Bach with some bite: How 'The St Matthew Passion' went from zero to hero.

“The St Matthew Passion could, like so much of Bach’s music, have become 18th-century fish-and-chip wrapping paper,” says the conductor Jonathan Willcocks

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The Independent Culture


When booking opened in May for this year’s BBC Proms, one of the first performances to sell out was that of a work that remained unplayed for nearly a century and that even its composer heard probably only twice in his lifetime. The St Matthew Passion of J S Bach has been compared by the great Bach scholar and interpreter John Eliot Gardiner to a great altarpiece by Veronese or Tintoretto. But director Peter Sellars, who brings a semi-staged production featuring conductor Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to the Proms this Saturday, looks higher for his analogy. For him, it is the musical equivalent of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: “It’s one of those achievements that we don’t see again in the history of humanity,” he says.

What is now universally accepted as a masterwork, by those within and outside the Christian faith, was written for liturgical use on Good Friday, 11 April 1727 at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. It tells the story of Christ’s crucifixion, and it received, says Sellars, “what we think was a rather cool response”. But clearly the composer knew that of all his massive output, the Passion was something exceptional. While the first performers would have worked from hurriedly inked parts, Bach later wrote, in a meticulous hand, a full score, the biblical text picked out in red. As the church’s cantor, he was recording his work for posterity.

That score exists still, although its condition is deteriorating. It was Felix Mendelssohn, 79 years after Bach’s death in 1750, who rescued the piece from oblivion; as the fashionable young conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra he championed many of Bach’s works. Today, audiences are spoilt for choice, with performances by large amateur choirs, professional forces large and small and, sometimes, only one voice to a part. This last interpretation was proposed by the American Joshua Rifkin, best known for reviving the ragtime music of Scott Joplin, a link between Bach and modern syncopation that is by no means coincidental.

“The St Matthew Passion could, like so much of Bach’s music, have become 18th-century fish-and-chip wrapping paper,” says the conductor Jonathan Willcocks, who next year will conduct a “sing-in” for amateurs who want to give this great work a try. Other lovers of the work will attend the annual Easter performance by the Bach Choir, a tradition upheld over 30 years by Willcocks’s conductor father, Sir David Willcocks, at the Royal Festival Hall. “I was brought up hearing the very fine annual performances – often with 250 to 300 voices. The impact of the “Let him be crucified” choruses, the scornful “Hail King of the Jews” chorus and the electrifying “Barabbas” interjection was immense in a way that a small choir, however good, could not match.” RFH audiences can also hear the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s interpretation, only days after the Bach Choir’s. Like Handel’s Messiah, the work seems infinitely adaptable, despite its considerable technical demands, and the appetite for it is insatiable.

It’s not difficult to see why. The St Matthew, one of only two surviving Bach Passions, is audacious in its construction, calling for two, briefly, three, choirs, double orchestra, and unusual instruments: the vulnerable oboe da caccia accompanies one aria, the fragile viola da gamba another. The days before Easter are traditionally a busy time for the oboe specialists in particular, who can find themselves on daily flights from country to country.

The Proms performance is a third outing for a production first staged in Berlin in 2010, and most of the Proms soloists took part in the Berlin staging, their acting as critical as their voices to the impact of this fast unfolding drama. Renowned as an opera director, Sellars is particularly atuned to dance rhythms: in 1996, his staged Glyndebourne production of the Handel oratorio Theodora broke new ground as chorus and soloists traced their vocal lines in gesture, picking out the counterpoint in movement. It was a revelatory and moving experience for the audience.

“Much of Bach’s spirituality is expressed in dance,” says Sellars, “and many of the movements are dance movements. ‘Staging’ is a crude way to put it, because it’s not theatre; but it calls for the performer’s whole being.” The soloists and some instrumentalists perform without written music. “We get past the bar-lines. Once we have put the scores away, we get that call and response tradition of African church music. When people have memorised their scores, they are singing and playing from their hearts.”

Is the piece, in effect, an opera? “Bach kept applying for opera jobs and not getting them,” says Sellars. “So he applied the traditions of opera, but the Passion is not entertainment: it’s the most personal experience. This man Jesus is going to change the world; he is radical, heals the sick, befriends outcasts, says, ‘You should love one another’. And within a week he is arrested, subjected to a travesty of a trial and executed ... the genius of Bach is that he depicts a spiritual path as dialogue ... Bach has that sense of ‘all of us are only going to make it thanks to our friends’.”

“The Royal Albert hall has such a collective power. The way emotion sweeps through that place,” he adds. “We’re a little nervous: the production was made for such specific conditions in Berlin – 360 degrees with the audience on all sides. The St Matthew Passion is not made for a proscenium arch. We’re going to make some experiments.”

Bach is thought have put his third choir in the “swallow’s nest” of his organ loft, the other two choruses singing, questioningly, at each other. At the Prom, Christian Gerhaher, as Christ, will stand apart from the other singers, emphasising his absence from those who are trying to piece together this breaking news story. And there is a twist in this tale of miraculous survival: despite its musical complexity, says Sellars: “One of the most moving things, is that most of the performers are silent for most of the piece.”

‘St Matthew Passion’, Royal Albert Hall (promenade tickets available on the day), Radio 3 and online 6 Sept (; Bach Choir, Royal Festival Hall, 29 Mar 2015, OAE, Royal Festival Hall, 2 Apr (