Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano


uncommon intelligence, imagination and textual awareness...



Program Notes

J.S. Bach:  St. Matthew Passion

The city, Leipzig in 1727:  site of a fine university, a secondary commercial center, a satellite of Dresden.  We are interested in two inhabitants of the city, the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantor of the Thomas School and Church, and the writer Christian Friedrich Henrici (pen name: Picander), Post Office Commissioner.  We are interested in the phenomenon of collaboration in the making of works of art.

First, the composer.  He is in the fourth year of strenuous service to his church, school and city – more than a hundred cantatas and occasional pieces, the St. John Passion, endless lessons, coachings, church services, and concerts.  Each year his production has slackened slightly.  Perhaps fatigue and a discouragement with the performance level have played some role.  But we notice especially, in the third and fourth Leipzig cantata cycles, a dwindling availability of good texts.

The more we study Bach, the more we understand him to be outstandingly text-sensitive. Some composers – Schönberg and Brahms come to mind – are vocal music machines, willing to handle and effectively shape almost any verbal material.   Others – like Wolf and Schumann – write best with the best words, and seek out the best words.  Always alert for local collaborators, Bach was fortunate during his employment in Weimar (1708-1718) to find Salomo Franck, the head of the Weimar Mint, the finest poet he would ever set.  The Weimar Bach-Franck cantatas are a precious sheaf of some of the most sublime, mystical, colorful music ever composed.  During his desperate Leipzig libretto search Bach returned, when possible, to Franck’s poetry, as well as to the work of other poets from his early years.  He also tries a Leipzig poet, Marianne Von Ziegler: some of the results are weighed down by the greyness of the words.

The major large work of Bach’s first Leipzig years is the St. John Passion (1724).  The non-Biblical texts for that piece were a rough assemblage from existing older sources, poetically uneven and heterogeneous.  The proportions – the first part half the length of the second, aria texts of widely varying length – contribute to the piece’s bracing journalistic nervousness.  Bach, through four very significant revisions, works effectively to make virtues of the work’s difficulties.  He must have been interested when Picander published (a year later) a libretto for a Good Friday oratorio.  By 1727 Bach and Picander had worked on two cantatas, apparently enough for the composer to believe that the poet was the right man to help him achieve his largest vision.

As with Salomo Franck, we can assume that Picander was more than a professional acquaintance.  Christoph Wolff, who has shown us the crucial importance of the roster of godparents in discovering Bach’s intellectual environment, notes that Elizabeth Henrici, Picander’s wife, served as godparent to Bach’s nineteenth (!) child, ten years after the St. Matthew premiere.   Two months before that premiere, their cantata “Ich bin vergnügt” appears, a compact preview of a fertile partnership in which this versatile writer will provide scripts for comedy (the Coffee Cantata), mythological masque (Phoebus and Pan), “official” encomia (Long Live the King), and the greatest cantata-length Good Friday meditation (BWV 159: Sehet wir gehn hinauf, 1729). With a real literary talent aboard, Bach can plan his big piece from the ground up.

Early Passion settings, like the Schütz St. Matthew Passion (which Emmanuel will present on Good Friday), were essentially Bible texts.  By Bach’s time interpolations were customary.  Our collaborators first decide where they might interrupt the Biblical story with traditional chorales.  These chorales are chosen for their ability to summarize some concept or action we have witnessed in the story.  They are also present for their appeal to the listener, who knows them as familiar hymns.  The melodies and words, often hundreds of years old, are the given element; the harmonizations are geared to their moment in this piece, the composer’s own commentary and punctuation.

Next comes the placement – also interrupting and embroidering the Biblical narration -- of “Madrigal” texts, arias and duets for solo singers, as well as monumental outer-pillar choruses, all to be poems by Picander.    These too refer to the story, but not with “traditional” material.  The approach Bach and Picander take is very personal.  Many of the interpolated texts in the St. Matthew can be heard as surrogate arias, soloists in empathy with characters in the story.  For the big choruses which frame the Two Parts of the piece (and maybe this caesura for the sermon was their first decision), the listeners are recruited as mourners and witnesses to mourn together, to take responsibility, to ask forgiveness.

Theses interventions produce a supple, varied libretto, with an operatic abundance of musical types (opera in Leipzig had closed down in 1720).  The Bible narrative, full of moving and dramatic detail and incident, is not geared to expanded, lyric emphasis.   Bach and Picander, in making this text (the composer the guiding hand) seek a generous, expansive, public diction – seek a combination of impact and inwardness.

In Volume II of his collected works, Serious, Jocular, and Satirical Verses (1729), Picander published his text for the St. Matthew Passion, divided into fifteen scenes.  This seems a more likely way for the writer to conceive the text than the composer, especially a composer making the largest and most comprehensive musical design ever attempted.  In restudying the piece I perceive a musical structure in fewer divisions.  It begins, after a significant prelude, by concentrating on brief, intimate establishment scenes, then gradually widens its focus and expands the length of its inner segments, arriving at certain points of stress or climax where the librettist (as well as the composer) must produce something exceptional.

