Learning more about Bach’s St Matthew Passion

In rehearsal

We approach our Orpheus Choir performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion with joy and sadness.

Joy because it’s a glorious work and so exciting to perform.

Sadness because it’s our last concert with our beloved music director of eight years, Michael. He’s leaving us to be closer to his family in Australia. Fair enough, we’ve been incredibly fortunate in having had his expertise, humor, immense knowledge and his fine attention to detail. He has challenged us and taken us to new heights where we’re now considered New Zealand’s premier symphonic choir. We will miss him.

I digress … Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

At rehearsal last night we were privileged to have eminent English choral conductor and organist Richard Marlow with us who shared some insights about the Passion. I find that every bit of extra knowledge, especially when given on a plate, enhances my enjoyment of the work. Fantastic to be able to sing, even better to understand what you’re singing about! Critical really …

The rhythms of many of the arias and anthems are based on dance metro. Marlow played a selection of opening bars to see if we could identify them – lights went on as recognition dawned of the minuet, the gigue and the saraband. No wonder the Passion has such a dance-like quality interspersed throughout. No wonder my instinct to move to the beat is so strong – I can’t help myself, but I have to!

Bach also quite intentionally made numeric connections. Two such connections follow:

In the recitative relating to Jesus being questioned by the High Priest, a questioning accompanied by 39 lashings. The lashes are represented in the recitative by exactly 39 chords – quavers with a quaver rest between. Forty lashes minus one Marlow said. His tone was such that we should know what he meant but I certainly didn’t. What has 40 lashes go to do with anything?

So I went to Google (as you do).

Forty lashes were the number determined enough to kill a man according to the Old Testament and therefore 39 lashes was the most you give a man without declaring a penalty of death. There as also the Moses Law of flogging where 40 lashes actually means 40 less one, ie. 39.

Then there’s the part in the story of the Passion in which Jesus and his disciples have assembled in the Garden of Gethsemane. The recitative which follows tells of his trembling and his tormented heart. The underlying pianissimo semiquaver beat suggests his heartbeat. I looked at the score, in one of our Choir II arias, and there it is, gently pulsing …dah dah dah dah    dah dah dah dah.

I thoroughly enjoyed the few minutes with Richard Marlow, time exceptionally well spent. Bach was a total genius – not that I haven’t thought that before.


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