Would the music for Bach’s St Matthew Passion have been possible without the prompt of St Matthew, Christ, or God?

The question here is whether this work – and other works on the same elevated artistic level (the few that exist) – would have been possible without the awe-inspiring presence of deep-rooted religious faith. Or could nature and her mightiest representatives, whether mountains or distant stars, have prompted the same sublime music without the presence of a deity? Please discuss. My view, for what it’s worth, is that it wouldn’t have been possible.

9 thoughts on “Would the music for Bach’s St Matthew Passion have been possible without the prompt of St Matthew, Christ, or God?

  1. wattsound (Bernard Clarke)

    Difficult to know. Yeshua of Nazareth was a Jew who spoke Aramaic; he was reinvented for Christianity as Jesus; and finally in rendered in John for a Greek reading Christian audience. Then comes the German and Luther’s take on thing.s And then Bach. The same headstrong composer who may have spent a night in jail for pulling a short sword in a heated argument; who caused a minor scandal by having a young maiden listen to him in the organ loft; the one who jokes in letters about good and bad winters and good one’s being bad for funeral gigs which he made money from. But there’s no doubting the fervour of his belief in the Lutheran Jesus and that is everywhere in these great works. If he had been born instead in the East and was raised say in Zen I have no doubt that the intensity of what he would have produced instead in a totally different tradition would have been the same: visionary. I agree with you Rob!

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  2. Rob!!! What can of worms you’ve opened here. Luther was about as vicious an anti-semite as you could hope to meet this side of hell. His preachings and the role of the Jews of Jerusalem 2000 years ago still underpin one aspect of modern anti-semitism. The Jews were deemed guilty of deicide until the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), repudiated belief in collective Jewish guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel was responsible for this accusation.

    So what? The music transcends hatred. Its spirituality defies ownership by anyone. And this of course is what makes Bach unique, since so much of his pure music achieves the same transcendentalism without any external influences or narrative. That’s what genius is.

    I’m now off to decide whether to have an evening of Goldberg or a bit of well-tempered clavier . — no prompting necessary!!

    P.S I miss your rucksack………

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    1. Bless you Peter – rest assured the rucksack is still carrying discs. I take your point re antisemitism pre the Second Vatican Council – but yes, the music transcends hatred. Incidentally, re Bach do try Alexandra Papastefanou’s 48. You can hear the tiny Prelude No. 3 in C sharp major, BWV 872
      on Youtube. I’s a really lovely cycle, full of original ideas and deeply music. At to recordings of the St Matthew – Klemperer, absolutely, the first Richter too and the astonishing 1939 Palm Sunday Mengelberg with Karl Erb, where the Passion becomes an opera but well worth the occasional visit. Best wishes. Rob.

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  3. Philip Anderton

    Dear Rob,
    Psalm 111 says:
    Great are the works of the Lord;
    they are pondered by all who delight in them.
    Looking to the Creator rather than the creation as I’m sure Bach did can only lead one to places of inspiration that nothing or no-one else can.
    If you believe, as I do, that God is beyond our limits of comprehension and understanding while St Matthew’s gospel tells of his indefatigable love and compassion for humankind, then you understand Bach’s inspiration.
    I was always struck by the tone of your voice when you introduced Bach’s sacred music on Breakfast. Simply, genius fuelled by faith produces miraculous music.

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  4. Prior to Bach’s appointment as Cantor at Leipzig he had to pass theological tests to make sure he was ‘on side’. So you might conclude that if he wanted the job so much he could have said what the examiners wanted to hear and worked accordingly. But I think it goes much deeper than that and requires us to get on our time bicycles to soak up the environment in which Bach was living and working. Good Friday was a key date in the religious diary of the townsfolk (academics, civic personages, clergy, as well as the people) and as part of the Liturgy and Meditation for the day, the people would have expected to come and hear a musical setting of Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion. It was a long affair and while in our own LBS performances since 1952 we have involved the audience in the singing of a setting of the Passion Chorale (1 in Part 1 and 2 in Part 2), it is doubtful that the Leipzig congregation would have done the same. Bach was born into the Lutheran life in which there was no difference between the sacred and secular. This life was a preparation for the life to come and the composer is known to have owned an extensive Library of Lutheran writing plus a carefully annotated Bible. Day to day life and the religious life were inextricably bound up in way it isn’t today. So Bach’s faithful adherence to the contents of chapters 26 and 27 of St. Matthew’s Gospel for his St Matthew is wholly understandable. Soli Deo Gloria is written on his scores.

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    1. ‘Bach was born into the Lutheran life in which there was no difference between the sacred and secular’. The key issue I would have thought Margaret and thank you so much for your detailed analysis. Best wishes. Rob

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