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St Matthew Passion

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The St Matthew Passion (German: Matthäuspassion) (also, Matthæus Passion), BWV 244, is a musical composition written by Johann Sebastian Bach for solo voices, double choir and double orchestra, with libretto by Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici). It sets chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew to music, with interspersed chorales and arias.


Bach's St. Matthew Passion was written in 1727. Only two of the four (or five) settings of the Passion which Bach wrote have survived; the other is the St. John Passion. The St. Matthew Passion was probably first performed on Good Friday 1727 in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach was the Kapellmeister. He revised it by 1736, performing it again on March 30, 1736, this time including two organs in the instrumentation.

The St. Matthew Passion was not heard outside of Leipzig until 1829, when Felix Mendelssohn performed an abbreviated and modified version of it in Berlin to great acclaim. Mendelssohn's revival of the St. Matthew Passion brought the music of Bach, particularly the large-scale works, to a public and scholarly attention that has persisted into the present era.


Many composers wrote musical settings of the Passion in the late 17th century. Like other Baroque oratorio passions, Bach's setting presents the Biblical text of Matthew 26-27 in a relatively simple way, primarily using recitative, while aria and arioso movements set newly-written poetic texts which comment on the various events in the Biblical narrative and present the characters' state of mind in a lyrical, monologue-like manner.

Two distinctive aspects of Bach's setting spring from his other church endeavors. One is the double-choir format, which stems from his own double-choir motets and the many such motets from other composers with which he routinely started Sunday services. The other is the extensive use of chorales, which appear in standard four-part settings, as interpolations in arias, and as a cantus firmus in large polyphonic movements, notably “O Mensch, bewein dein’ Sünde groß,” the conclusion of the first half—a movement this work has in common with his St John Passion—and the opening coro, Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir Klagen, in which the soprano in ripieno crowns a colossal buildup of polyphonic and harmonic tension, singing a verse of the chorale O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig.

The surviving manuscripts consist of eight concertato scores, used for eight soloists who also served in the two choirs, a few extra "bit parts", and a part for the soprano in ripieno. Unlike Bach's Johannespassion, where parts are extant for ripieno doubling on the choruses, there is little evidence that additional singers beyond the soloists were used in the "choirs".

The narration of the Gospel texts are sung by the tenor Evangelist in secco recitative accompanied only by continuo. Soloists sing the words of various characters, also in recitative; in addition to Jesus, there are named parts for Judas, Peter, a high priest, Pontius Pilate, Pilate's wife, and two ancillae (maids), although these are not always sung by all different soloists. These "character" soloists are also often assigned arias and sing with the choirs, a practice not always followed by modern performances. Two duets are sung by a pair of soloists representing two simultaneous speakers, and a number of passages for several speakers, called turba (or crowd) parts, are sung by one of the two choirs. The turba passages are not recitative but are conventional metric music.

Jesus' recitatives are particularly distinctive in that they are always accompanied not only by continuo but by the entire string section of the first orchestra using long, sustained notes, thus creating an effect often referred to as Jesus's "halo". Only his final words, Eli, eli, lama asabthani (Hebrew: "My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?"), are sung without this "halo".

Interpolated texts

The arias, set to texts by Picander, are interspersed between sections of the Gospel text, and are sung by soloists with a variety of instrumental accompaniments, typical of the oratorio style.

The interpolated texts theologically and personally interpret the Gospel texts. Many of them highlight Jesus’ suffering, such as the chorale “Ich bin’s, ich sollte büßen” (“It is I who should suffer and be bound for hell”), the alto aria “Buß und Reu” (portraying a desire to anoint Jesus with her tears), and the bass aria “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” (his offer to bury Jesus himself). Jesus is often referred to as “my Jesus.” The chorus alternates between participating in the narrative and commenting on it as outside observers.

As is typical of settings of the Passion, there is no mention of the Resurrection in any of these texts. Following in the footsteps of Anselm of Canterbury, the crucifixion itself is the endpoint and the source of redemption; the emphasis is on the suffering of Jesus. The chorus sings, “tear me from my fears / Through your own fear and pain.” The bass, calling it the “sweet cross,” says “Yes, of course this flesh and blood in us / want to be forced to the cross; / the better it is for our soul, / the more bitter it feels.“

The “O Lamm Gottes” chorale compares Jesus' crucifixion to the ritual sacrifice of an Old Testament lamb, as an offering for sin. This theme is reinforced by the concluding chorale of the first half, “O Mensch, bewein dein’ Sünde groß” (“O man, bewail your great sin”).

