“See him?” demands Choir One across the space of our meeting hall. “Whom?” calls Choir Two, over the heads of the orchestra, whose bows dip and spike under the returning answer, “The bridegroom, Christ.” Four young sopranos softly start the descant, “O Lamb of God, most holy,” then realize they need to lift above both choirs and all the woodwinds. Their next line is bolder as the choirs gather intensity in their call-and-response lament. “Come, ye daughters, share my anguish …”
Thirty-some instruments and almost one hundred voices in nine parts are deep in the pages of J. S. Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. We are so deep that the conductor has lost us, and we stagger to a halt around page eighteen in this first, complex chorus. When you think about it, it’s amazing we got this far, considering some in the choir cannot read music, and some in the orchestra have been learning an instrument for just two or three years. Hardly anyone is what you might call professional.
So why is a Bruderhof choir undertaking Bach’s greatest oratorio, three hours long, two choirs throughout, almost three hundred years old?
We’re not complete novices at choral music; the most familiar choruses of Handel’s Messiah sound forth every Christmas, and occasionally a communal choir has dedicated months toward performances of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Christmas Oratorio or Joseph Haydn’s Creation.
The Saint Matthew Passion, though, needs its own reckoning. Here there is no ringing “Hallelujah Chorus,” no gates flinging wide for the King of Glory, strong and mighty in battle. Every chord, every chorale is taking all participants in one direction – Golgotha.
There are seasons when your soul would like to sidestep, get off the road toward that particular hill on any available back street. But communal gatherings like choir practice are our evening worship services. It’s not something you would consider skipping unless you’re babysitting small children, or down with the flu. There’s also a truly minimal audience section: perhaps ten chairs for the very elderly, a guest or two, someone with laryngitis. So unless you’re really out, you’re in.
But you can try to halfway it for a while. From the Choir Two altos I can see a block of high school kids over in Choir One, hunched over, just enduring. “They look like a herd of bison riding out a snowstorm,” snorts the alto to my left, and I can’t help laughing just a little, but with some sympathy, because, let’s face it, I tried the same stunt at their age. Perhaps my generation’s parents had a tad more foresight – all of us were assigned confident vocal mentors to sit beside. If I tried the silent slump, my aide responded by holding the book higher and underscoring each word in energetic bursts. You can only manage to ignore such zeal for so long.
My husband Jason is the conductor now. He has no formal training, but his father did it for years, and his grandmother before that. He’s a musician and would rather join the orchestra, but somebody has to direct traffic, even if we hardly dare lose our place on the page to glance up and the first violins tend to get ahead of the downbeat.
I know Jason has spent a long time thinking about how to make this practice dynamic and meaningful, keep it flowing while not glossing over the rough patches. But first, a few folks have tips to impart to the young conductor. Even though they’re whispering, I know them well enough to guess what’s going down.
“In the ’70s, the practices used to last for two hours, so we could really drill each part. These Bach harmonies are complex. If we want to be able to sing this piece ten years from now, we need to work hard!” My husband nods.
Which part are we really, the mob or the mourners? And if we’re standing at the edge of the crowd, observing, there’s a cost to that as well.
Next in line: “It’s probably wise to keep these practices short and sweet. The high school kids have a lot of homework, and besides, if you want them to have a positive choir experience, don’t tax their attention spans.” Jason nods again.
He tries to hit the middle ground. “Tenors, let’s take this run again; now against the basses; now both choirs, starting at B, with the orchestra.” Bach is his favorite composer, so he can’t help occasionally pointing out when we might be about to sail past something we shouldn’t miss: eleven disciples asking the Lord, in consternation, “Is it I?” then leaving a ringing silence for the twelfth, who knows very well he is the betrayer. Or the way the strings create what composer Leonard Bernstein called a “halo” around every word Jesus speaks, until his final words of desolation on the cross when they go silent and leave him deserted and alone.
For the most part, though, Jason knows the music speaks for itself, and his task is to make sure we are doing it justice. Sometimes that means practicing the pieces out of order; we start by impersonating a furious rabble, scream-singing “His blood be on us and on our children!” and end with a chorale that asks in bewildered pain:
O Lord, who dares to smite thee,
as sinful to indict thee,
deride and mock thee so?
Thou canst not need confession,
who knowest not transgression,
as we and all our children know.
But do we truly know, and what about our children, sitting next to us and holding up the other side of the score? Which part are we really, the mob or the mourners? And if we’re standing at the edge of the crowd, observing, there’s a cost to that as well.
In our living room later, we talk over the practice, as our kids do their homework and listen to their go-to music – not very different from my own teen headphone escapes, truth be told, though they might not believe it. (Will any of that be around in three hundred years?) Jason is wondering what to do differently next time; that’s when I hear that I guessed right about the whisperers.
What if the comment about teens’ attention spans is selling them short? Clearly, for some folks, even ten minutes is too long, but possibly outer limits don’t get tested much if they are never reached for. Then again, whether this towering, glorious work finds its way into your heart or not really has little to do with age. I suspect many of us know times when bitterness, anger, or fear freeze out everything the Passion communicates. I have sat quietly, pushing the music away, though every chorale speaks of a savior who will never desert us: “To him commit thy ways, who friendless will not leave thee.” “His help is nigh to everyone whose faith in him abideth.” When the cold finally shatters, the message makes sense again. It always did, I just didn’t want it to. “From ill do thou defend me; receive me, lead me home.” “I would beside my Lord be watching, that evil draw me not astray.”
