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Saint Peter's Choir
J.S. Bach's Passion According to Saint Matthew
April 3, 2015
#GoodFriday #Bach
Saint Peter's Church Choir present's Johann Sebastian Bach's Passion According to Saint Matthew in a service of devotion on Good Friday, April 3, 2015, beginning at 12:00 noon and concluding around 3:00 p.m.

All are welcome.

About the passion

A note by Dr. Thomas Schmidt, cantor

In the western Christian church the account of Christ's passion and crucifixion are read each year on Palm Sunday (also called Passion Sunday) and Good Friday. Like all readings from scripture, this account was historically chanted by members of the clergy. During the Baroque era the music for this reading became more elaborate, and hymns for the congregation to sing and settings of meditational poetry were sometimes interspersed throughout the reading. In the 18th century Bach used the contemporary forms of Baroque opera--aria, recitative, chorus--to further dramatize this reading. He composed elaborate settings of the passion according to Matthew, Mark and John.
Though the Mark setting is largely lost, the Matthew and John settings have endured and are among his most-often performed works on the concert stage today.

However, Bach did not write his St. Matthew Passion or his St. John Passion for the concert stage. They were written to be sung as part of the normal worship services during Holy Week. Within a year of accepting the post of Kantor in Leipzig in 1723 Bach wrote his setting of the St. John Passion, and this was performed often during the subsequent 27 years that he was Kantor. In 1829 he wrote his "Great Passion," as he and his family referred to it, the Passion According to St. Matthew.

Whereas the St. John Passion was written for choir, orchestra, and various soloists, the St. Matthew Passion was written for two choirs and two orchestras in addition to soloists. This was a work that took tremendous organization and rehearsal and it was performed only two or three times during Bach's lifetime.

In at least one of the performances at St. Thomas Kirche one choir and orchestra
were placed in the rear balcony and the second choir and orchestra were placed on the floor of the nave. In the opening chorus of the work there is a third choir as well, and it was placed in a balcony in the front of the church.

In the St. Matthew Passion Bach uses the forms of Baroque opera to present the story. Recitatives are used for the text of St. Matthew's gospel, and are sung by a tenor evangelist. Other soloists sing the parts of Jesus, Judas, Peter, Pilate, and the other characters. The parts of the crowd are sung by the choirs. In addition to the text from St. Matthew's gospel Bach intersperses arias sung by the soloists which poetically reflect on the individual Christian's response to what is happening in the narrative. Chorales that were well known to Bach's congregation were also inserted at appropriate points in the story, and we can conjecture that the congregation may well have sung along with the choir. And monumental choruses draw us into the story at the beginning and take us to Jesus' tomb at the end.

Bach's St. Matthew Passion is rightly considered not only the greatest setting of the passion
narrative ever composed, but it is also considered one of the greatest works of music ever composed on its musical merits alone.

Although one can have many opportunities to hear the St. Matthew Passion in concert venues, Saint Peter's Church is the only church in the world that presents this work every year in the setting that Bach intended, as part of the worship services of Holy Week. It is sung as part of a Service of Devotion on Good Friday from 12 noon until 3 pm. Bach divided the work into two parts so that a sermon could be preached in the middle of the service (and possibly to give the singers a much-needed break!). That is the pattern of Saint Peter's service as well. Since this is a worship service, there is no admission charge, and attendees need only to show up. The congregation is invited to sing along with some of the familiar chorales. Because Bach wrote this passion in German, the vernacular of his congregation, Saint Peter's has chosen to sing the work in English, our vernacular, so that the message of the words is immediate and direct to our hearers' ears just as it was to Bach's listeners.
Saint Peter's Choir consists of five professional singers and 30 volunteer members of Saint Peter's. Our soloists are Mary Elizabeth Poore and Rosalind Rees, sopranos; Elsa Larsson, alto; Jonathan Kline, tenor (who is Evangelist and tenor soloist); and Stephen Black, bass (who is Jesus and bass soloist). The orchestras are made up of leading professional players in the city. It is conducted by Thomas Schmidt, Cantor at Saint Peter's, and Eric Stewart, assistant conductor and composer-in-residence.

It is easy to give a historical summary of Bach's work and talk about how and why we sing it today as I have in the above words. But I would like to add an additional word about what singing this work has meant to members of Saint Peter's Choir during the past thirty-odd years. This has to do with the intention of Lutheran church music, which is to preach the gospel using the musical art as a medium.
As the choir has sung and lived with this music for many years, many of us practically know it from memory and its words and notes are as familiar to us as a brother or sister. As people of faith, we experience the truths of Christianity movingly expressed in this work, truths that touch the deepest part of our humanity. Each year there seems to be something new that we discover in this work, new profundities that perhaps not even Bach was aware of as he penned the notes. Our overwhelming response is one of gratitude, gratitude to Bach for creating this masterpiece, gratitude for the opportunity to sing it and share it with others, and ultimately, gratitude to God for his work of creating and redeeming us all.