Background Information
Performer Bios

Poet/Composer Bios

Additional Information

Bach and the “Great Passion“


Figural: Florid; the terms are used for a decorated line or to distinguish concerted music from plainchant or simple vocal polyphony1.

On 11 April 1727 at approximately 1:30 P.M. in the Thomaskirche zu Leipzig, a work was premiered which would have a great impact, not only on the career of its creator and his family and those performing it, but on history (and especially music history). The work was the Paßions-Musik nach dem Evangelisten Matthäus [Passion-Music after the Evangelist Matthew] (better known as the Matthäus-Passion [St. Matthew Passion]) BWV 244b (BC D 3a). The creator of this work (who also conducted the premiere mentioned) was Johann Sebastian Bach, Kantor of the Thomas-Schule and Directoris Chori Musici in Leipzig.

Why is this work considered to have such an impact? What are its origins? What is its liturgical context? How has it been received in later years and by later generations? And how has it been seen within the Bach family? Even more so in this work than any of his other Passion settings and pasticcios, Bach seems to have crossed all creedal divides and social and artistic differences. In this work (more than in his secular cantatas), Bach comes closest to opera and theatre. And yet, it is one of the most mysterious works Bach ever wrote. Let us see why and investigate this work.


First, let us get things into context. Before Johann Sebastian Bach took up the post of Kantor of the Thomas-Schule and Directoris Chori Musici in Leipzig on 5 May 1723 (only nearly 4 years before the premiere of the SMP) upon election to the position left vacant by the death of Johann Kuhnau, the annual performance of figural Passion music was only a relatively newly-founded tradition in the city. The evidence of pre-1700s performances is at best sketchy. Of course, responsorial Passion performances had been a staple in the liturgical life of Leipzig since at least the 16th century, but figural Passions were relatively few and far between. The two crowning examples we have are that of Thomaskantor Sebastian Knüpfer (whose Saint Matthew Passion was performed before the Sermon on Judica Sunday 1669 at the Nikolaikirche) and Thomaskantor Johann Schelle (who performed a now-lost 19-part Passion)2.

The evidence of performance of Passion Oratorios (like those of Bach) was even newer when Bach took up the post. The first performance of a Passion Oratorio in Leipzig took place at the Neukirche on 26 March 1717 (one year after the work’s premiere and composition) by the then organist and music director Johann Gottfried Vogler. The work featured at this performance was the Brockes-Passion by the then Kantor in Frankfurt-am-Main Georg Philipp Telemann. Four years later, Bach’s predecessor Johann Kuhnau composed and premiered his only known Passion work (the Markus-Passion) at the Vespers services at the Thomaskirche on 11 April 1721. This work was possibly performed again the following two years. By this time, the decision was made by the Leipzig town council that the performance of Passion music would be an annual tradition and would alternate between the two main churches (the Nikolaikirche and the Thomaskirche)3.

The annual composition and performance of figural Passion music was also a new project for Bach himself when he took up his Leipzig post. Up to that time (5 May 1723), Bach had only two occasions to compose and perform figural Passion music, both stemming from commissions. These works (the Weimar pasticcio on the anonymous Hamburger (Keiser/Bruhns) Markus-Passion [BWV deest, BC D 5a] of ca. 1713 and the so-called “Weimarer Passion” [BWV deest, BC D 1]) will be discussed in their turn at a later time.

At any rate, after the composition and premiere of his Johannes-Passion (BWV 245, BC D 2a) on 7 April 1724, Bach was in search for material for his next Passion project. He came across the 1725 text Erbauliche Gedanken auf den Grünen Donnerstag und Charfreitag über den Leidenden Jesum by the Leipzig Oberpostamt and later Postsekretär and Oberpostkommisar Christian Friedrich Henrici (better known by his pseudonym Picander). Possibly he wanted to set it to music (this is not known, as any results were lost), or possibly it set him to thinking of setting a new work based on the Passion story as related by St. Matthew (that he included six movements of this text in his Matthäus-Passion is well documented). By the early part of 1725, however, he decided to abandon the project and revert to a fresh setting of the “Weimarer Passion” (his Johannes-Passion BWV 245 BC D 2b).

