St. Matthew Passion

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Johann Sebastian Bach

The Passion According to Saint Matthew (also referred to as St. Matthew Passion, German Matthäus-Passion) is the monumental passion by J. S. Bach considered to be one of the pillars of Western musical culture. Requiring two orchestras, two choirs, six vocal soloists, and over three hours to perform, it has nonetheless achieved a lasting popularity in English-speaking and especially in German-speaking countries. It was first performed in Leipzig on Good Friday, 1727 or 1729.

History and Overview

For a more detailed treatment, see passion (music).

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Crucifixion.

Musical settings of the story of the Passion of Jesus taken from the four Gospels had been part of church liturgy during Holy Week from the earliest times and from the 13th century had taken on some dramatic content with the use of different solo voices for the various characters, supported by choruses for the crowd and disciples. Lutheran settings in northern Germany by the time of Bach had developed into a form of oratorio, presented in the vernacular where chorales, and other settings of devotional texts and even instrumental passages were introduced between the strictly scriptural text passages taken from the appropriate Gospel.

Bach composed five settings of the Passions. One, St. Mark, is lost; there are doubts as to the authenticity St. Luke; and there are references to a single choir version of St Matthew that no longer exists. Only St. John, first performed in 1724, and St. Matthew survive.

The St John Passion had been considered too theatrical, and this aspect was “toned down” in St. Matthew. The work is still extremely large scale however, and is scored for the following:

  • Two four-part choruses (choirs) - with an additional treble (or frequently these days, women's) choir for the initial movement. (One or other of these choirs sing the roles of the disciples, followers and unite for the "crowd" and the various chorales throughout the work.)
  • Two orchestras, each comprising strings, pairs of flutes and oboes, a bassoon with organ with other parts requiring three types of oboe, two recorders and a viola da gamba. (This orchestration has changed over the years with performances by modern much larger symphony orchestras using then unknown instruments such as the clarinet.)
  • Soloists comprise the “Evangelist” (narrator) a tenor, Jesus (bass) and additional soprano, alto (or contralto) tenor and bass who sing the roles of other characters as required – Pilate, Judas, Joseph of Arimathea etc.,

The text is taken from Martin Luther’s translation of the gospel according to Matthew, interspersed with arias, recitatives and choruses contemplating the events taking place and appropriate chorales – these already familiar to the congregation – appearing from time to time. The material not taken from the scriptures was written by one Christian Freidrich Henrici, working under the non-de-plume Picander, who had already written material for the St John Passion and a number of Bach’s cantatas. The narrative, which is in two parts, begins with the events leading up to the Last Supper and ends with Pilate ordering a watch over the Tomb.

The first performances were in 1727 and 1729, before a revised version was heard in 1736. There exists an autographed version of the score in Bach’s own hand that he prepared immediately after this last performance. Already the compositional style of Bach’s mature period was beginning to lose favour and there is no further known performance of the work until 1829 when Felix Mendelssohn prepared and conducted a much augmented version of the score. Similar versions were the norm until the “early music” movement during the last third of the 20th century brought about a plethora of performances and recordings based on modern perceptions of the original style and sound, using “authentic” instruments and techniques.

Either way, this work - with Bach’s own St John Passion and Mass in B minor, and Handel’s “Messiah” - sits at the pinnacle of the sacred music of the High Baroque; and can be included with the greatest works of any genre of any time.


Greco Christ on the Cross.jpg

The biblical text of the St. Matthew Passion is taken from chapters 26 and 27, which is sung piecemeal throughout the work by the "Evangelist" in recitative. Aside from this unifying element, the work is structured much like other Baroque oratorios such as the Messiah, with weighty movements involving full chorus interspersed with solo arias. A feature of Bach's other Passions and sacred cantatas, the chorales were intended to involve the congregation.

What sets the Passions apart from the sacred oratorios of Handel is the seamless way in which the elements work together to provide a continuous and cohesive narrative. The dramatic device often works in the following way: the evangelist first quotes from scripture and informs the listeners what is happening; next, one of the soloists offers their personal reaction to the events; then one of the choirs gets involved either to urge the action forward or to react as a crowd; lastly, the congregation and choirs sing a hymn of lament together for Jesus's impending doom.

One of the most illustrative examples of this smooth narrative progression begins with the duet "So ist mein Jesus nun Gefangen" (No. 27[1]), which takes place immediately after Jesus has been arrested. The alto and soprano sing in disbelief about Jesus being taking away in chains in long, twisting melodic lines, over which the second chorus sings with sharp accents "Let him go! Don't hold him!" When this doesn't appear to work, both choruses suddenly erupt angrily with "Sind Blitze, Sind Donner":

Have lightning and thunder disappeared in the clouds?
Open your fiery pit, O Hell;
Wreck, ruin, engulf, shatter
With sudden force
The false betrayer, the murderous blood!

