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In the St. Matthew Passion, Bach indulges his gypsy soul. It is as though Bach, in his broad and deep humanity, his capacity for feeling all kinds and degrees of sorrow and joy, was reaching out to all his fellow human beings, believers and non-believers alike, and impressing upon them what was for him the potent truth of Christian faith…

“For the singer, words acquire a very special plenitude and depth
of meaning. Something that remains silent in words merely spoken
begins to flow, to vibrate; the words open and the singer opens to them.”
Victor Zuckerkandl, “Words and Tones in Song,” from Man the Musician

bachMy theme is the power of song in Bach’s “great Passion,” as the St. Matthew Passion was known to members of the Bach family.[1] I shall focus on an aria that appears at an advanced stage of the drama: number 58. Its full title is “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben,” “Out of love is my Savior willing to die.” It is sung by a soprano and is in the key of A minor. My goal is to reflect on how the power of this aria can be made to appear by attending to its simplest elements.

The arias of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion are the most stunning evocations of passion in the work. In moving us powerfully, they provoke our wonder: What is music that it can move us so? What is the relation here between words and tones? What role do our passions play in the Passion as depicted by Bach? What does Bach’s music contribute to our understanding of Christ’s suffering and death? Before turning to the aria and to these difficult questions, I offer the following brief introduction to Bach’s “great Passion” as a whole.

The St. Matthew Passion is impressive even by Bach’s standards. It is a several-hours-long musical drama that depicts, expands and comments on Chapters 26 and 27 from Matthew’s Gospel, starting with Jesus’s foretelling of the crucifixion and ending with Pilate’s placement of guards at the tomb. The original version of the work was first performed in 1727 on Good Friday in St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig. The revised version that we know today was first performed in 1736. The work consists of several different kinds of music: large-scale choruses, harmonized Lutheran hymn tunes or chorales, elaborate arias or songs sometimes preceded by a recitative, and narrative sections in which the Evangelist and the characters in the drama sing rather than speak the words of Matthew’s text in German. The Evangelist is a tenor, Jesus a bass.

Supporting this vast web of vocal music is the orchestra. Bach uses a double orchestra consisting of two so-called choruses. Sometimes, he brings all the instruments together, as in the opening number, to create a whole cosmos of sound; at other times, notably in the arias, a lone instrument—now the flute, now the violin, now the oboe—steps forward like a wordless singer, whose tones intertwine with those of the soloist. The fusion of voices and instruments invites us to enter the Passion as told by Matthew in order to experience it in a new way, a way opened up by the power of tones in time.[2]

The opening Chorus of the Passion comes at us in waves, like the undulation of some gigantic animal, as we move from one kind of music to another. The sense of gigantic undulation is conveyed by the opening chorus, which sweeps us up in a stately lament in 12/8 time. Bach uses a double chorus, which makes the piece sound epic and stereophonic. The first chorus represents the Daughters of Zion, who in turn represent Jerusalem; the second represents the Community of the Faithful, that is, the contemporary congregation. The Daughters of Zion exhort us to join them in their sorrow and to become one of them. “Come, you Daughters,” they sing, “Help me lament!”[3]

The Chorus is in the key of E minor. We hear an extended orchestral opening, in which the world as a whole seems to pulse in passionate recognition of Jesus as Bridegroom and sacrificial Lamb. There follows a chorus that sings with a kind of sad vigor in four-part counterpoint, as each part goes its own way in imitation of a confused crowd. Then there is a dialogue between the Daughters of Zion and the Community of the Faithful, as the first group points to Jesus, and the second asks questions: “Behold!” “Whom?” “The Bridegroom. See him.” “How?” “Like a Lamb.” Then a third choir enters—a boy’s choir. The pure voices of children float unexpectedly from on high, down onto the surging tide of all the adult complexity and confusion. The boys sing a hymn tune known to the congregation and in G major, the relative major of E minor. Our ears are grateful for this dawning of familiar simplicity and light upon the scene of so much turbulence. The straightforward, non-harmonized hymn tune reminds the congregation that what they are hearing is not just powerful music designed to impress, but music that strains to reach the hearts of the faithful and to make the listener part of the drama.