Compositional style

Bach’s recitatives often set the mood for the particular passages by highlighting emotionally charged words such as “crucify,” “kill,” or “mourn” with chromatic melodies. Diminished seventh chords and sudden modulations accompany Jesus's apocalyptic prophecies.

In the turba parts, the two choruses sometimes alternate in cori spezzati style (e.g. “Weissage uns, Christe”) and sometimes sing together (“Herr, wir haben gedacht”); other times only one chorus sings (chorus I always takes the parts of the disciples) or alternating, for example when “some bystanders” say “He’s calling for Elijah” and “others” say “Wait to see if Elijah comes to help him.”

In the arias, obbligato instruments are equal partners with the voices, as was customary in late Baroque arias. Bach often uses madrigalisms, as in “Buß und Reu,” where the flutes start playing a raindrop-like staccato as the alto sings of drops of his tears falling. In “Blute nur,” the line about the serpent is set with a twisting melody.

The Matthäuspassion in movies

  • The Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky revered Bach, and was, as he wrote in his diaries, particularly moved by the artistry and pathos of the St. Matthew Passion. A recitative from it is used in the The Mirror and "Erbarme dich" aria accompanies the opening credits of his last film, The Sacrifice, which appear against a full-screen detail from Leonardo da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi.
  • The closing chorus of act 1 is used several times in the film Demolition Man.
  • The final scene of THX 1138 uses music from the first movement of the St. Matthew Passion.
  • In the film Kingdom of Heaven, the scene in which Reynald de Chatillon is killed is set to "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden" from The Saint Matthew Passion.
  • The No. 78 final Chorus I/II (“Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder”) serves as the opening/closing theme to Martin Scorsese's 1995 film Casino, over a montage of casino lights. Performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
  • Pier Paolo Pasolini used The Saint Matthew Passion in the score for his 1964 film Il Vangelo secondo Matteo also known as The Gospel According to St. Matthew. The 'Erbarme Dich' is sung by Kirsten Flagstad. Pasolini also used this music in his earlier film Accattone.
  • It is used (Along with other Bach's compositions) in Je vous salue, Marie (1985) a film by Jean-Luc Godard.
  • A version of the movement Erbarme dich in The Saint Matthew Passion, named O Perdão (The Forgiveness), adapted by Marco Antônio Guimarães, is used in the end of Lavoura Arcaica.
  • The bass aria Mache dich mein Herze rein, as sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the 1958 Karl Richter recording, is used in the film The Talented Mr. Ripley
  • "Erbarme Dich, mein Gott" is used in the Czech film Musíme si pomáhat (Divided we Fall, 2000), directed by Jan Hřebejk, which deals with how the "small man" copes with oppression under totalitarian regimes such as Nazism and communism. The film argues, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that oppression under such regimes is so lethal that we have no moral right to judge what people did under the circumstances. There is a powerful, final sequence, in which the main character, Mr. Cizek (a kind of Czech Everyman) walks in May 1945, during the chaotic and brutal final days of the Second World War, with his newly born "son" through a street full of debris from destroyed tenements in the middle of which a number of characters, previously killed during the convoluted story of Nazi oppression, are sitting at a table. This final sequence is accompanied by Bach's aria "Have mercy, God, on our frailty!" and makes the conclusion of the film rather impressive, turns it into a plea for God's mercy over human insufficiencies.
  • Featured in the 2005 Tony Scott film Domino.
  • The start of the Battle of Algiers 1966 Gillo Pontecorvo.
  • The finale of the PBS documentary Oswald's Ghost used BWV 244 67-68.