The Evangelist and Jesus continue after this, as Peter cuts off the ear of the guard, and Jesus reassures the disciples that prophecy is being fulfilled. In this case, it is unclear if the choruses and soloists are supposed to represent the crowd, or the disciples, or as a stand-in for the congregation's horror, but it acts as a terrifying interlude between the action as related in the gospel.

Also for an organizing influence, Bach repeats two chorales throughout the Passion, each time with a different text, in a lower key, and with greater chromaticism. This gives the effect of an escalating sorrow until the final iteration after Jesus' death.

Orchestration and Musical Style

Bach wrote parts for several instruments that are no longer used in the modern orchestra. In the string section, the viola da gamba (a smaller version of the cello, but with six strings and frets) has an important and virtuosic solo part, which is often replaced by the cello. It is in the woodwinds where the greatest differences are found. Instead of flutes, which did not exist as we know them in the 1730s, Bach wrote for "flauto traverso," or wooden recorders. In addition to oboes, Bach wrote for pairs of "oboes d'amore" and most memorably of the leather crescent-shaped "oboes da caccia," which fell out of use after Bach's death. While our modern knowledge of how the oboes da caccia sounded is sketchy, Bach's use of the instrument in the St. Matthew Passion suggests a very exotic, dark sound, used to chilling effect in "Ach, Golgatha!" (No. 59).


For listeners whose only acquaintance with Bach is the keyboard music and popular choruses such as "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," the Passions sound surprisingly dissonant and chromatic. Especially in the music for the Evangelist, whose vocal lines modulate frequently to distant keys, it sounds very "modern" compared to other Baroque music.

In the movements which involve one or both choruses, there is a variety of compositional techniques that Bach uses. One of the most famous is the cantus firmus technique, which already was a couple of centuries old in Bach's day. In the opening chorus ("Kommt ihr Töchter, helft mir Klagen," No. 1), Bach combines all eight voices contrapuntally, and at the climax, the treble choir joins with an old plainchant sung in very long notes over the eight faster-moving voices. Another usage of the cantus firmus technique can be found in the final chorus of part one ("O Mensch, bewein dein' Sünde groß," No. 29), where the chant melody plays a more prominient role throughout.

A second technique that occurs often in the St. Matthew Passion is the quick alternation between choirs, known as "antiphonal" singing, which must be heard in a church to be fully appreciated. This technique is often associated with Venetian music of the 16th century, especially with the composer Giovanni Gabrieli. Examples of this can be found in "Ja, nicht auf das Fest" (No. 4b) and in "Gegrüßet seist du."

The most pervasive technique Bach uses however is that of the fugue, which permeates the choral writing in almost every major chorus. As the highest form of counterpoint, Bach reserves it for the most elevated sentiments.

At the point in the Passion where Pilate asks the crowd who he should set free, Jesus or Barrabas, the choirs both sing at top volume a fully-diminished seventh chord with the word "Barrabas!" This chord is based on two tritone intervals, which had long been banned by the church as diabolus in musica, or the devil in music.

Also noteworthy, whenever Jesus sings, the strings accompany him with long-held chords, giving the musical effect of a halo to his pronouncements. Only the moment where Jesus cries out before dying ("Und von der sechsten Stunde," No. 61a and 61b) is this halo missing. It also marks the only appearance of the Aramaic language in the St. Matthew Passion.

In keeping with the lamenting subject-matter, Bach makes frequent use of the piangi, or crying motive. This typical Baroque figure consists of two slurred notes comprising a half-step fall (i.e., C to B).

Notable Recordings

Whilst recordings of individual arias and choruses had previously been made, the first complete recording of St. Matthew Passion was of a live performance in Boston by Serge Koussevitzky in the spring of 1937. Sung in English and recorded onto 27 78rpm discs, it suffered from poor sound quality and varying standards of performance.

Two years later, the record company, Philips, released an “abridged” performance by the Dutch conductor, Willem Mengelberg, using more up-to-date technology. It was of a better standard than the Koussevitzky and has been “cleaned up” and reissued by Philips in an even more truncated version (to fit it onto 2 CDs) and more recently by Naxos completely intact.

  • (Naxos Historical: 8.110880-2 – Jo Vincent, sop. Ilona Durigo, alto, Karl Erb, Louis van Tulder - tenors Willem Ravelli, Herman Schey – basses Amsterdam Toonkunst Choir, Zanglust Boys' Choir, Concertgebouw Orchestra Willem Mengelberg.)

During the 1940s and 50s various recordings were made that followed the romantic Mendelssohnian “big-sound” or were influenced by the English choral festival tradition. A recording affectionately remembered, and since remastered and issued on CDs is the 1958 performance conducted by Vaughan Williams.

  • (Pearl GEMS 0079 - Eric Greene, tenor, Evangelist - Gordon Clinton, bass baritone, Jesus - Pauline Brockless, soprano, Nancy Evans, mezzo-soprano, Wilfred Brown, tenor, John Carol Case, bass-baritone, Leith Hill Musical Festival Chorus and Orchestra /Ralph Vaughan Williams)

The great Bachian, Karl Richter, recorded the work twice – in 1958 and 1981 – his earlier recording is considered one of the great recordings (of any music) of the 1950s and is still mentioned as a benchmark.

