Singing Saint Matthew’s Passion – a Choir 2 Perspective

In a few hours, I will be singing the St Matthew’s Passion with the Melbourne Bach Choir, two baroque orchestras, the MacRobertson Girls’ Choir, and six soloists who range from very good to utterly sublime (I think Andrew Goodwin is my new favourite tenor or all time).  It’s going to be amazing, and if baroque oratorio is your thing and you live in Melbourne, you should definitely buy some tickets and come along (it’s also raising money for cancer research, so really, you can’t lose).

Of course, having rehearsed this all week, I now have an All Bach, All The Time radio station in my head, and I’m also way too hyped up to sleep after our final rehearsal this evening, so I figure that now is a pretty good time to finally write the post I’ve been contemplating ever since I started singing this work – because it’s a fascinating piece of music, but, for me at least, it’s the sort of music that definitely becomes more interesting to listen to the more you know about it.  When I listened to it the first time, I found that it was pretty music, but didn’t grab my attention – but the more time I have spent inside it, the more I’m finding that I engage with it, the bigger the emotions become, the better the music gets.  And I want everyone to love this music as I do and be inside it as much as I am right now.  Which I realise is unrealistic, but I’m going to tell you all about how amazing it is anyway, because that’s what I do…

My first encounter with this work was with the Erbarme Dich, which I learned for an exam a couple of years ago.  This is the most famous of the alto arias from the work, and is sung right after Peter denies Jesus three times.  The lyrics translate to “Have mercy on me, my God, for my tears’ sake. See, heart and eyes weep for you, bitterly – have mercy on my, my God, for my tears’ sake”  It’s a pretty wrenching aria, and is, in many ways, Peter’s aria, except that Peter is sung by a bass, and the aria is definitely sung by an alto.  Which is all part of Bach’s cunning plan, but we’ll get back to that.

More recently, I’ve fallen in love with the soprano aria Aus Liebe Will Mein Heiland Sterben, which comes right after Pilate asks the crowd what evil Jesus has done, and right before the second ‘Crucify Him!’ chorus, and is this amazing duet between soprano and flute as the soprano explains that actually, Jesus has only done good, and is dying out of love for humanity.

So, obviously, when I heard that the Melbourne Bach Choir was looking for more singers for the St Matthew Passion, I immediately signed up.  Anything with such gorgeous arias in it must surely be worth singing!  And it is, but singing it has been absolutely nothing like I expected.

The St Matthew Passion was written to be performed on Good Friday, as part of the all-day vigil services.  It runs for at least two and a half hours, and I strongly suspect it will take longer than that, even though we are singing it at a pretty good clip, and involves two main choirs and a children’s choir, two orchestras, six major soloists and several minor soloists.  It narrative comes from the 26th and 27th chapters of Matthew, starting with Jesus’s anointing at Bethany and ending with his burial and the rock being placed over the mouth of the tomb, but as you can imagine, with that many people involved in it, it’s rather more epic than this may initially sound.  Two soloists sing the roles of the Evangelist (Matthew, the narrator of this work) and Jesus, respectively, and other minor soloists play Judas, Peter, Pilate, the Chief Priests, and a few random witnesses and servants.  The choirs sing the words of the disciples, the crowds, the priests, and any other riff raff and rabble involved, and between them, all these singers go word for word through these two chapters of the Gospel.  But in amongst all of this, we also have four more soloists – one each of soprano, alto, tenor and bass (though traditionally, there were two each of these, doing different arias), who sing arias that reflect on the narrative, and the work is also punctuated by a number of chorales, sung by both the main choirs, which are essentially Bach’s sermon on the entire affair.

Yes, it’s huge.

To help you know where you stand in the work, Bach also divides up the type of music by who is singing it.  All the ‘character’ roles are recitative – which is to say, they are accompanied by the occasional chord, but largely singing unaccompanied, and their music is sung at a speaking pace, rather than rhythmically.  Jesus’s recitatives are a little bit different, because instead of stark chords, he gets something which has been described as a ‘halo of strings’ – whenever he speaks, there are long, sustained chords from the string section of the orchestra, which, after a while, do start to sound as though the singer is somehow bathed in light.  It’s a fascinating effect.  The aria reflections do have more of a recognisable rhythm and melody, and are songs rather than sung speech.  The choirs, when being part of the narrative, tend to sing separately in short, choppy choruses (very choppy indeed if we miss our entries…), but the chorale ‘sermons’ are more like verses of hymns.