By the following year (1726), a score was starting to take some shape for a Passion according to Saint Matthew, when he again abandoned the project for a newer pasticcio based on his earlier (ca. 1713) work. By this time (late 1726-early 1727), he no doubt encountered a new text by Picander in his series Ernst-Schertzhaffte und Satyrische Gedichte. This, coupled with the text mentioned earlier, would form the libretto that Bach used for his setting of the St. Matthew Passion.

Much has been written about the actual dating of the earlier version of this work. Whilst it is likely that Bach did perform it on 15 April 1729, there are many factors that point to a composition and premiere date of 11 April 1727. Chief amongst these is the fact that there are parallels between the Violin I part in the aria “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” and a Viola part in the Sanctus BWV 232iii (which was being copied out for a new performance on Easter Sunday 13 April 1727).

In accordance with the Order of Worship, Bach composed the Passion in two parts. Here is a table for the Order of Worship for Good Friday Vespers services for the two main churches in Leipzig during Bach’s tenure:

Ordnung der Vesper "Mittags-Predigt" an
den Leipziger Hauptkirchen
am Karfreitag ( ca. ab 1721) zur Zeit Bachs in Leipzig



Prediger & Minestranten
Mit Ausnahme der Kanzelstücke
im Rezitationston gesungen


volles Geläut

Als "de tempore" Lied
"Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund"




Passion Teil I



"O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig"






Ankündigung der Predigt


"Herr Jesus Christ dich zu uns wend"




(Vater unser - still gebetet ? - )






Verlesung des Predigttextes aus der
Passionsharmonie nach Bugenhagen,
daraus den Abschnitt des Begräbnisses Jesu




(ca. 1 Std.)







Passion Teil II




"Ecce quomodo moritur justus"







Nun danket alle Gott




N.B.: Gottesdienstbeginn ca. 13:30 Uhr
- Mehrer in einer Zeile stehenden Teile werden in der Abfolge von links nach rechts lesend abgehalten.

Gültige Ordnung für folgende Tage des Kirchenjahres in Leipzig:
- Karfreitag

The work premiered on 11 April 1727 and repeated on 15 April 1729 bears some significant differences to the version we know nowadays. We will investigate these differences later.

In March 1729, Bach was faced with a predicament. He was commissioned (as Kapellmeister “vom Haus aus” to the court of Anhalt-Köthen) to compose and perform a funerary cantata for his former employer Prince Leopold. He also had to work on the Passion setting for that year. He chose to repeat the work he premiered on 11 April 1727 that year.

For the funerary cantata, Bach set out on an ambitious venture. Most of the music was parodied from other works, with the exception of the Recitatives and the Dictum movements. Again, the text was provided by Picander in his series (Vol. II). The text was again printed (and the work performed [?]) in 1732 with some alterations. This is the cantata “Klagt, Kinder, klagt es aller Welt” BWV 244a (BC B 22). The music for the arias that open and close the first section of this four-section work were taken from the Trauer-Ode BWV 198 (which was performed in October 1727 during the state funeral observances for the Queen of Poland and Electress of Saxony Christianne Eberhardine). The music for the remainder of the arias (including the closing number of the work) was taken from this earlier version of the St. Matthew Passion.

Bach would again revisit the “great Passion” (as he and his family called the St. Matthew Passion) three more times in the course of his life (performing it twice for certain). He would make some changes in each case from the time before. He would perform it again on 29 March 1736 (BWV 244 BC D 3b) and on 23 March 1742 (same). He would again revise it between 1743 and 1746, but there is not concrete evidence of any further performances in Bach’s lifetime.