Why would an opening line invite anyone to share anguish? Who accepts such an invitation?
We may be familiar with holding away pain, with building up the cold fronts that ward off feeling. But why would an opening line invite anyone to share anguish? Who accepts such an invitation? Perhaps people who are carrying their own heavy burdens. For friends whose baby was stillborn, for a widow who lost her husband after a long battle with cancer, here is someone who has gone down to death with them. For the couple who has been praying for years to have a child, “Alone thou wilt not leave me, for thou hast tasted grief.” Once you have sung or heard these words, they come back to you like an echo in a silent time.
Grief is the language of this work, and the final chorus brings us to the place where we can lay our grief down: with Jesus in the tomb. The original German words by Christian Friedrich Henrici carry all the weight of the world’s sorrow. As happens frequently in translation, though, the English in our vocal score deviates from the original by a wide mark, prizing positivity and rhyme over fidelity:
Here yet awhile, Lord, thou art sleeping,
Hearts turn to Thee, O Savior blest,
Rest Thou calmly, calmly rest.
Death, that holds Thee in its keeping
When its bonds are loosed by Thee
Shall become a welcome portal,
Leading man to life immortal,
Where he shall Thy glory see.
Those of German heritage in our community considered Bach betrayed, and a few decades ago some of our best linguists started looking for a closer translation for this and several other choruses and arias. They ended up adapting a newer one that came closer to the mood of Henrici’s text. The practicalities of the change were onerous, involving yards and yards of white correction tape typed up and hand-applied into a hundred copies, words stretched out to match the eight separate staves of music per page. But the result surely did better justice to what Bach had in mind:
In tears of grief, dear Lord, we leave thee.
Hearts cry to thee, O Savior blest:
Rest thou softly, softly rest.
Rest thy worn and bruised body.
At thy grave, O Jesu blest,
May the sinner, worn with weeping,
Comfort find in thy dear keeping,
And the weary soul find rest.
Savior blest, slumber now, and take thy rest.
It isn’t time for resurrection yet. The weight of this sacrifice can’t be overleapt. Contradictory as it may seem, in that space of death, mourners can be at peace: their grief is with God. And those who know they have sinned will find redemption.
Those who know. However, at age fifteen I couldn’t be bothered with the concept of sin; surely there was nothing wrong with me. All I knew was that I was stuck in yet another choir practice centered on betrayal and sorrow. If I was having any evil thoughts at all, they were directed at the long-winded choir director who was again belaboring a point that Bach would immediately explain better once the music actually began. Sure enough, those jolting, shuddering cellos did evoke an earthquake. The tenor soloist hit wild, jarring notes. There was the sound of a rending temple veil. On a technical level, I was ready to admit that was cool. Mildly annoyed, mildly impressed, I was completely and thoroughly unprepared for what followed.
For two brief measures, both choirs melded into the voice of the centurion, looking up from the foot of the cross as the realization dawns: “Truly this was the Son of God.” It’s the most radiant declaration, a wall of sound that reaches from the hill to the heavens, with no way around it. Angels ought to have announced it, but instead, it’s an admission by the man responsible for Jesus’ death, coming just too late to save him. I could not have been more shocked if I’d been thrown onto the floor.
There must come a point when the ground stops shaking and all of us who had a hand in Christ’s death can say, in one voice, “Truly, this was the Son of God.”
My earthquake had hit belatedly, and I couldn’t regain my footing. At some point I realized the tenor soloist was continuing the story, but how could there be any more to tell? Wretchedly, uselessly mopping up tears with my sleeve, I couldn’t read words I suddenly really wanted to see, as the choir laid the Son of God in his tomb:
And now the Lord to rest is laid,
Lord Jesus, rest in peace.
His sorrows o’er, for all our sin atonement made,
Lord Jesus, rest in peace.
O consecrated body, see, with repentant tears we would bedew it,
Which our offence to such a death has brought.
Lord Jesus, rest in peace.
While life shall last, let us adore and praise the Lord,
That he for man has full redemption wrought.
Lord Jesus, rest in peace.
While life shall last. It’s been half a lifetime since that earthquake. It didn’t change everything at once. But there is a ground-shift that happens the first time you know – truly know – that God is. Eventually you need to do something about it.
We still practice parts of the Saint Matthew Passion almost every year. We don’t always have a tenor who dares to sing his way through the earthquake, and if we don’t, then the centurion can’t speak either. I know it shouldn’t matter, when every line and note that Bach wrote is both crucifixion and redemption. Still, there must come a point when the ground stops shaking and all of us who had a hand in Christ’s death can say, in one voice, “Truly, this was the Son of God.”
Listen to the complete Saint Matthew Passion in English, as performed by The Bach Choir and Thames Chamber Orchestra.
“Bach’s Great Passion:” Plough editor Chris Zimmerman delves deeper into the history and musical interpretation of the Saint Matthew Passion.