Despite both Bach’s settings of the Passion lasting more than two hours, they were written to be used as part of a Lutheran church service – he wrote the St John Passion, for the Good Friday Vespers service of 1724, and the St Matthew Passion three years later. Rather than expecting the audience – or, rather, congregation – to sit back and take in the music, Bach included a number of hymn-like chorales within the solo sections, so everyone could participate in the worship. Listen to the simple ‘Erkenne mich, mein hüter’ from the St Matthew Passion: this tune is repeated throughout the oratorio, sometimes in a lower key to reflect a sadder mood.
While the words speak for themselves, telling the all-important Easter story, Bach’s multiple layers of musical meaning in both the St John and St Matthew Passions mean it’s possible to enjoy the music on a number of levels. The text tells the story on its own, but it’s Bach’s (often hidden) techniques that bring the music to life.
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