Notable recordings

On modern instruments

  • Karl Richter, cond. Archiv Produktion, 1959.
Münchener Bach-Chor, Münchener Chorknaben, Münchener Bach-Orchester.
Soloists: Ernst Haefliger, Keith Engen, Irmgard Seefried, Antonia Fahberg, Hertha Topper, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Max Proebstl
  • Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, 1962
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus
Soloists: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Heather Harper, Geraint Evans, Walter Berry
  • Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia Masterworks Records, 1962, later re-released on Sony Masterworks. Slightly abridged and sung in English
New York Philharmonic, Collegiate Chorale
Soloists, Adele Addison, William Wildermann, David Lloyd, Charles Bressler, Donaldson Bell, Betty Allen
  • Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca Records, 1988.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.
Soloists: Kiri Te Kanawa, Anne-Sofie von Otter, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Tom Krause, Hans Peter Blochwitz, Olaf Bär

On period instruments

  • Philippe Herreweghe, cond. Harmonia Mundi France, 1985.
La Chapelle Royale, Collegium Vocale Gent
Soloists: Howard Crook, Ulrik Cold, Barbara Schlick, René Jacobs, Hans-Peter Blochwitz, Peter Kooy
  • John Eliot Gardiner, cond. Archiv Produktion, 1989.
English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir
Soloists: Barbara Bonney, Anne-Sofie von Otter, Michael Chance, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Andreas Schmidt
  • Ton Koopman, cond. Erato, 1993
Netherlands Bach Society, Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra
Soloists: Guy de Mey (Evangelist), Peter Kooy (Jesus), Barbara Schlick, Kai Wessel, Christoph Pregardien, Klaus Mertens
  • Jos van Veldhoven, cond. Channel Classics, 1997.
Chorus and Orchestra of the Netherlands Bach Society
Soloists: Johannette Zomer, Andreas Scholl, Hans-Jorg Mammel, Peter Kooy, Gerd Turk (Evangelist), Geert Schmits (Jesus)
  • Philippe Herreweghe, cond. Harmonia Mundi France, 1998.
Collegium Vocale Gent
Soloists: Ian Bostridge, Franz-Josef Selig, Sibylla Rubens, Andreas Scholl, Werner Güra, Dietrich Henschel
  • Masaaki Suzuki, cond. BIS, 1999.
Bach Collegium Japan
Soloists: Gerd Turk (Evangelist), Peter Kooy (Jesus), Nancy Argenta, Robin Blaze, Makoto Sakurada, Chiyuki Urano
  • Nikolaus Harnoncourt, cond. Teldec. 2001 Grammy Award for "Best Choral Performance",2001 Gramophone magazine award for "Best Baroque Vocal Recording."
Concentus Musicus Wien, Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Wiener Sangerknaben
Soloists: Christoph Pregardien (Evangelist), Mathias Goerne (Jesus), Dorothea Röschmann, Michael Schade, Elizabeth Magnus-Harnoncourt, Markus Schäfer, Dietrich Henschel, Christine Schäfer, Jan Leibnitz, Oliver Widmer, Bernarda Fink.
  • Enoch zu Guttenberg, cond. Farao Classics, 2003.
Orchester der Klangverwaltung, Chorgemeinschaft Neubeuern, Tölzer Knabenchor
Soloists: Marcus Ullmann (Evangelist), Klaus Mertens (Jesus), Anna Korondi, Anke Vondung, Werner Güra, Hans Christoph Begemann.
  • Paul McCreesh, cond. Archiv Produktion, 2003.
Gabrieli Consort and Players
Soloists: Choir 1: Deborah York, Magdalena Kožená, Mark Padmore, Peter Harvey. Choir 2: Julia Gooding, Susan Bickley, James Gilchrist, Stephan Loges - this recording uses one singer per part throughout.
  • Ton Koopman, cond. Erato, 2006
Amsterdam Baroque Choir, Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra
Soloists: Jorg Durmuller (Evangelist), Ekkehard Abele (Jesus), Cornelia Samuelis, Bogna Bartosz, Paul Agnew, Klaus Mertens


  • In March 2005 a performance of the Passion in Utrecht (Holland) was enhanced with video projections. Excerpts can be viewed at:
  • Richard Dawkins, the popular evolutionary biologist and, perhaps ironically given the subject matter of the piece, secular humanist, selected it as one of his eight Desert Island Discs.
  • Thomas Lewis described St. Matthew's Passion in his book, "The Medusa and the Snail," as being an example of the entire human mind at work.
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