I was immediately drawn to Brett’s journal on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion because it is presented in such a personal way that I couldn’t help but be taken in. I especially appreciated his discussion of the arias of the work. Brett’s descriptions of these movements made me eager to listen to them and discover each character’s personal voice.
The first aria is sung by the alto, immediately after the story of the woman anointing Jesus with precious ointment. This story foreshadows the anointing of Jesus’ body for His burial. The alto’s recitative and aria are a prayer to Jesus, offering her own tears as ointment, in repentance for her sins. Bach uses word painting in this recitative during the text, “To pour upon thy head an ointment.” The voice and accompanying winds both make a descent through this line portraying the outpouring of tears. The opening lines of this aria, “guilt and pain” can truly be felt throughout. It is filled with appoggiaturas that represent the weeping and pleading of the soloist.
When the alto sings again later in the piece, it is another cry for mercy. This time, the alto sings her recitative and aria right after the scourging of Jesus. There is much more urgency in the music of this recitative, as she pleads for the tormenters to cease and for God to have mercy. This aria, just as the aria she sang in the beginning, speaks of her tears being offered as a sacrifice. The phrases in this movement move in downward patterns, reminding us of her flowing tears and her begging for mercy.
Unlike the alto, whose character is primarily repentant, the soprano’s role is to comment on the meaning of Jesus’ actions in a very personal way. In the recitative that she sings, directly after the last supper, she sings of the beauty of Jesus’ sacrifice with the words “…His testament makes me glad. His flesh and blood, o preciousness, He bequeaths into my hands.” The aria that directly follows is one of the most joyful movements of the work in which she pledges “I will give my heart to thee; sink myself in it, my Salvation.” This is a beautiful love song, in which the soprano remarks on the power of Jesus’ sacrifice and makes it truly personal for her. In this aria, you can really see a deep relationship between her and her savior.
Just after Jesus has been praying the words, “My Father, if possible, allow this cup to pass from me; but not as I will, rather as thou wilt…” in the garden of Gethsemane, the bass sings a recitative and aria in which he comments on the roles of Jesus’ followers to take up their own crosses and follow in His steps. Bach uses word painting in the very opening lines of the recitative with the lines, “The Savior falls down before His father; thereby He raises me and all people from our fall” incorporating appropriate descent and ascent in the vocal line. The aria that follows is very heavy, in the lower range of both the voice and the accompaniment, to portray the weight of the decision he makes saying, “I will gladly submit myself to take up my cross and cup…”
Like the bass, the tenor serves as a commenter on the meaning of Christ’s passion for the Christian. After the High Priest has accused Jesus of blasphemy and Jesus does not speak to defend himself, the tenor sings a recitative and aria about how Jesus’ actions translate to his followers. The text of the recitative reads, “We should be like Him and hold our peace in time of persecution,” and the aria speaks of how if he acts like Jesus, God will give his heart its vengeance in the end. The viola de gamba often is playing a dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythm throughout this aria. This rhythm creates a sense of anxiety, that the singer is eager for the day when holding his tongue in the face of insult will pay off and God will give him his retribution.
In his journal, Brett wrote, “…the main soloists…all have an array of arias that serve to show the emotions and depth of the story.” My investigation of the text lead me to uncover an array of characters portrayed by the soloists that make the work personal for the listener. Bach has created a work that is not only musically moving, he has made Christ’s passion relevant and meaningful for Christians of his time and today.