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Bach's St. Matthew Passion: A Closer Look
by Victor Lederer
Magnum Opus series
Continuum (Paperback - 1 Dec 2008) 132pp
ISBN-13: 978-0-8264-2940-7
ISBN-10: 0-8264-2940-8 £6.50
Experience Classicsonline

Victor Lederer makes a compelling case for guidance when approaching the St. Matthew Passion for the first time. It is a 'dense masterwork' (p.ix) written in an 'archaic musical language' (p.1), and filled with melodies of 'tortured intricacy' (p.11). As for harmony, Bach 'would never write a simple harmonic accompaniment when a more complex, expressive one presented itself to him, as it always did' (p.104). The guidance offered in this volume is aimed squarely at those new to the work and unfamiliar with the technical jargon of musicology. But there is something here for everybody, and the final chapter on the work's reception and recording history will also be of interest to those already familiar with the details of the score.
 
The first impression on opening the book is of continuous, uninterrupted text. Dispensing with musical examples is no doubt intended to avoid discouraging the uninitiated, but the absence of illustrations or subheadings could well have that very effect. Comparison with Christoph Wolff's recent Bach biography (on which this draws heavily) shows the wealth of portraits, manuscripts and maps available to such a publication. Lederer compensates with a reader-friendly writing style, concise and substantial but always focussing first and foremost on the experience of listening.
 
Context, precedents and biography are given a cursory treatment in Chapter 1. Lederer's coverage of the passion settings of Heinrich Schütz is unlikely to convince those unfamiliar with them to take the gamble, and his discussion of Bach's St. John Passion recommends some of its parts - the arias in particular - at the expense of the whole. But listeners who really want to understand the context of the St. Matthew Passion are left in no doubt that the preferred route is via the cantatas: 'Surely that particularly dedicated subgroup of Bach lovers who listen lovingly to the cantatas are best equipped to deal with the mega-cantata oratorio form of the passions' (p.16).
 
Composer and librettist are treated on almost equal terms throughout, and the success of the St. Matthew Passion is attributed to the dramatic and spiritual insights of both men. Indeed, the only fault Lederer finds with Picander is his 'curious' (p.2) nom de plume, which he acknowledges in the opening pages but then abandons, insisting instead on his real name, Henrici, for the remainder of the volume. The most substantial part of the book is a walk-through of the work, highlighting points of interest along the way. Musicologists (admittedly not the book's intended audience) are likely to find the focus on the libretto surprising. The pietistic overtones of each aria text are discussed in detail, and the biblical narrative, rendered here in the archaic-sounding King James translation, is referenced throughout by chapter and verse rather than movement number.
 
This focus on the words serves as a continuous reminder of the work's liturgical origins, and 'modern, secular listeners' (p.105) are entreated throughout to relate their own perceptions to those of the work's earliest audiences. Such empathy faces many obstacles, and the reliance on allegorical imagery, for example the Daughters of Zion in the opening chorus, is considered a particular hurdle. Lederer writes 'One must understand that the scientific revolution was barely underway when the St. Matthew Passion was first performed…' (p.42). He expects less empathy for the 'undeniable anti-Semitism' (p.23) of Bach's representations of the baying crowds, which are 'unfortunate, but deeply rooted'.
 
Writing about music for those unfamiliar with its terminology is a challenge for any author, but time and again Lederer proves himself equal to the task. Triplets are evoked with both economy and clarity as 'the throbbing rhythmic figuration in which three notes are squeezed into the space of two' (p.55), while a dotted rhythm in one of the arias of second part is described as containing notes that 'are alternating short and long, with the long notes accented heavily: de dumm, de dumm, de dumm' (p.76). One side effect of this tactile immediacy is a bypassing of aesthetic convention. On p.51, for example, a falling appoggiatura is described as a 'sighing figure' associated with regret, which encapsulates this particular usage, but ignores the fact that such effects were part of Bach's lingua franca, codified into a musical language as familiar to the composer's first audiences as they were to the man himself.
 
For those already familiar with the St. Matthew Passion, the last chapter of the book is likely to be of the greatest interest. It chronicles the works reception history starting from its 'rediscovery' by Mendelssohn in the 1830s and continuing through to the hegemony of the period performance movement in recent times. Before covering the Mendelssohn revival, Lederer devotes a few pages to the reception of Bach's other music in the late 18th century. He argues that, despite modern perceptions, Bach's music never went away and was influential throughout the Classical era. He makes a convincing case for Bach's influence on Mozart, but stretches the argument to encompass Haydn (whose counterpoint has 'Bachian intensity' (p.110)), Beethoven and even Chopin.
 
The story of the Mendelssohn revival is told in more moderate terms. Those familiar with the received view that the Passion was completely forgotten between 1750 and Mendelssohn's 1829 performances will be surprised at how the events of that 'rediscovery' unfolded. The young composer had been presented with a copy of the score by his grandmother as a Christmas present in 1823. Lederer surmises that the score must have been handwritten as the work had never been published, leaving open the question of where it had been in the 73 years since its composer's death. The landmark revival performances were organised with the considerable practical help of Carl Fredrich Zelter, conductor of the Berlin Singakademie, a prestigious choral group with whom Mendelssohn had sung as a boy treble. Zelter was himself familiar with the St. Matthew Passion, having rehearsed (although not performed) it with the group in 1815. Mendelssohn's performances were therefore not quite the miraculous resurrection that later history considers them, although they remain a staggering achievement for their conductor, then only twenty years old.
 
Discussion of the work's recent performance and recording history weighs heavily in favour of the 'historically informed' tradition. The last section of the book takes its practical responsibilities seriously, namely to guide those unfamiliar with the work towards recordings that will satisfy both their expectations and their curiosity. Performances by full symphony orchestras are treated as an ironically historical phenomenon, a point made explicit by their absence among modern recordings, the last full orchestra recording (the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan) having been made in 1972 (p.120). Lederer shows no nostalgia for this tradition, although the vehemence of his attacks suggests that he suspects some from his readers. Furtwängler gets the harshest critical mauling for both his slow tempi and for his 'butchering' of the work by cutting seven arias. With regard to tempo, Lederer sagely opines 'common sense would suggest that excessively slow tempos cannot help the St. Matthew Passion, which is already long, grave and unbearably intense' (p.123).
 
Factually, there is very little to question in the book. I would take issue with the statement (p.118) that Bach never used trombones, and also perhaps with the repeated references to 18th century Saxony as 'central Germany' (for example p.30), which seems both anachronistic and geographically suspect. Nevertheless, this volume has much to offer its target audience, who can be identified with some precision through the comparisons and frames of reference invoked: they are American, music loving (with a particular taste for Romantic opera) and are interested in, but not knowledgeable about, the musical and liturgical culture of Europe in the 18th century. Those with more than a passing knowledge of the work may have to look harder to find something of interest to them. Musicians are likely to find the focus on the libretto excessive, but it serves as a useful reminder of the liturgical and dramatic function, all to easily bypassed when the work’s technical accomplishment can be equally appreciated on purely musical terms. The final chapter, detailing the performance and recording history of the work, is also likely to be of interest to those already familiar with the music. Meaning and significance seem to accrue to the St. Matthew Passion with each successive performance and recording. Updates on its progress are always welcome.
 
Gavin Dixon
 
Dr. Gavin Dixon is a writer and composer based in Hertfordshire, UK. His web site Musical Miscellany is here.

 


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