It all makes sense when you hear it.

My home on this occasion has been in Choir 2, which turns out to be the choir that interjects and is generally quite rude and unpleasant. Choir 1 gets to be the disciples occasionally, but we are always and without fail the random and increasingly nasty crowd, except when we are the unsympathetic priests.  My ability to sing mean things in German has increased in leaps and bounds. Because we are Choir 2, most of our singing comes in little snippets of one or two notes, or occasionally one or two bars, so you have to be really on the ball or you can miss  an entire section, but it’s very effective – our first entry is with a single note “Wen?” (Who), interjected into the middle of a chorus being sung by Choir 1, and it really is a very dramatic moment (though we do have to curb our enthusiasm a little bit, or ‘dramatic’ becomes ‘the conductor falls of his podium’, which is not ideal).  We also get to do a lot of little mini-chorales or interjections into the middle of the reflective arias, which are rather gorgeous when they come together.

One really does have to concentrate quite a lot, which makes for a very intense singing experience.  And, actually, as someone who is a quarter Jewish, I actually find some of what we are singing pretty disturbing – Matthew’s Gospel was not very nice about the Jewish people, and it’s hard to sing ‘sein Blut komme über uns und unsere Kinder’ (his blood be upon us and upon our children) without being very aware of the sorts of atrocities this quote was used to justify.  This is not in any way a comfortable work to sing – and I am very certain that it isn’t intended to be – but some parts are definitely more uncomfortable than others.  Once we get into the second half, it really gets pretty horrible.

There are some absolutely stunning moments in this, however.  The part where the children’s choir comes in during the opening chorus is pretty amazing.  The two arias I’ve mentioned above, and the gorgeous soprano and alto duet in part one, which then goes into the fabulous Blitzen und Donner chorus that is dramatic and amazing and loud, and just has this point where it stops suddenly and there is this long beat of silence before it comes back even more ferociously (I think we actually do this one better than the recording I found – we take it at a faster speed, which I think really works).  In part two, the Evangelist gets some utterly beautiful music when he talks about Jesus being crucified, and when Jesus sings Eli, Eli, la’ma sabach-tha’ni, and the Evangelist translates it, the music is stunning and wrenching and amazing.  The Evangelist also has some stunning, dramatic music both when Jesus dies and when he talks about all the wonders taking place at his death.  We get a beautiful moment in Choir 2 with the ‘Mein Jesu, gute nacht’.  And the final chorus, Ruhe Sanft (sleep peacefully) is just stunning, especially that gorgeous bit where choir one goes really quiet, and then the orchestra comes in with the theme, sounding huge and glorious.  And, of course, there is something about the way two and a half hours of music just suddenly comes to a point where everyone is in – both orchestras, both choirs, sometimes even the children’s choir, too, and then it just stops, quite abruptly, and it’s over and done.  And Jesus is in the grave, and that’s where we leave off.  It’s Good Friday, and we don’t get any further than that until Sunday.

We are, as you will have gathered, singing in German, and I really am in two minds about this.  The music is stunning, but the meaning is so vitally important to it – I do wonder if it is wasteful to sing in German for a non-German speaking audience.  But on the other hand – I do think that music gains a lot from being sung in the original language.  And at least when the text is sung in German, people tend to feel that they have to put a translation in the program.  Given how difficult it can be to understand what people are singing sometimes, this might be the best way to ensure the music is actually understood.

Anyway.  It’s an amazing piece of music.  I’m having a ball singing it.  And it does fill me with secret joy that I can sing this three more times without ever repeating myself – soprano or alto, in Choir 1 or Choir 2, depending on whim.  And who knows?  Maybe one day I will get to be one of the soloists…

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