Why did Bach compose his Passion According to St. Matthew?

In the Christian tradition, the “Passion” is the narrative, common to the four gospels, recounting Jesus’ suffering – physical and spiritual-- between the night of the Last Supper, and his crucifixion, the following day.  The word itself is based upon the Latin noun passio: suffering; and shares this root with our word “patience.” Christians commemorate the Passion during Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday and ends the following Saturday at midnight. Following a tradition dating back to the 4th century, most Christian denominations read one or more narratives of the Passion during Holy Week, especially on Good Friday. In some congregations, these readings are communal, with one person reading the part of Christ, another reading the descriptive narrative, others reading various smaller characters, and either the choir or the congregation reading the parts of crowds and other bystanders. People began to intone (rather than simply speak) the Biblical Passion texts at least as early as the 8th century. This chanting of the text may have been freely interpretive in the beginning, but within two hundred years manuscripts began to specify exact notes to be sung. By the 13th century different singers performed specific characters in the narrative (as in the communal readings described above), a practice which became fairly universal by the 15th century, when polyphonic settings of the crowd scenes began to appear, also. By the 16th century, Passion settings had evolved into a highly developed genre, with a number of different sub-genres, composed by the prominent composers of the time. Martin Luther disapproved of the entire genre, writing, “The Passion of Christ should not be acted out in words and pretense, but in real life.” Nonetheless, sung Passion performances were common in Lutheran churches right from the beginning of the Reformation period (1517), in both Latin and German, and by the 17th century had evolved into the “oratorio passion” sub-genre, heavily influenced by the development of opera, which included instrumental accompaniment, interpolated texts, other Scripture passages, Latin motets, chorales, arias, and recitatives.

J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions are the best known of this latter type. The incredible scope of his contributions to the genre was, and is, exceptional, but the fact that he composed and mounted these productions is not: certainly he was expected to organize some version of a passion reading, in his position as cantor of Leipzig. The form continued to be very popular in Germany throughout the 18th century—Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, composed over twenty settings. Interest in Passion composition waned during the 19th century, but took on new life in the 20th, with major settings by Krzysztof Penderecki, Arvo Pärt, Tan Dun, Osvaldo Golijov, Mark Alburger, and Scott King. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar and Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell contain elements of the traditional passion accounts, as well.

Oratorio’s close relative, opera, perhaps the major formal contribution of the baroque period, was well known in Lutheran Germany. Handel and Telemann, Bach’s contemporaries, were celebrated opera composers, and many German courts and cities had opera houses. The Leipzig town council, in hiring Bach, made their feelings about this modern form clear: he was instructed to “produce such compositions as are not theatrical in nature.” He was not to compose operas, and his music for divine service was not to bear any trace of operatic influence. Opera had briefly appeared in Leipzig shortly before Bach’s arrival, and the city’s response to it had ranged from skepticism to open hostility. It is clear that Bach understood the possibilities inherent in operatic styles and procedures, and that his church music compositions, especially his cantatas, had already begun to absorb characteristics of this art form; it is also clear that in composing his St. John Passion, first presented only ten months after his arrival in town, he chose to disregard the instructions he had been given, and to produce a powerfully dramatic work. Rather than just recite the words of the narrator and characters, he imbued their music with profound expressiveness, in effect creating an imaginary stage for his listeners on which the story unfolds. His later St. Matthew Passion, in which the Biblical narrative is interrupted frequently with lyrical, contemplative passages, seems to be a response to criticism from his employers that his St. John was too operatic and theatrical.