After Bach’s death, the work was still kept alive within his immediate circle and his family. His students (principally Altnickol and Agricola) and their pupils both made copies of the work. The work had such an impact especially on Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach that he not only kept a copy of the score, but also incorporated some of its music into his own Passion settings. After the younger Bach’s death, most of his musical estate (and that of Agricola and Altnickol) came, one way or another, into the possession of the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin. Here Karl Friedrich Zelter (during his directorship of the institution) made a performance score of the St. Matthew Passion that he intended to use, but never did. Eventually, he passed the word and work onto a student of his named Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. The latter would make his own score out and organize three performances of the work in 1829 (Berlin), in 1830 (Leipzig), and in 1841 (Leipzig), making changes in the score each time.

In 1854, a performance of the work was organized in England. The same year, the work was published by the Bach-Gesellschaft (edited by Julius Rietz).

Let us now investigate the text and the work in more detail, now that we have put the work into some historical and liturgical context.


The text to the “Great Passion” can be broken down into three basic groups of movements: the Biblical text, the madrigalian numbers, and the chorales. The Biblical text (unlike the works of Emanuel Bach or those of some of Bach’s contemporaries [such as Telemann]) is completely unaltered. That is, there is no part of the Biblical text (outside of the very first Evangelist recitative, which skips the word “alle” between “Jesus” and “diese”) that is either skipped or reorganized, but rather Picander and Bach set out the text word-for-word as it appears in the 1545 Lutherbibel. There has been much stated about how central to Bach the word of Scripture was (so much so that in all the extant scores and parts in Bach’s hand of the work, the Scriptural sections are in red ink). For him (as for Luther himself), the main aim of music was for the glory of God and the instruction, education, and enjoyment of his fellow-man.

The madrigalian movements (the texts that form the arias [this includes the opening and closing movements of the work] and accompanied recitatives in the work) are of a different caliber. Here Picander looked to contemporary examples for inspiration. In the opening and closing movements, Picander seems to have continued with the mainstream tradition of Introitus and Exordium that one could find in the Passion settings of Heinrich Schütz, but to a farther degree and more dramatic extent. Interestingly enough, in the aria “Ach, wo ist mein Jesus hin?” Picander interpolates (in the Choir part) a quotation of Verse 1 of Chapter 6 from the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon). Although in keeping with the Orthodox Evangelical (Lutheran) doctrine and tone, Picander reflects the style and mood and concerns of the contemporary Enlightenment movement and the Pietist movement of the latter 17th century. In style, his text very much reminds one of the text “Der für die Sünde der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus” of 1712 by the Hamburg town councilor and poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes (and in fact, the “B” sections of Movements 27b and 68 could be said to be parodied texts from Brockes). These movements were intended to bring the listener into meditation on the actions just occurred in the Passion story.

Of like vein are the Chorales. These most orthodox Evangelical movements serve in some degree as the centerpieces of the work. In the original text, there were 16 Chorales (1 interpolation in the recitative “O Schmerz!” one interpolation [organs only] in the opening aria “Kommt, ihr Töchter”, and 14 four-part chorale settings). In 1736, this was altered in two ways: the original text used for Movement 17 was changed and music written down, and Movement 29 was changed out from the original 4-part Chorale setting “Jesum lass ich nicht von mir” to a chorale fantasia on “O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde groß”. Finally, in 1742, the organ interpolation in Movement 1 (Verse 1 of “O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig”) was set for ripieno Soprano Choir (which was also added in Movement 29). Now let’s look at the musical setting.


As mentioned earlier, Bach wrote four different settings of the St. Matthew Passion. Let us look at each of these.

For the performances on 11 April 1727 and 15 April 1729, Bach used essentially the same score with one difference: in 1729, he wrote out the second organ and continuo parts. In 1727, only one part for these was used for both orchestras. We will treat both as one and the same score for purposes of simplicity.

A quick note here. We today speak of “versions” of a work like the St. Matthew Passion. However, this is not in keeping with the historical context of the work, but rather putting our modern concepts of a finished product into historical periods. In the Baroque period, they did not have the concept of posterity like we do nowadays. Each work was considered a complete work for the intended occasion and occurrence. Therefore, when we speak of the St. Matthew Passion, for example, we should realize that there are in fact five different St. Matthew Passions, one for each occasion. There are factors that go into this: the availability of performers, personal and contextual tastes, time constraints, etc. That said; let us look at these different Passion settings.