Part One

Scene Central Image Conclusion
1. The woman of Bethany
(the house of Simon the Leper)
Buß und Reu
Blute nur
2. The last Supper
(a room in Jerusalem)
Nehmet, esset
Ich will dir
3. The Watch
(the Mount of Olives)
Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen
So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen

The gigantic opening chorus invites the listeners, as witnesses.  Then follow two brief chamber music scenes as a chronicle of Jesus’ relationship with his disciples, who are typically interrogative and contentious.  The Gospel of Matthew is much concerned with Jesus’ establishment of community.

The scene on the Mount of Olives brings the first climax of the piece, the sublime song for tenor and chorus, “Ich will,” in which the singer’s plaintive, contorted phrases break off at peaks of unrest, only to be answered over and over by a hushed, anxious lullaby sung by the choir (“sempre p!”).  In this great adventure in negative capability, for which Picander has provided a polyphonic structure and attractive folk poetry, the lonely tenor is eventually excised, the summation left to the choir, and finally only to the instruments. 

Part Two

Scene Central Image Conclusion
1. Before the Accusers
(Palace of the High Priest)
Erbarme dich
2. Before Pilate Können Tränen
Komm, süßes Kreuz
(hope for resignation)
3. Golgotha Sehet
Mache dich
(burial rite)
Epilogue post-burial questions ritual summary

The aria for mezzo-soprano and choir that begins Part Two (“Ach nun”) is a counterpoise to the monumental opening chorus.  The images are again from the Song of Songs and the story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, but the touching reduction to a single singer, “most beautiful among women,” accompanied by sympathetic companions, establishes the human scale and prepares us to pick up the strands nearest in our subconscious, Peter and Judas.

The first scene is blistered by the first set of crowd utterances, which become increasingly fierce as the Second Part proceeds, but its heart is in Jesus’ silence, and eventually in the heartsick response to Peter’s denial.

Scene 2 begins by completing the story of the penitent Judas; Bach opens a fresh textural window, the solo violin illustrating the jingling of (blood) money. Fierce crowd responses dominate the ensuing pages, momentarily quelled by the trance of the soprano aria “Aus Liebe.” Central to the scene is “Können Tränen,” a black and white woodcut text, austerely scored, stingy with its material, arduous, obsessive, inconsolable.  This unlovable piece inhabits the harshest moments in the drama.  Its residue remains in “Komm Süsses Kreuz,” which renders in its bass line Jesus’ stumbling steps, while the bass singer’s longing for resignation contends with the agitation hovering in the obbligato gamba.

Scene 3 is increasingly expansive and elegiac, established by the remarkable aria for alto with choir, “Sehet,” which urges the faithful, in advance of Christ’s inevitable death, to “rest in Jesus’ arms,” a psychological projection forward.  After Christ’s death there are three punctuations: first a setting of the Passion Chorale that attends acutely to every note of the melody, then the brief earthquake scene with its ecstatic witnesses, and finally, at the culminative point, where the composer and poet must produce something more, something yet unheard but imminent, Bach and Picander deliver “Am Abend” and “Mache dich” -- generous, intimate, enfolding, from the day of its first performance a crucial link to transcendence and consolation for all who can embrace them.

We have Bach cantata working texts with scratched out lines, we have scores with written over fugue subjects, but we don’t have the conversations these colleagues might have had in their offices or on the street (they didn’t need to write letters!). The closest I can get to the matter-of-fact, workaday, fervent world in which this piece originated is my own experience in 1960 as a volunteer choir member at the Spandauer Johanisstift, to which I rode the S-Bahn for rehearsal on Wednesdays (one hour past the gloomy prison which still housed Rudolf Hess) and performance in Zehlendorf on Sunday (one hour past the point of the Wannsee where Kleist ended his life) to learn Bach cantatas.  The splendid conductor, Hans-Martin Schneidt, was in a constant world of Bach -- in the year I knew him did he ever mention any other subject?  But most strange, his rehearsals with those intense high-school age seminary students: Not once do I remember him making a “musical” point.  In a state of high agitation he would stop and literally scream the text.  And a correction, in character or detail, would be made.  Or suddenly, in a burst of school-teacher calm, he would patiently go back over the Bible story behind the words, with similar good results.

One week we did “Ich steh’ mit einem Fuss im Grabe” (“I stand with one foot in the grave”) and I was struck by the peculiar name of the poet – Picander. As the limping rhythm of the first number began, our women singing the beautiful chorale, I remember thinking, who were these guys, Bach and Picander? I would have guessed them to be vehement, emphatic yeomen like Hans-Martin Schmidt, busy, full of big plans.

© John Harbison