Why is Bach’s Matthew Passion still relevant today?

This Easter, in a Dunedin Consort first, Nicholas Mulroy will direct our Matthew Passion performances in Edinburgh and London in his role as the Evangelist. In this specially written piece he explains the thinking behind his interpretation of Bach’s masterpiece and why it is still relevant to modern audiences, nearly three centuries on.

‘There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song…’ — Pablo Neruda 

Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685-1750), 1746 (oil on canvas) by Haussmann, Elias Gottleib (1695-1774); Museum fur Geschichte de Stadt Leipzig, Germany. © Fine Art Images.

The famous Haussman portrait of JS Bach – stern, severe, even superior – emphasises the image of him in the popular imagination as a composer of meticulous mathematics and architectural precision. His contrapuntal facility (he was best known to his contemporaries as an improvisor) still inspires fascination, but our task as performers of his music, especially in his settings of the Gospel narrative, is to seek the human heart and soul that nourished his mind. An audience might not grasp, particularly on just one hearing, the structural ingenuity of the St Matthew Passion, but the impact of the human story, the profundity of the message, and the beauty of the music are more immediately, instinctively accessible. Bach simply could not have imagined that we would repeat the work year on year, or come to know it in the way we do, so his direct appeal to our own hearts is worthy of examination.

His setting of the Gospel narration of Christ’s Last Supper, trial, persecution and death is a feat of staggering musical virtuosity and structural dexterity, but also – and this is what I’d like to examine here – an exploration of fundamental truths about the human heart and its capacity for hope and redemption.  

The story is already there: rich in the extremities of human experience – love, loss, betrayal, injustice – and with multiple centres of consciousness. Bach embraces this. The action of the narrative seems to prompt an even more urgent trajectory: the attention and contemplation in the heart of the listener.  As performers, we are asked to embody – and the audience is asked to consider – the rage of the crowd, the despair of the traitor, the resilience of the persecuted, the shuddering loss of the grieving. Times may change, but people do not, so much. We never have to look far to see all this illustrated today.  

So, how does Bach commit this to us? There three levels of musical form. He narrates events in recitative: a speech-like style which requires verbal incision and alert harmonic expressivity. However, it is the junctions of the story he chooses for reflection, where he presses pause on the action and contemplates, that offer a more personal vision of what he is trying to convey to us.  

His use of chorales wasn’t new. These are hymn tunes that his congregation would have known (if not sung), a potent and direct way of bringing the story into the listener’s present tense. The melodies were well known, and their texts act as a collective reflection, praying for strength, seeking comprehension.

Baptism of Christ, 1450 (egg tempera on panel) by Francesca, Piero della (c.1415-92); 167×116 cm; National Gallery, London, UK; Italian, out of copyright.

There is a distant, but relevant, visual equivalent: when Piero della Francesca painted his exquisite Baptism of Christ in 1450, he located it in his own local landscape. Both artists share the same impulse: to remind us that this story is here, now, is us.  

Where the chorales are all congregational piety and austerity, the solo arias and duets assume the privacy, and often the naked directness, of the Confessional. Here Bach pauses the narrative, but seems also to stop time itself. Individuals reflect, the audience eavesdrops: in lamentation, consolation, outrage, faith. Some of the arias have an invasive, scarcely bearable poignancy. 

Others arrive like a dolphin on a wave, grace and vitality bursting out of an ocean of grief. The message here seems to be that joy is always accessible, even in our deepest grief. 

At the point of Christ’s most intense humiliation, and just before his death: brutalised, crucified and mocked (the St Matthew is full of reminders of the horrific physical reality of all this). An aria of playful rhythmic bliss (in the noble warmth of E flat major) tells us ‘Look how Jesus has his hand outstretched, to hold us fast!’ During the trial, as Pilate wonders aloud, ‘What evil has he done?’, the soprano offers a bracing affirmation: ‘out of Love, my Saviour wishes to die’. Time and again, Bach’s music drags events from darkness back into the light; time and again, he offers us a surprising kind of joy. 

This is as just as apparent in musical material as it is in the structure of the story and its contemplation. There are three movements in the 12/8 time signature – the ‘pastoral’ metre that reflects both the notion of Christ as the ‘Lamb of God’ and the threefold form of that prayer. They punctuate events around the beginning, middle and end: the first chorus, which is an invitation to mourn; the aria ‘Erbarme dich’, where the alto and violin soloists plead for mercy in the face of betrayal, and the bass aria ‘Mache dich’ where the singer (in our version the same singer as sang the words of Christ) seeks purity through burying Christ in music of fathomless sincerity and (particularly in context) ecstatic consolation. This thread that runs through the whole work attests to Khalil Gibran’s idea that ‘the deeper your sorrow is carved, the more joy you can contain’. Musically, the same material that expresses the agony of the Via Dolorosa is translated to comfort and elation.  

This is not a piece without its challenges and problems, but what Bach conveys of himself here, nourished (but by no means limited) by his own faith is a powerful, universal message: it is the very path of isolation and difficulty that leads us to our most meaningful fulfilment. He reminds in the St Matthew Passion that not only are sorrow and suffering inevitable parts of human life, but that they enrich us and indeed nourish the human within the being.  

We marvel at the mind behind this extraordinary musical monument, but the deeper impression is of the composer’s heart and soul: Bach understands that the narrative of Christ’s Passion is, above all, a love story, offering tenderness and comprehension, and unearthing redemption and even enchantment in the most painful and distressing places.  

 © Nicholas Mulroy

Join Dunedin Consort for Bach’s Matthew Passion

St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh – Saturday 9 April, 7pm

Wigmore Hall, London – Tuesday 12 April, 7pm