What is the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the word 'Baroque'? If you are a musician there is a strong likelihood that your response was 'Bach.' In my youth, I was one of those fortunate souls whose piano teacher ensured that Johann Sebastian was a regular part of my studies, and for that I will be forever grateful. Not only do I think Bach is extremely enjoyable to play (yes!), I think that in the elements of his music lay the foundation for all good music-- balance, clarity, development, voice leading...
But I don't really want to discuss music theory, I want to talk about meaning.
Bach arrived in Leipzig in 1723, at around the age of 38. Here he prepared music for four churches, directed a university student collegium musicum (chamber ensemble), and taught several hundred boys at the St. Thomas school. Busy indeed! A devout Lutheran, Bach was also deeply acquainted with loss-- his first wife, Maria Barbara, having passed away unexpectedly and leaving him a widower with four young children (ages 11, 9, 6, and 5). Additionally, eleven of his children did not survive into adulthood. If he had done nothing else in his life other than to compose, his compositional output would be among the most impressive of any era, both in quality and quantity. For me however, he is all the more remarkable (even heroic) for these works in light of the full weight of his many responsibilities and significant personal challenges. Yet of all of this he modestly remarked,
Of Bach's significant contributions to the repertoire, his sacred oratorio, St. Matthew Passion (Matthäus-Passion), stands out as monumental not only by the standards of his day, but ours as well. In dramatic scope, richness of musical texture, performing forces, and not least of all length (three hours), a performance of this work is often a deeply moving experience for both musicians and audience members. In particular for me, it is his opening chorus that serves as a powerful testament not only of his remarkable musicianship, but his deep and abiding faith.
In 'Kommt ihr Tochter' ('Come ye daughters'), Bach does not simply invite us to listen with our ears, but seems to throw us right into the passion story itself as active witnesses on the road to Calvary. With the opening notes, Bach also leaps us dramatically ahead to the end of narrative, Christ struggling to carry the cross to Golgotha, only after which he returns us to the beginning, being anointed for his burial, three days prior. It is as if he is saying to those who assembled for Holy Week services in 1727, 'this is where we are going today, are you prepared to follow?'
As orchestra basses intone a low dragging drone figure, visions of the heavy-laden Lord struggling to bear the wood come easily to the mind's eye. We can taste the dust. We can feel the sun. To this he adds the pressing crowds. We can hear and feel the force of them pushing up against us as two choirs shout from opposite sides of the path,
"His Innocence... Look!"
"On our offense."
But the picture still is not complete, and to this scene Bach adds an angel (boys) choir floating high above, in a hymn tune familiar to those present at St. Thomas Church,
O Lamb of God most holy, Who on the cross didst languish,
O Savior meek and lowly, condemned to suffer anguish.
Deeply dramatic. Deeply layered. Deeply moving. Deeply devotional.
Thus begins the great Matthäus-Passion of J.S. Bach.