This music is relentless in its surge and complexity; it is the sound of a depth that seems constantly to rise to the heavens. The opening melodic gesture of the adult chorus is a grand upward sweep, as the sopranos outline the degrees of the E minor triad, spelling out, as it were, the elements of grief. To recall a distinction made by Simone Weil, the opening chorus combines gravity and grace. The listener is pulled, sometimes simultaneously, in opposite directions: between dark and bright, complex and simple, exotic and familiar, somber and joyous, bitter and sweet.[4] Paradox is at work in the very rhythm of the opening chorus. Like many numbers in the St. Matthew Passion, it is a dance, a so-called siciliano—a dignified, swaying dance in compound meter. Closely related to a dance called a pastorale, the siciliano probably originated in the wedding celebrations of Italian peasants. This opening dance is in 12/8 time. Each measure contains four principal beats, each consisting of three sub-beats. The result is a rocking rhythm that goes like this: 1-2-3, 2-2-3, 3-2-3, 4-2-3; 1-2-3, 2-2-3, 3-2-3, 4-2-3. The rhythm works curiously on our souls. At the very beginning of the chorus, the underlying bass pulses deep down, somewhere at the bottom of the cosmos: It is the heartbeat of a world in lament. But at the same time, we are carried along gracefully, as we sway to a robust lullaby in 12/8 time. Even as we lament and are made awake to grief, we are lulled and soothed. As the two choruses begin their dialogue about the Bridegroom, the siciliano is magically transformed into what seems like a waltz, as we move, momentarily, through a sequence of major keys. In the chorus with which Bach begins his St. Matthew Passion, in its gravity and grace, we experience an event that is both wedding and funeral. This union of opposites is perfectly suited to the Bridegroom who died for our sins.

With this brief introduction, we now turn to Aria 58. Whereas the text of Bach’s St. John Passion has for its backbone the Gospel narrative, here in the St. Matthew Passion, that role is played by the madrigal poems that provided Bach with the text for his arias.[5] These poems are the work of Bach’s librettist, who went by the name of Picander.[6] The two men worked together very closely on integrating them into the ambitious whole that Bach envisaged.[7]

Before turning to Aria 58, let us enter the drama. Bach thinks of Matthew’s Passion story as divided into scenes—living pictures or tableaux vivants, which may be compared to the Stations of the Cross. The arias are musical meditations on these sacred tableaus. They are musical perspectives in which a solitary singer, who is not part of Matthew’s story, connects with the story in a way that is personally intimate and representative of all faithful listeners. The arias, as I observed earlier, are expressions of passion. But as musical meditations, they are also a means by which the events in Matthew’s story become objects of thought.

In the tableau on which “Aus Liebe” meditates, Jesus, having been arrested, now stands before Pilate. Pilate asks the crowd which of these two men he should release, Barrabas or Jesus. Bach’s music raises our hopes with the prospect of a glorious cadence in D major—the triumphant key of the Magnificat, the Easter Oratorio and the “Et resurrexit” from the Mass in B Minor. It is the cadence that would have been appropriate had the crowd shouted back “Jesus!” But the bright glory of D major fails to arrive. Instead, Bach assaults us with a shocking musical deception, as the crowd shouts “Barrabas!” with an alarmingly dissonant and abrupt diminished-seventh chord—a chord composed of two interlocking tritones. “What shall I do with Jesus?” Pilate asks. The crowd’s response—“Let him be crucified!”—is a demonic, evil-sounding fugue in A minor, the key of our upcoming aria. (The fugue, we must note for later reference, features the flute.) The crucifixion fugue derives its power from a conspiracy of rhythm and interval: The fugue subject is a violent upward thrust that mimics the hoisting of Jesus upon the Cross and uses the spooky, disjointed-sounding interval of the diminished fourth. In this unsettling sound, Bach captures not only the act of crucifixion but also the hideous pleasure the crowd takes in the imagining of that act. As one of my students once observed, the fugue makes us want to join in and sing along. The demon fugue will return, to our horror, after the soprano has sung her quiet song of love.

After the first appearance of this fugue, the mood changes abruptly, as the chorus, representing the congregation, contemplates what they have just witnessed with a familiar hymn tune that has appeared twice before in the drama (3 and 25). The opening of this chorale has one of the most tension-filled harmonizations of all the chorales in the St. Matthew Passion—a Bachic transformation of the familiar into the otherworldly. The chorus sings not of grief, or shock, or remorse, or indignation, but of wonder at the mystery that confronts them: “Wie wunderbarlich ist doch diese Strafe,” “How wondrous indeed is this sentence [that has been passed on Jesus]!”[8] They sing of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who suffers for his sheep. As we return, very briefly, to the narrative, Pilate asks, “But what evil has he done?” The question hovers, as a soprano steps forward to offer her answer.

