When Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) nailed his now infamous 95 Theses on the doors of the castle cathedral in Wittenberg, October 31, 1517, he took aim at practises accepted, taught, and regulated by the church. Upending the institution’s trickle-down doctrine of rituals and behaviour, Luther instead advocated a religion based on grace and a personal faith. This was not a policy debate, this was a contest for minds and hearts, and one of the chief arenas for this battle was within the service itself. Luther would find no better champion in this struggle than Johann Sebastian Bach.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), held various church jobs in his lifetime, including his last and longest post at St. Thomas’ in Leipzig from 1723 – 1750. As a result, there are over 200 extant cantatas (used in weekly church services) and two complete passion settings (used for the Good Friday service).
In this concert we will consider the inner workings of the St. Matthew and St. John Passions through the performance of various arias and chorales. Bach’s overarching architecture and ingenious development of musical material are signature marks here, as they are in his compositions for non-liturgical purposes. These aspects assert the unequivocal intellectual force that was Bach’s. But, it is in the ordering of movements, the moments of detailed symbolism embedded into melodic lines, the pathos and emotional breadth that are steeped into the bones of these works, that the profound, personal faith of Bach is revealed.
Bach’s renderings of the passion of the Christ are multi-layered – musically, dramatically, and theologically. The gospel narratives (often sung in the voice of the tenor narrator, though sometimes in another solo voice, or in the chorus) act as the framework onto which are woven poetic texts and Lutheran chorales, which serve as meditations, exhortations, and reactions to the scenes of the passion. Bach’s transcendent settings of these already-familiar passages pull the congregant in, inviting them to partake more deeply, widening the mind and lifting the heart.