A couple of things converged in my universe today. The first is that former LCH chorister Mark Boyle shared on Facebook that he was asked to talk about Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. As he says, he is slightly obsessed with it—he owns 48 different recordings of the work, plus his car’s license plate reads BWV 244, the catalog number!
The second thing that happened is that tomorrow I am giving a “tour” of my condo to association board members and I thought I’d better straighten up the bookshelf in the guest room. Along the way of sorting and purging, I came across an article in Cross Accent, the journal of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians, written by Carl Crosier in 2008, titled “A Personal Journey to the Bach Passions.” It’s quite long, but it documents the inspiration behind the performance. I will share the article with you in several segments, beginning with this post.
A Personal Journey to the Bach Passions
“The two surviving Passions by Johann Sebastian Bach are still considered by most musicians, theologians, and musicologists to be the pinnacles of the oratorio in western music. Today these masterworks are still performed on a regular basis throughout the world.
“I consider the presentations both the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion to be the most profound experiences of my long ministry at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu. Although we have performed quite regularly a great many cantatas, the motets, and both versions of the Magnificat, I was extremely intimidated by the thought of presenting the passions.
“When one turns fifty years of age (at least this one), you often take stock of your life and career. I came to the realization that if I ever wanted to present these works, I had better get to it before I was too infirm to be able to manage them.
“As always, I looked for the right opportunity to present them on the basis of the resources available. In both situations, those resources converged to enable the performances of these masterworks. I will relate those stories in the passages below.
The Saint Matthew Passion
“I decided to start with the “Big One.” Talk about “not seeing the forest for the trees,” I was really totally naive as to what lay before me.
“My real personal journey with the St. Matthew Passion began in 1982 as my wife Kathy experienced a difficult pregnancy with our son, Stephen, and ended up in the hospital several times. After visiting at the hospital, I would return home and play the then newly-released recording by Nikolaus Harnoncourt/Gustav Leonhardt of this work, which was a revelation to me for its performance on historic instruments and with a boys choir similar to one from Bach’s time. Listening to that recording (much of which I still greatly admire), and to the constant optimism as expressed particularly in the benevolent music of the Jesus recitatives, served as a source of great comfort and solace to me then.
“In the ensuing years, I continued to collect many historically informed recordings of both Passions and also had an opportunity to visit Leipzig in 1997. I was quite struck by the architecture of the building and the clarity of sound in the room. We were fortunate to hear the Thomaner sing a motet service at which they offered Lobe den Herren, BWV 226 (Motet VI). I tried to imagine what the Passions would have sounded like in that church.
“The great challenge of the Matthäus Passion is not only its length and complexity, but the fact that it was written for two choirs, two sets of soloists, two orchestras and two organs. Bach is meticulous in the score as to how all of this is to be divided. In St. Thomas, Leipzig, the main choir and orchestra were located in the rear gallery and the second choir in the “Swallow’s Nest Gallery” spanning the transepts at the front crossing.
“So as I stood in St. Thomas, I realized that this double choir Passion was possible because of the unique architecture of the church and also because the distance was not that great. The seed was planted!
“So shortly after we returned from that visit to Leipzig, I began to look for the opportunity to present the Matthew Passion. There were some very obvious things on the horizon in the year 2000—the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Lutheran Church of Honolulu, the 100th anniversary of the Honolulu Symphony, and most importantly, the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach.
“So I presented the idea to the church and they completely endorsed it as a wonderful way to mark the centennial anniversary. I went to the management of the Honolulu Symphony and they were equally excited about the project. Those two key endorsements were really only the “tip of the iceberg.”
Hard to believe it was seventeen years ago!
I’ll print more of Carl’s article tomorrow.