Reflections on St Matthew Passion - Nicholas Mulroy - Britten Sinfonia

Reflections on St Matthew Passion – Nicholas Mulroy

“There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: we must convey to others all that we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence, in order to reach the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance or sing our sorrowful song.” Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1971


How these words carry extra weight now. We now undergo a much more immediate sense of isolation and solitude to that which I imagined when writing this article a few short weeks ago. Like so many people in so many walks of life, our carefully made plans have been abruptly iced, as we wait, and attempt to stay safe. I don’t think it’s trivial or frivolous to write now about work that will remain undone – I certainly hope not – as so many of us are in shock or mourning for all manner of grief and loss. This is a work, after all, that looks at finding positivity and redemption in bleak situations.

We had been due to begin work this week on a project involving Bach’s St Matthew Passion. With Britten Sinfonia, we performed his John Passion in 2014, a cherished memory that only adds to the sense of absence and silence this week. Even just revising this article brings a fresh sadness – imagining the silence of the halls where this wonderful music should have resounded, missing the thrill of disparate individuals uniting to create beauty and harmony, the strange sense of writing about something that won’t for now be heard live. However, as Alfred Brendel points out, silent is an anagram of listen, and it can be good to take this time to listen afresh and renew our appreciation of all kinds of things: music, family, even the act of breathing.

There is no doubt that Bach attached a special importance to his Matthew Passion. The original manuscript is immaculate (worth taking a look, if you like that sort of thing); his sons knew it as the ‘Great’ Passion, the words of the Gospel are written in red, like a gently illuminated medieval manuscript, and stakes were high for him, following the stinging controversy and lack of success around his previous John Passion. There’s something sacred in it for us performers, too: the weight of history, the work’s huge recorded legacy, and the utterly miraculous quality of the music and scale of its structure all add up to something rather forbidding. It’s our job as musicians somehow to reduce the distance and mystique around the piece, so I wanted to offer some thoughts as to how we might do that, how the piece might resonate now, for us.

I often sing the role of the Evangelist, or narrator, and, although it is much longer than the St John, I find its writing less strenuous. This seems to me a central tenet of the piece: the John is dramatic, intensive, a whirlwind that grabs you by the lapels and doesn’t let go. The music and its structure heighten the sense of inexorability and the inevitability of events. By contrast, the more I sing it, the more it seems to me that the St Matthew is somehow gentler, far more measured in pacing, encouraging us to take the time and space to absorb events, to reflect perhaps on their meaning, to understand them. This is a piece that, amongst many other things, is about time, how we use it to process the world, and comprehend our place in it and our responses to it. We could argue that the main action of the Matthew Passion takes place not on some imagined stage, but in the hearts and minds of the listener.

This is a human story, above all, and Bach understands this. For us, now, perhaps, the story of the Passion is a curious combination of distant and over-familiar. But we don’t have to look very far for contemporary resonances of the betrayal, humiliation, persecution of innocent people. How and where he and his librettist, Picander, press pause on the action, and ask us to reflect is highly telling. In chorales that the congregation would have recognised (if not sung), and arias (for solo singers, with the intimacy and confidentiality of chamber music), we’re asked to step back or look forward, to seek meaning or purpose in what’s happened.

Time and again, the darkness of events is dragged into the light by the music and its text. Convicted by Pilate, Christ is sentenced, and the soprano offers the reason: “Out of love, my saviour wishes to die”; or, mocked by the thieves crucified on either side, the alto looks and says (in the warmth of E flat major) “Look! Jesus has his hand outstretched to embrace us”. Perhaps the work’s most famous aria, “Erbarme dich” (“Have mery, God”), which follows Peter’s denial of Christ, is constituted of music of exquisite empathy – the composer understands that sinners need redemption too, and the quality of mercy is not strained. Most extraordinarily of all, the bass aria “Mache dich” speaks of burying Jesus as means of cleansing our souls. In the same 12/8 meter as the vast E minor opening chorus (an invitation to share in grief), but in the furthest possible key of B flat major, the music looks back to the communal grief of the beginning and forward to the hope of a world refreshed: “World, go out! Let Jesus in!” The fact that the cathartic joy of this final aria encompasses such a strong musical flashback to the opening makes its joy all the more meaningful (as Gibran said, the deeper your sorrow is carved, the more joy you can contain). We are changed by what we’ve been through and brought, dancing even, to an enchanted place.

This search for reason and purpose somehow feels deeply personal. Bach is conveying to us more of himself than perhaps anywhere else. He was a man who knew the jarring injustice and solitude of grief, having lost a wife and several children. Christ suffers his own solitude and silence, of course, but I always feel that this is music that understands that human life is a struggle for everyone in some way. He isn’t interested in comparing or measuring that, but understanding it.

In the Matthew Passion, we can marvel at Bach’s mind, his brilliant synthesis of structure, dramatic pacing, and music of breathtaking beauty. We can also admire Bach’s heart and soul, for this is a work that is human, compassionate, closely acquainted with grief, but capable of unearthing joy in the most unexpected places. Some moments arrive like a dolphin on a wave, unexpected but utterly natural and full of grace. Listen to the crowd, after the earthquake which follows Christ’s death, singing “Truly, this was the Son of God”, to hear how our senses are ravished within seconds of having had our hearts broken.

A story of profound sorrow, solitude and suffering, is met with tenderness, understanding, and ultimately love. Perhaps one of the reasons the piece holds such lasting appeal is that its composer seems to be showing us a way through difficulty to an enchanted place, and, in doing so, shows us what it is to be most intensely, humanly alive.

Nicholas Mulroy, March 2020