BBC Proms 2021: a chance to appreciate the genius of Bach’s St Matthew Passion

Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion may just be the pinnacle of music, and you can hear it at the BBC Proms this week, writes Nick Hely-Hutchinson

The Royal Albert Hall will play host to a concert featuring one of Bach’s finest compositions (Photo: BBC)

‘The immortal God of harmony.’

Not my words, sadly, but those of Beethoven in his assessment of Johann Sebastian Bach. In the end, everything has to start with Bach.

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It never ceases to amaze me how many people will say they enjoy classical music but can’t be done with JSB. Too mathematical, they say, too mechanical.

At the beginning of what has turned out to be a resoundingly successful Proms season, I drew attention to a number of concerts which you needed to look out for. All of them lived up to expectations, but we aren’t over yet – even if we are now into the final week. One such was Vikingur Olafsson.

If you think Bach can’t pierce your soul and you missed it, listen to his five minute encore and be ready to shed a tear. I did. And when I turned to my wife, it had had the exact same effect. It is mesmeric in its simple beauty.

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Most of us at some stage will have played our own version of the long-standing radio programme, Desert Island Discs, and selected the eight tracks which would accompany us if we were ever to be stranded on some distant shore.

It is a list which is bound to change according to our moods and I am just as likely to need a dose of Aretha Franklin or David Bowie, as I am Schubert, Beethoven, or Mozart. But there will never be any change or room for negotiation in my one indispensable, save-from-the-waves music. It has always been, and always will be, the Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

And you can hear it in full with a star-studded lineup on Thursday night, the penultimate night of the season. After the last two years we have experienced, this is nothing less than a programming masterstroke.

You do not have to be a believer of any kind to appreciate this work. It may help, but it is by no means essential. We have all experienced or witnessed death at close hand over the last 12 months and I can think of no better music to help, in some way personal to us each, to come to terms with it, whether it be a recent demise or one a while ago – or indeed if we are confronting it right now.

So here are a few thoughts in a layman’s approach by way of a programme note and things to look out for.

As well as its quite specific architectural meaning, the word pinnacle has also come to represent the highest point of development or achievement in a particular field. That, in turn, suggests some lengthy period before the pinnacle is reached.

So it may seem strange to refer to a piece of music which is now nearly 300 years old as being the pinnacle of all music, but that, in truth, is what Bach’s St Matthew Passion, represents. And yes, that includes the Ring cycle by Wagner.

Cast aside any views you may have on Christianity, although the painter Roger Fry once observed that ‘Bach almost persuades me to be a Christian.’ There’s no mention here of eternal life: it’s the tragic tale of an innocent man, betrayed, wrongfully arrested and executed. This alone makes it a story relevant to our times, because the same thing continues to happen in parts of the world 2000 years later. That a man called Jesus Christ lived and was put to death in such a violent manner is a matter of fairly reliable historical fact – it’s what happened on the third day which causes all the debate.

It’s because of that, that the St Matthew Passion speaks to us about tragedy and grief in a way which transcends the Christian story. Every time I have attended a live performance, I have been aware of sitting amongst hundreds of people, and yet, like everybody else in the audience, having my own personal experience of what this masterpiece brings. Grief, after all, is not really something we can share with others, because our grief is our own. There are parts where you may weep or be very close to it. This is the effect of Bach’s extraordinary setting.

And it is this feeling of embarking on a joint but very individual journey of what it is to experience grief which is conveyed in the very opening chorus. It really does feel as if a train is pulling out of the station, just as it feels we have arrived at our destination at the end of the peace nearly three hours later, with a huge reluctance to disembark.

The passion is scored for two choirs and four soloists. As soon as Judas Iscariot has betrayed Jesus, we get this aria ‘Break in grief’ where Bach starts to raise the emotional temperature. This is our first real taste of the grief which comes with betrayal - it’s not just in the voice of the soloist, but in the sighing of the orchestra.

Summarising a piece of nearly 3 hours is nigh on impossible, but there are things to look out for. As if betrayal was not bad enough, Simon Peter, the first disciple, insists that he would rather die than deny any knowledge of his master, whereupon Jesus predicts, much to his disciples' increasing frustration, that before the cock crows he will have denied him three times. Either side of this exchange we have this contrasting and profoundly comforting chorale.

As the story moves forward, Jesus has been arrested in the garden of Gethsemane and taken away to be tried. Outside, Simon Peter is challenged by three separate groups that they have seen him with Jesus, and three times he denies it. The cock crows as predicted and Simon Peter is immediately wracked with guilt.

Bach now takes the emotion to a different level in the aria ‘Have mercy, Lord, have mercy, Lord on me.’ The pleas for mercy grow ever intense, but the solo violin singing alongside is a stroke of genius. Bach also has you thinking that the passage is about to come to an end, but it lingers, thereby adding to the lament.

Jesus is led away to be crucified. The text says how, after letting out a loud cry, he yielded up the ghost. At this point the music stops for a moment of silent reflection: and in that moment, whether you are a Christian or not, the gravity of an innocent man judicially murdered can be deeply moving.

When the music resumes with the familiar chorale, peace is soon shattered as the earth trembles and the vale of the temple is rent in two. And then, almost out of nowhere, you get one of those moments of music which is so utterly exquisite as those surrounding the cross, led by a centurion, acknowledge ‘ truly, this was the son of God.’ Beethoven’s description of Bach as the immortal God of harmony is nowhere captured better than in these 30 seconds.

And so we come to the conclusion of the peace. It’s almost unbelievable to think that the work was performed on only a handful of occasions in Bach’s lifetime and not until nearly 100 years later was it unearthed and edited by Felix Mendelssohn, who conducted it in Leipzig in 1829. Now it’s performed regularly, especially at Easter.

It has also been staged. On the face of it, the story is sufficiently dramatic to do this; but my personal opinion is that it gets in the way of truly contemplative music.

As the peace draws to its close, there is this wonderful aria, ‘Make thee clean my heart from sin’, which has a gentle skip to it with a perfectly lovely tune. Remember, you don’t need to be a believer to appreciate this; and if you aren’t, when it comes to the words let Jesus in, just swap Jesus for love, in the same way George Herbert does in his poem of the same name. They are convincingly interchangeable.

Jesus is then taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb, with the passion concluding with a final chorale making a last plea for a peaceful rest. The work comes to its end, but after three hours, it can quite easily leave you in a sort of trance.

Friday night will bring an altogether different mood, one of celebration, and rightly so. Never mind about all the nationalistic debate which continues to bedevil it: a curtailed season has been a riotous success and the return of live music a reminder of what we have missed.

And coughing, rather like commuting, has finally been shown to be necessary only when necessary.

Don’t forget you can follow my podcast on all major platforms perfectpitch.buzzsprout.com

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