The St Matthew Passion (German: Matthäus-Passion), BWV 244, is a Passion, a sacred oratorio written by Johann Sebastian Bach in 1727 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 (in the German translation of Martin Luther) to music, with interspersed chorales and arias. It is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of classical sacred music. The original Latin title Passio Domini nostri J.C. secundum Evangelistam Matthæum translates to "The Passion of our Lord J[esus] C[hrist] according to the Evangelist Matthew".
The St Matthew Passion is the second of two Passion settings by Bach that have survived in their entirety, the first being the St John Passion, first performed in 1724.
Versions and contemporary performances
Little is known with certainty about the creation process of the St Matthew Passion. The available information derives from extant early manuscripts, contemporary publications of the libretto, and circumstantial data, for instance in documents archived by the Town Council of Leipzig.
The St Matthew Passion was probably first performed on 11 April 1727 in the St. Thomas Church, and again on 15 April 1729, 30 March 1736, and 23 March 1742. Bach then revised it again between 1743 and 1746.
First version (BWV 244b)
In Leipzig it was not allowed to paraphrase the words of the Gospel in a Passion presentation on Good Friday. A setting of the then popular Brockes Passion libretto, largely consisting of such paraphrasing, could not be done without replacing the paraphrases by actual Gospel text. That was the option chosen by Bach for his 1724 St John Passion. In 1725 Christian Friedrich Henrici, a Leipzig poet who used Picander as pen name, had published Erbauliche Gedanken auf den Grünen Donnerstag und Charfreytag ("Edifying Thoughts on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday"), containing free verse suitable for a Passion presentation in addition to the Gospel text. Bach seems to have stimulated the poet to write more of such verse in order to come to a full-fledged libretto for a Passion presentation combined with the Passion text chapters 26 and 27 in the Gospel of St Matthew.
Since 1975 it is usually assumed that Bach's St Matthew Passion was first performed on Good Friday 11 April 1727, although its first performance may have been as late as Good Friday 1729 as older sources assert. The performance took place in the St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche) in Leipzig. Bach was Thomaskantor (i.e. Cantor, and responsible for the music in the church) since 1723. In this version the Passion was written for two choruses and orchestras. Choir I consists of a soprano in ripieno voice, a soprano solo, an alto solo, a tenor solo, SATB chorus, two traversos, two oboes, two oboes d'amore, two oboes da caccia, lute, strings (two violin sections, violas and cellos), and continuo (at least organ). Choir II consists of SATB voices, violin I, violin II, viola, viola da gamba, cello, two traversos, two oboes (d'amore) and possibly continuo.
Funeral cantata for Köthen (BWV 244a)
Further information: Klagt, Kinder, klagt es aller Welt, BWV 244a
Klagt, Kinder, klagt es aller Welt, BWV 244a, a cantata of which only the text is extant, was performed 24 March 1729 in Köthen at a memorial service held some months after the death of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen. The music of the cantata consisted largely of music adapted from the St Matthew Passion.
Passion performances in the St. Thomas Church
At the time only men sang in church: high pitch vocal parts were usually performed by treble choristers. In 1730 Bach informed the Leipzig Town Council as to what he saw as the number of singers that should be available for the churches under his responsibility, including those for the St. Thomas Church: a choir of twelve singers, plus eight singers that would serve both St. Thomas and the Peterskirche. The request was only partially granted by the Town Council, so possibly at least some of the Passion presentations in St. Thomas were with fewer than twenty singers, even for the large scale works, like the St Matthew Passion, that were written for double choir.
In Bach's time St. Thomas Church had two organ lofts: the large organ loft that was used throughout the year for musicians performing in Sunday services, vespers, etc., and the small organ loft, situated at the opposite side of the former, that was used additionally in the grand services for Christmas and Easter. The St Matthew Passion was composed as to perform a single work from both organ lofts at the same time: Chorus and orchestra I would occupy the large organ loft, and Chorus and orchestra II performed from the small organ loft. The size of the organ lofts limited the number of performers for each Choir. Large choruses, in addition to the instrumentists indicated for Choir I and II, would have been impossible, so also here there is an indication that each part (including those of strings and singers) would have a limited number of performers, where, for the choruses, the numbers indicated by Bach in his 1730 request would appear to be (more than?) a maximum of what could be fitted in the organ lofts.
Later revisions and performances (BWV 244)
Bach revised the Passion by 1736, for a performance on Good Friday 30 March 1736. This is the version (with some possible later adjustments) that is generally known as the St Matthew Passion, BWV 244. In this version both choirs have SATB soloists and chorus, and a string section and continuo consisting of at least violins I and II, viola, gamba and organ. The woodwinds are two traversos, oboes and oboes d'amore for each choir, and in addition for choir I two oboes da caccia.
Some parts were adjusted for a new performance on Good Friday 23 March 1742. Bach finalized his autograph score 1743–1746, however not tied to any new performance.
Numbering of the movements
See also: St Matthew Passion structure § Numbering of the movements
Bach did not number the sections of the St Matthew Passion, all of them vocal movements, but twentieth-century scholars have done so. The two main schemes in use today are the scheme from the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (NBA, New Bach Edition) which uses a 1 through 68 numbering system, and the older Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV, Bach Works Catalog) scheme which divides the work into 78 numbers. Both use lettered subsections in some cases. This article is written using the NBA numbering system.
Bach worked together with his librettist, Christian Friedrich Henrici, known as Picander who published the text of the libretto of the St Matthew Passion in 1729.
The Bible text used for Part One is Matthew 26:1–56. Part Two uses Matthew 26:57–75 and Matthew 27:1–66
Additionally, Song of Songs 6:1 is used in the opening aria (with chorus) of Part Two (No. 30).
Picander wrote text for recitatives and arias, and for the large scale choral movements that open and close the Passion. Other libretto sections came from publications by Salomo Franck and Barthold Heinrich Brockes.
See also: List of chorale harmonisations by Johann Sebastian Bach § BWV 244–244b
The chorale melodies and their texts would have been known to those attending the services in the St Thomas church. The oldest chorale Bach used in the St Matthew Passion dates from 1525. Three chorales are written by Paul Gerhardt and Bach included five stanzas from his O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. Bach used the hymns in different ways, most are four-part setting, two as the cantus firmus of the two chorale fantasias framing Part I, one as a commenting element in a tenor recitative.