Saturday, 7 April 2012

Easter music ~ The St Matthew Passion oratorio ~ Peter Sellars and Simon Halsey discuss J.S. Bach's great choral work

The great choral work St Matthew Passion (in German Matthäus-Passion) was composed by J S Bach in 1727.  It is based on chapters 26 and 27 of the biblical gospel of St Matthew, the story of Jesus' conviction and crucifixion, which Christians remember at Easter, so there is much drama and soul searching within the music. 

I've sung in it myself, rather a long time ago, but I still have my somewhat worn copy of the libretto (choral parts):

It never ceases to amaze me how composers manage to put this sort of thing together: this work was written for two choirs as well as two orchestras!  Here is a look at a couple of pages in which eight sections of the choir(s) are singing different parts at the same time:

The music shown below the choral parts shows only the basic accompaniment such as may be played on a piano for the purpose of rehearsal, whereas in performance there is an additional set of music for each part in the orchestra, or in this case two!



Bach's St Matthew Passion has a lengthy history.  He wrote it in German in 1727, and revised it a number of times in the years that followed.  It doesn't seem to have been much performed during his lifetime, possibly because of its length and complexity.  In 1829 composer Felix Mendelssohn performed an abbreviated and modified version in Berlin which was very well received.  In the 1850's the text was translated into English by Helen Johnston, which made it more accessible to English speaking audiences.  At this time its place as a well known and widely performed concert piece is well established.

The video clip below shows Simon Halsey (choir master) and Peter Sellars (director) discussing their interpretation and performance of this complex and beautiful piece of music.  For each of them the study of this work has taken place over decades.  I was fascinated by what they said, and although it is a long interview I came away from it refreshed.


Musically this type of music is described as an oratorio in which the singing parts are similar to those used in opera, with the difference being that an oratorio is intended to be sung only rather than acted.  

In the highly original version of the Passion under discussion by Halsey and Sellars, the choir memorised the entire piece so as to be able to move freely about the stage in a semi-dramatisation of the content.  By all accounts these were very powerful performances, engaging the musicians as well as the audience very differently to any other performance I have heard of.  The outcome was very challenging, which not everyone liked.  Performances of anything which affects us emotionally cannot be universally pleasing as not everyone wants this level of involvement.  Whatever one's reaction, there would be no dozing off in the audience!  Good!

Here is an excerpt from the performance:


The original  source page of this video is the Berlin Philharmoniker website   

Musical performances require extensive collaboration not only of individuals but also of large groups: 

The participants of this performance were:
  • Sir Simon Rattle, Conductor
  • Rundfunkchor, with Simon Halsey as Choir master 
  • Peter Sellars, Director of Ritualisation of the performance
  • Berliner Philharmoniker Orchestra
  • Soloists: 
    • Camilla Tilling Soprano,  
    • Magdalena Kožená Mezzo-Soprano,  
    • Topi Lehtipuu Tenor (Arias),  
    • Mark Padmore Tenor (Evangelist)
    • Thomas Quasthoff Baritone (Arias),  
    • Christian Gerhaher Baritone (Christ)
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Happy Easter!

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