The only extant copy we have of the 1727/1729 St. Matthew Passion is a score that was once thought to have been made by Bach’s pupil and future son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol. However, in 2002, Dr. Peter Wollny established that it was actually copied out by an Altnickol pupil Johann Christoph Farlau. It is the most different from the later scores and parts.

To begin with, there is only one part written out for Organ and Continuo throughout the entire work. This means that it reflects both orchestras at once.

Another difference could be seen in the very first movement. Unlike the later scores, in both orchestras the Flutes and Oboes mimic each other. In other words, Oboe I and Oboe II imitate each other and Flute I and Flute II imitate each other. There are a lot of voicing differences as well (throughout the work). Finally, the interpolation normally assigned to the Ripieno Soprano Choir is instead assigned to the Treble Clef of the Organs (as the Ripieno Soprano parts are non-extant).

Throughout the work, Bach incorporates an affect that he learned from the anonymous Hamburger (Keiser/Bruhns) Markus-Passion: he sets the words of Christ with a “halo” of strings (except in the climatic scene where Christ says “Eli, Eli, lama asabthani”, in which case only the continuo accompanies it).

Another difference could be seen in the continuo parts. In the recitatives, the continuo parts are sustained throughout. We will later look at how this was changed.

The next few differences occur towards the middle of the work. In Movement 17, the text set is Verse 7 of “O Haupt, voll Blut und Wunden”. This is changed by 1736 to the more familiar Verse 6. In Movement 19, Bach uses an ensemble of two Traverse Flutes, two Oboes da caccia, Strings, and continuo. This is changed by 1736 to two Flauti dolci, keeping the other forces the same. Finally, in Movement 29, Bach uses a four-part setting of Verse 6 of “Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht”. This is changed by 1736 to the fantasia mentioned above (which was actually a reworking in E Major of the first movement of his Johannes-Passion BWV 245 BC D 2b in E-Flat Major, which was again a reworking of a movement from his “Weimarer Passion” in D Major).

In part II, there are some differences as well. To begin with, in the early version, the aria that opens it is set for Bass. This is changed by 1736 to be set for Alto. The Violin solo part in Movement 39 comes from Coro II, the Gamba parts in Movements 34 and 35 are not present (only appearing first in the 1742 “version”), the Violin solo part in Movement 42 comes from Coro I, and in Movements 56 and 57, the parts that would later be performed by Gamba were performed by Lute.

When Bach came back to the St. Matthew Passion in 1736, he made some changes. He reverted to the voicing we know now in all movements. He changed the Traverse Flutes to Flauti dolci in Movement 19, and he substituted Movement 29 for the Chorale Fantasia we know now. He switched the Lute parts to Gamba, and switched out Movement 17 for the more familiar Verse 6.

Bach again revisited the Passion (for the last performance of his lifetime) in 1742. The venue for this performance (the Nikolaikirche) was already exhibiting (as it would later in 1749) problems with one of its organs. For this performance, he had to substitute a Harpsichord for Coro II. In order to better sustain this new situation, he added Gamba parts in Coro II (which means that he added Gamba parts in Movements 34 and 35 as well). He furthermore added a Ripieno Soprano Choir part to Movements 1 and 29. The final change to the work came in 1743-1746. In this version, he completely revised the Continuo parts. Now, instead of sustained notes throughout, only the Jesus recitatives would be sustained (like we know now).

Of all the versions, we have the complete score from the 1742 version and parts from the 1736 and 1743-1746 versions. As stated earlier, the only source we have of the earlier version is the Farlau copy.

In all his performances, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy cut out some arias, shortened some more, and completely revised the work (both in the recitatives and in instrumentation). Let us now look at the work in performance.


