". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Monday, March 17, 2008

St. Matthew Passion

Yesterday the Church celebrated Palm Sunday, the occasion of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem, riding upon a donkey amidst people shouting "hosanna" and waving palm branches. Within days those very same people would nail him to a cross.

Among liturgical churches, Palm Sunday is often also known as Passion Sunday because it begins the week of observances recounting the trial, suffering, crucifixion and death of Jesus. This year for Passion Sunday, following many weeks of rehearsal dating back to last fall, the adult choir at my LCMS congregation presented Henrich Schutz's St. Matthew Passion in its entirety.

One of our choir members, who is an alto extraordinaire and unpaid choir librarian and organizer (as well as mom to this cool chick), wrote some excellent program notes to enhance the congregation's appreciation of this musical event. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I will simply reproduce some of her enlightening observations below (hope you don't mind, Mrs. G.).

"Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672) is generally regarded as the most important German composer before J. S. Bach and is considered to be one of the most notable of the 17th century. He brought new musical ideas to Germany from Italy, exerting a large influence on the German music which was to follow. These musical ideas brought new depth to the liturgical practice of 'text painting,' and listeners today still delight in how effectively Schutz brings words alive through the art of music. His expressive and lyric style extended into his organ music, making him one of the most influential composers of the famed north German organ school--a genre that was to culminate 100 years later in the work of another Lutheran cantor, J.S. Bach.

"The time in which Schutz lived was marked politically by the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). In the context of Lutheranism, the 17th century is known as the Orthodox Period of Lutheran Scholasticism. In this period, congregations maintained the fullness of historic Christian rituals in their normal worship, especially in the cities and universities. Holy Communion was celebrated on each Sunday and the traditional parts of the service were retained. Church music flourished, and this era is considered as a 'golden age' of Lutheran music and hymnody. Besides Schutz, prominent church musicians and composers of the era included Michael Praetorius, Johann Cruger, and Dietrich Buxtehude.

"Schutz's best known works are sacred pieces, including his three books of Symphoniae sacrae, the Psalms of David, and his three Passion settings--St. Luke (1664), St. John (1665), and St. Matthew (1666). Schutz's early music demonstrated the most progressive styles, but grew eventually into a simple and almost austere style, culminating with his Passion settings, written when he was an elderly man. Responsibility for this return to austerity can be partially laid to the aftermath of the Thirty Years' War: the music infrastructure was devastated, making it difficult, if not impossible, to put on the gigantic, Venetian style works of his earlier period. Additionally, Schutz may have been maintaining the tradition of no instrumental activity in Holy Week.

"The Passion is the theological term for the suffering of Jesus in the hours prior to and including His trial and crucifixion. Musically, the Passion is the setting of the Crucifixion story as recorded in the Gospels. The reading of the Passion during Holy Week dates back to the fourth century. It began to be chanted or sung by the eighth century. By the 1200's different singers were used for different characters in the narrative, and by the fifteenth century, polyphonic settings of the turba passages (crowd parts) began to appear.

"The three Passions of Schutz look back to the much earlier tradition of the dramatic Passion in which three singers and choir presented the Gospel narrative during the solemn ceremonies of Holy Week. In that tradition, the Evangelist (middle voice range), Christus (low voice range), and the Synogoga (Peter, Pilate, Caiphas, et. al.) together with the Turba recounted the story of the suffering and death of Christ. Schutz's Passions are 'oratorio passions,' having the entire text sung, with no additional arias.

"We are singing the English edition of Schutz's St. Matthew Passion by Stephen Rosolack. It is interesting to note that, except for the opening and closing choruses, the choir generally does not portray very likable people. Most choruses express anger, impatience and fear. Directions to the choir include words like 'arrogantly,' 'pompously,' 'derisively,' and 'mockingly.' Noteworthy as well is the concluding chorus. It begins majestically then takes on the regal nature of a fanfare. The chorus concludes prayerfully with the Kyrie Eleison: Lord, have mercy."

The text of the Passion, which was printed in the program for listeners to follow, can be found here. (Thank you, Hannah!) Because of the length of the Passion, the usual order of service was somewhat abbreviated and consisted of the following:

Prelude: "Herzlich tut mich verlangen" (Anton Wilhelm Leupold)

Venite and Gloria Patri

Office Hymn: "Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle"

The Passion

Offering and Voluntary

Offertory: "On My Heart Imprint Your Image"


Benedicamus and Benediction

Recessional: "A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth"


Postlude: "O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig" (J.S. Bach)

As mentioned, our choir (named Proclaim) began its preparations for this undertaking last fall. As we were laying the foundation for this piece throughout the year, there was still much other music to be learned (including a Bach cantata during Advent!). But due to a phenomenal cantor/choir director (truly, in my biased opinion, the best in our synod) and the committed, hard work of a dedicated choir, it all came together. The day before the performance, we gathered for a final Saturday-morning run-through. Here are a few photos (you may recognize that handsome choir director, who also sang the part of the narrator, from my previous post):

(Please note the three high school students in the front row of the above photo. They represent just a fraction of the youth that sing in our adult choir. Who says young people today don't appreciate good music?)

Here is a wide shot, providing a better view of our sanctuary and altar. Seated in the middle and dressed in white is our school band director, who portrayed and sang the part of Jesus.

Now, a few photos from warm-up on Sunday morning. Seated from left to right are "Judas," "Pontius Pilate," "Pilate's Wife," and "Peter." If I may say so, the young man who sang the part of Peter has a beautiful tenor voice and carried off his part with a conviction and passion quite noteworthy in one so young. (By the way, "Peter" lives in my house.)

There was minimal staging, but when a particular soloist's character became an element in the narrative, he or she stood up, as did the choir. In addition to the four pictured above, various choir members sang the parts of Caiaphas, the false witnesses, and the maids. For me one of the most riveting moments was Peter's denial of Jesus, when the two altos playing the parts of the maids stood up at their seats and pointed their fingers at Peter, identifying him as a follower of Jesus and meeting with his denunciation: "I do not know the man."

At the point of the story when Jesus is crucified, an acolyte bearing the processional cross came to stand behind Jesus at the center of the chancel; when Jesus died, the soloist portraying him departed the chancel.

One of the best things about this performance was I was actually able to enjoy it purely as a listener! (As choir accompanist I am usually playing along on the piano, but although I accompanied the many rehearsals of this work, the performance itself was a cappella--no instruments.) One of the disappointing aspects of the day was that my daughter, who loves Palm Sunday and who was very much looking forward to this service, ended up sick at home with strep throat. :-( Luckily, I videotaped the entire performance, so once she is feeling better she will get to see the whole thing on tape. In addition, an audio recording was made with the goal of eventually making it available for online listening. I will keep you posted!


elephantschild said...


Just... wow. :) I'll be sharing your post with Mad Musician, of course!

elephantschild said...

And how did you convince those high-schoolers to sing w/ you? Or are they all homeschoolers?

Cheryl said...

We have 7-8 high schoolers singing with us--4 girls and 2, sometimes 3boys--3 are homeschooled, and of the rest about half are products of our day school and half are products of public schools. So overall a good representative sample! Most, but not all, spent not a few years singing in Cantor's children's choirs--either the parish choir or one of the school choirs. I think we are now just reaping the benefits of all that seed-planting!