St. Matthew Passion

   , Johann Sebastian Bach, BWV 244
   Scored for double four-voice choir, vocal soloists, and a double orchestra of strings, continuo and obbligato instruments: flutes, oboes, oboes d’amore, oboes da caccia, and viola da gamba. The 78 separate numbers are divided into Parts I and II and require over two and one-half hours to perform. Johann Sebastian Bach’s own family members referred to the work as "the great passion." Felix Mendelssohn believed it "the greatest of all Christian works," and most critics consider it the greatest exemplar of the passion tradition. The libretto presents two kinds of text: the Gospel narrative from chapter 26 through chapter 27 and poetic commentary by Picander (pen name of Christian Friedrich Henrici, 1700–1764). Bach sets these to four kinds of music: recitative for the Gospel, except where speeches by the Apostles or the crowd require a "madrigal" chorus; arioso for the poetry immediately reacting to the Gospel passages; followed immediately by an aria for more reflective commentary; and simple, four-voice chorale settings for poems that express a more collective response. Thus the passion story is punctuated by spiritual reflection expressed through poetry and music of great variety at every episode. The entire action is framed by three massive choral numbers at the very beginning, at the end of Part I, and at the end of Part II that bring the level of exegesis to that of Christ’s sacri-fice considered in toto.
   Evidence suggests that Bach first performed the St. Matthew Passion as part of a Good Friday vespers on 11 April 1727, Parts I and II surrounding a sermon. He revised the entire score in 1736, and this is the version that is almost always performed today. The work was entirely neglected after Bach’s death until Mendelssohn’s revival in Berlin on 11 March 1829. Most of the arias were left out, but this performance nevertheless ignited the explosive Bach revival of the mid-19th century.
   See also St. John Passion.

Historical dictionary of sacred music. . 2006.

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