Earl Rivers, CCM Director of Choral Studies
Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion was first presented in 1727 at the Good Friday Vespers in St. Thomas Church, Leipzig. Bach made numerous revisions, some as late as 1740. After Bach's death in 1750, this masterwork was not heard until 1829, when Mendelssohn discovered it, was awed by it, and performed it. The "Bach Revival," or reawakening of appreciation of Bach's artistic legacy, can be dated from this time. Bach's St. Matthew Passion has become established as the most monumental and sublime example of a musical setting of the passion story.
The St. Matthew Passion is set for two choirs, plus children’s or treble choir, two orchestras and even two continuo groups. This festive scoring underlines the solemnity of this work and projects the grand dimensions of Bach's conception of this Passion setting. The St. Matthew Passion is also meditative, devotional and perhaps even mystical. An example of this quality can be heard in the way Bach set the words of Jesus — always accompanied by a halo of strings.
The elements of the St. Matthew Passion may be viewed in three groups: as recitatives and turba (crowd) choruses based on the scriptural text of the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapters 26-27; as arias, ariosi and reflective choruses based on poetic texts by Bach's librettist, Picander and probably selected and adjusted by Bach himself; and as chorales (hymns), the tunes and texts of which usually date back several years, even centuries, before Bach's time.
As musicologist Karl Geiringer has pointed out, “among the gems of the score are the accompanied recitatives (ariosi) preceding the arias, [which]...contain some of the most exquisite music Bach ever wrote. [The arias themselves]...are often conceived as a kind of duet between a singer and an instrument.” It is notable that the famous "Passion Chorale" is heard no less than five times in the work, always in a different key.
Staged productions of the St. Matthew Passion in the recent decade include those of the Berliner Philharmoniker (Simon Rattle, conductor, Peter Sellars, stage director), New York City’s Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Glyndebourne Festival. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus presented a staged production in March 2012. CCM’s staged production of the St. Matthew Passion, a Midwest and a Collegiate premiere in 2011, was a collaboration with CCM’s Opera Department and prepared CCM artists for career opportunities that embrace non-traditional and contemporary collaborations among disciplines of traditional symphonic, opera and choral concert programs with drama, video, dance and other new technologies.
CCM previously produced J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion with Earl Rivers, conductor, at Hyde Park’s Knox Presbyterian Church on November 19, 2006; at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral on November 19, 2000; and at Old St. George’s Church in Corryville on November 24, 1996. Elmer Thomas, Professor Emeritus, conducted previous CCM productions of the Bach St. Matthew Passion at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral on November 12, 1989; at CCM on February 18 and 19, 1983, repeated as a Lecture-Demonstration at the American Choral Directors Association national conference in Nashville, TN on March 11, 1983; at CCM on November 3 and 4, 1977, repeated at Covington’s Cathedral Basilica on November 6, 1977; and at CCM on February 15, 1970, with Kathleen Battle singing the aria, “Aus liebe.”