Much has been debated about the performance of the St. Matthew Passion (and Bach’s works in general). Here are my thoughts on the issue (based on Bach’s own words [or reasonable translation thereof]):

In 1730 (in response to his perceived harassment by the officials and out of concern for the deteriorating condition in religious music), Sebastian Bach wrote a treatise he entitled “Kurtzer, iedoch höchstnöthiger Entwurff einer wohlbestallten Kirchen Music; nebst einigem unvorgreiflichen Bedenkken von dem Verfall derselben." (“Short, but most Necessary Draft on a well-regulated Church Music, with some modest Thoughts on the Decline of the same”). In it, he outlines both what he thinks would be a well-regulated Church music and also the current circumstances he faced in Leipzig. For the vocal ensembles he states that in the main churches (Hauptkirchen) of St. Thomas, St. Nicholas, and the New Church (Neukirche), each would use three voices per part, meaning three sopranos, three altos, three tenors, and three basses, with the residual (2 per part) for the Petruskirche (University Church)5. This would mean for the St. Matthew Passion, there would needs be 6 per part (three per Choir), or a total of 24 choristers. Add to this the three for the Ripieno Soprano Choir of the 1742 and 1743-1746 versions, and one would look at a total of 27 choristers (12 for Coro I, 12 for Coro 2, and 3 for the Ripieno Soprano Choir). For the sung roles, Bach would have used the residue (the 2 per part that was also used for the University Church).

In the same work, Bach outlined the orchestral forces that would be used for such music. He states that there would be:

  • 2 or even 3 for the Violino I

  • 2 or 3 for the Violino II

  • 2 for the Viola I

  • 2 for the Viola II

  • 2 for the Violoncello

  • 1 for the Violon(e)

  • 2, or, if the piece requires, 3, for the Hautbois

  • 1, or even 2, for the Basson

  • 3 for the Trumpets

  • 1 for the Kettledrums

for a total of 18 persons, at least, for the instrumental music. He further adds that if the piece requires it there would be two flutes6. For a work like the St. Matthew Passion, therefore, one would of course not include the Trumpets or Kettledrums (as these were more associated with festival occasions). That means that each orchestra would include two Flutes, two Oboes, two or three each of Violins I and II, two Violas, 1 Bassoon, two Violoncello, and one Violon. Also included would be one Harpsichord and one Organ for a total of 20 instruments each.

No recording that I have heard attempts this. However, there are some I would recommend all the same. Of the earlier version, I would heartily recommend the Rondeau Production Catalogue #ROP4020/21/22 featuring the Thomanerchor Leipzig and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig under the leadership of Thomaskantor Georg Christoph Biller from 2007. I would recommend the McCreesh recording of the 1736 version and the recording by John Butt of the 1742 version. As to the 1743-1746 version, I would recommend Karl Richter’s 1979 recording and the 1970 recording of the Thomanerchor Leipzig and Dresdner Kreuzchor under the joint conductorship of brothers Erhard and Rudolf Mauersberger featuring the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. I would recommend the Spering recording of Mendelssohn’s 1841 version and the recording of the 1829 version of the work (I don’t remember by who). Also recommended is Jos van Veldhoven’s recording of BWV 244a.

In conclusion, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion has had a long, rich history. Its dramatic elements (which had possibly got Bach in trouble with the authorities because of its “theatrical” nature) seem to veer the work into the realm of sacred Opera. Yet it remains the ultimate statement of one man’s faith.

Written in Mesa, Arizona, USA on 10 April 2009 by David Glenn Lebut Jr.

1 “Figural, figurate, figured”. Taken from on 1 February 2008.

2 Glöckner, Andreas. Bach’s “great Passion”: Early version of the Saint Matthew Passion BWV 244b recorded for the first time on CD. CD liner notes.

3 Ibid.

4 Grob, Jochen. Ordnung der Vespergottesdienste für die Karfreitag Bearbeitete Zusammenstellung nach Darstellungen von Prof. Dr. Martin Petzold und Christoph Wolff 2008-2009. Taken 10 April 2009 from

5 David, Hans T. and Arthur Mendel. The Bach Reader. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1966. P. 124.

6 Ibid, p. 121.


Back to the Top

Last update: Sunday, May 28, 2017 14:22