The St. Matthew Passion and the Fine Art of Faith
By Tim Smith
After Bach died, his passion music was not performed for one hundred years. When Mendelssohn resurrected the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, it would have been nearly unrecognizable to Bach, for many reasons. Performance forces and instruments had changed. Aesthetics had changed. Most importantly, he would have been surprised by its removal from its liturgical context. The St. Matthew Passion has been in the concert hall ever since.
Some years ago Helmuth Rilling was asked what he thought of historically-informed performance. He praised the musical advances, but quipped about the impossibility of reconstituting the original audience. In hindsight, the humor of his answer hints of criticism, and a very good question in reply. Why is there is so little interest in understanding Bach's audience? Its faith? The faith of Bach himself? It would seem to go with the territory—a must for any person who takes seriously the need to be historically informed. Yet there has been comparatively little taste for this, or even tolerance. Of course Helmuth Rilling's speaking concerts have blazed a clear path in the right direction, and the present project seeks to follow it.
Ethnomusicologists too have forged a lead. Not long ago their discipline disintegrated in realization that the tools, notions, and ideas applied to non-western music were all Western, therefore projections of values and assumptions not shared by the people who made the music itself. The very existence of this music is a cultural claim that today’s scholars respect and try to understand. Today it would border on academic malfeasance to dismiss the claim as superstition, or to take the patronizing stance that “we know better.” The same can be said of Bach: the tools that we apply to him are post-Enlightenment, postmodern, and post-Christian. Neither he nor his congregation would have shared them. They would not even have recognized them.
In response to this problem this site re-imagines the St. Matthew Passion as a liturgical work. With half of the libretto comprised of two chapters in the Gospel of Matthew it seemed logical to use the Calov Bible as the graphic focal point and main interactive tool. For our purposes, the Calov Bible (of which Bach owned a copy) represents the Evangelist. Other players? They are Jesus and the Church, as represented by the flame of a candle and musical scores for the chorales. If you click the candle, you will be taken to the apse of the St. Nicholas Church, which makes a beautiful interactive hypertext. Click the various objects and you will discover nearly 100 pages of reading, most of it printable. All of the commentary is related to the place of passion music in the Lutheran liturgy and how Bach’s congregation might have heard the work.
By re-imagining the Matthew Passion as liturgical art, I hope to nudge those who perform and love it to more awareness of its existence, and genesis, as an artifact of faith. Inversely, I want to reintroduce the St. Matthew Passion to contemporary Christians who either don't know about it or have lost interest because of the off-putting impression that it is "classical music."
One artifactual dimension of this great work is its particularity to certain people and their place. This is not the only dimension of course, and the Matthew Passion is certainly big enough to admit many points of view. The sanctioned viewpoint for a long time has been to preach its universality, delimited to Art with a capital "A". But universality without particularity is meaningless. If high art has no bearing on the particulars of our daily lives, then it is not really universal. Art with a big "A" is not universal to a truck driver who will only hear Willie Nelson. But betrayal, unfairness, cruelty, faith, love, hope, forgiveness, redemption, and salvation are. Bach and Willie Nelson are of one accord in these. As such, the St. Matthew Passion was brought into being as a devotional work for ordinary people going about their ordinary lives. It is still this way for many people, especially during Holy Week. In the poetry of John Reeves, a contributor to this site: "This is immensely more than just a superb contraption of sound, this is an unequivocal witness; whose rightful home is never among the arts, but only here, within such walls and hearts."
In conclusion, please allow me personally to express my admiration for Helmuth Rilling, and to offer hearty congratulations on his 44 years as artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival. It was while hearing him teach the St. Matthew Passion when I was a young conductor in the festival nearly thirty years ago that my career path became fixed on Bach. I still have that score, with all of his notes, from which I've worked every day since August of 2012. I salute you Helmuth Rilling for your humility, knowledge, and skill. You are a treasure to whom we owe more than any of us could ever possibly repay.