space for contemplation and reflection upon the events of the Passion. Most famous of these is the beautiful hymn "Oh Sacred Head Sore Wounded."
3. Arias: The Arias are solos which act as emotional and personal responses to the events of Jesus's death. They try to capture an emotion. In that, they model for us how this story is not only about Jesus's love in general, but his love for each one of us specifically. My favourite is attached below. (And yes, I too was shocked to hear that voice come so beautifully out of a man).
In the rush and busy-ness of this season, I hope that you can experience the breadth and depth of God's gentle love for you. I hope to take time to soak in the beauty of this piece, and, more importantly the reality to which it points.
Much love! And a beautiful Holy Week to you all!