  • (DG Original 4636352 - Antonia Fahberg, Irmgard Seefried sops Hertha Töpper mez Ernst Haefliger ten Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bar Kieth Engen, Max Proebstl bass Munich Bach Choir; Munich Bach Orchestra; Munich Boys' Choir/Karl Richter) Richter’s 1981 recording of the work was not as well received.

Herbert von Karajan also has two recordings of the Passion - a live recording from Vienna with that orchestra in 1950 commemorating the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death, long famous for the performance of the contralto, Kathleen Ferrier (Andante; AND1170) – and a 1973 recording with some of the big gun singers of the time. Like most of its predecessors, it was big and romantic and tended to sacrifice intellect for emotion.

  • (DG 4197892 - Gundula Janowitz sop Christa Ludwig mez Horst Laubenthal, Peter Schreier tens Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bar Walter Berry bbar Anton Diakov bass Berlin Cathedral Boys' Choir; Berlin Deutsche Oper Chorus; Berlin State Boy's Choir; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Vienna Singverein/Herbert von Karajan

In 1952 another of the conducting “greats”, Otto Klemperer recorded the Passion in London - a grand and powerful performance to match an unmatchable Anglo-German cast.

  • (EMI 7630582 - Sir Peter Pears (tenor, Evangelist), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano), Christa Ludwig (contralto), Nicolai Gedda (tenor), Walter Berry (bass-baritone, Jesus), John Carol Case (baritone), Otakar Kraus (baritone), Helen Harper soprano), Helen Watts (contralto), Sir Geraint Evans (bass), Wilfred Brown (tenor) Philharmonia Choir and Orchesrta/Otto Klemperer.)

A version on modern instruments with both intellect and emotion is Sir Georg Solti’s, recorded with his Chicago orchestra and choir, and excellent soloists. It is a dramatic though articulate performance, beautifully recorded, that stands with the best. Unfortunately, Decca, for reasons unknown, have deleted the complete recording from their catalogue leaving only a CD of arias and choruses available, though the complete version is available for download at iTunes.

  • (Decca 421 177-1DH3) Kiri Te Kanawa, sop, Anne Sofie von Otter, mez, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Hans-Peter Blochwitz, tenors, Olaf Bär, Tom Krause, bars, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Chicago Symphony Chorus; (Glen) Ellyn Children's Chorus/Georg Solti

The “authentic music” movement took off in the 1970s. At the forefront then and now has been Nicolas Harnoncourt with his Concentus Musicus Vienna. Harnoncourt has recorded the Passion three times; in 1970, 1986 and 2001. The 1970 recording was the pioneering "authentic" account; his latest, from 2001, is considered a benchmark for modern period instrument recordings.

  • (Teldec 8573-81036-2 - Christine Schäfer, Dorothea Röschmann sops Bernarda Fink, Elisabeth von Magnus conts Christoph Prégardien, Michael Schade, Markus Schäfer tens Dietrich Henschel, Matthias Görne, Oliver Widmer basses, Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Concentus Musicus; Vienna Boys' Choir/Nikolaus Harnoncourt)

John Eliot Gardiner’s recording with his Monteverdi Choir and excellent soloists is also considered amongst the best of the “authentic” versions. Unlike many, he employs a male alto. Brought out only a year after the Solti mentioned above, it is interesting to compare the two.

  • (Archiv 427 648-2AH3 - Ann Monoyios, Barbara Bonney sops Anne Sofie von Otter mez Michael Chance alto Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Howard Crook, tens, Andreas Schmidt, Olaf Bär, bars, Cornelius Hauptmann, bass, English Baroque Soloists; London Oratory Junior Choir; Monteverdi Choir/John Eliot Gardiner)

Another worthwhile modern account is by mainly Japanese forces under Masaaki Suzuki which complements his admirable ongoing recordings of the complete Bach cantatas.

  • (BIS CD1000-02 – soloists, Bach Collegium Japan chorus and orchestra/MasaakiSuzuki.)


Leaver, Robin A. Music as Preaching: Bach, Passions, and Music in Worship, 1982.
Lederer, Victor. Bach's St. Matthew Passion, a Closer Look, 2008.
Melamed, Daniel R. Hearing Bach's Passions, 2005.
Schweitzer, Albert, translated by Ernest Newman. J.S. Bach, 1911 (1967).
Smallman, Basil. The Background of Passion Music: J. S. Bach and his Predecessors, 1957.
Steinitz, Paul. Bach's Passions, 1979.
Terry, Charles Sanford. Bach, the Passions, 1926.


  1. Numbers in this article are all taken from the New Bach Edition published by Bärenreiter in 1974, and is the same numbering used on most commercial recordings. However, the 19th-century Bach Edition uses a completely different numbering, which one sees from time to time as well.

External links