The recitative, with its limping accompaniment played by oboes, strikes a pastoral note. Echoing the preceding chorale, it puts us in the presence of Jesus as shepherd. The soprano sings about all the good Jesus has done: how he has ministered to the blind, the lame, the possessed, the afflicted, the sinful. “Apart from this,” the soprano sings, “he has done nothing,” “nichts.”[9] The recitative begins in E minor, the signature key of the Passion. In its orchestration and slow limping rhythm, it foreshadows the Golgotha music that we hear later (69). The soprano ends her recitative with a gentle cadence in C major. She then sings the most haunting and most contemplative aria in the whole work. It is in A minor—the key in which Jesus dies (71).[10]

The text of “Aus Liebe” consists of a single sentence. In translation it reads as follows:

Out of love is my Savior willing to die,
Though of any sin he knows nothing,
So that eternal damnation
And the sentence of judgment
May not rest upon my soul.[11]

The aria is in ABA form. In the first A section we hear the opening of the sentence, the part about love as the wellspring of sacrifice and the absolute innocence of Jesus. The middle or B section affirms the purpose of the sacrifice: saving sinful man from judgment. The opening of the sentence then returns in the second A section. In this circular arrangement of the text, God’s love for man and the innocence of Jesus frame the central part about saving man from a just retribution. Here, then, is the sequence of clauses in the aria:

Out of love is my Savior willing to die,
Though of any sin he knows nothing,
So that eternal damnation
And the sentence of judgment
May not rest upon my soul.
Out of love is my Savior willing to die,
Though of any sin he knows nothing.

Thanks to this circular ABA form, the aria ends where it began, with an emphasis on Jesus’ profound innocence, in which we see reflected our profound guilt. The last word of the aria is “nichts,” nothing. The word brings us back to Pilate’s question, “But what evil has he done?” and to the heart-breaking spectacle of the unjustly condemned Savior.

How far removed the music of this aria is from the grand sweep of the opening chorus, the consoling warmth of the chorales, and the high drama of parts of the narrative! I once asked students who had just heard this aria for the first time, “How does the soprano sound?” After a pause, the first answer came: “Lonely.” The soprano indeed sounds lonely and bereft. Her song is a musical image of bereftness. The image manages to convey the presence of absence. As the flute sings its plaintive song and sets the tone for the aria, we are transported to a sparse musical universe. The lushness of strings is withheld. Even more striking is the absence of the usual continuo part played by the organ or harpsichord and viola da gamba (ancestor of the modern cello). In place of this continuo, Bach substitutes the spare duet of oboes.[12] The music seems to have no foundation, no ground, deeper than itself. It floats like a pure spirit in the upper regions of sound. The suggestion here is perhaps that the love of which the soprano sings rests on nothing but itself and has no bottom.

In what follows, I shall point out and interpret various technical aspects of the aria. I shall try to keep the technical language to a minimum and to clarify musical terms as I go along. As I mentioned at the beginning, my goal is to explore how the power of the soprano’s meditation derives from the simplest, most accessible musical elements.

The aria is in moderately slow 3/4 time. For the most part, the oboes in the accompaniment simply mark off the principal beats of the measure and play intervals of parallel thirds and sixths. The aria is also on a small scale: All we hear at first is the sound of a flute accompanied by the two oboes (these particular oboes being the equivalent of our modern, English horns). Once the soprano enters, there will be a total of only four voices: a duet between soprano and flute, accompanied by the two oboes. The aria, in sum, is all breath and nothing more—pneuma, which in Greek is both breath and spirit. The musical expenditure of breath has a certain withheld quality, as though it were constantly being taken in rather than let out, or rather as though it were being rationed. This is especially evident in the halting, staccato accompaniment of the oboes, which only occasionally distinguish themselves with more flowing, dotted rhythms.[13] Bereftness and desolation are conveyed in the bare key signature of A minor, which has no sharps or flats. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the aria is not a dance.

It is worth dwelling on this point. There are fifteen arias in the St. Matthew Passion, all of which, with the sole exception of Aria 58, either are dances or else are animated by rhythms that suggest a body in motion. Sometimes the rhythms are smooth and flowing, in imitation of the many fluids that course through the text: precious ointment, water, tears, blood, wine. Sometimes they are jagged, dotted rhythms, with which the singer seems to take up the Cross. At the Last Supper, as Jesus moves from the bread that is his body to the wine that is his blood, he sings a song that is also a dance—his only aria in the work. The song is like wine. It exudes warmth and majesty, as it flows to the flexible rhythms of a courante in 6/4 time—a courtly French dance, whose very name means running or flowing. In response to this warmly majestic music, the same soprano who sings “Aus Liebe” here regales us with the lightest, swiftest, most beguiling dance-aria in the entire work. The vertiginous gaiety of her song, whose 6/8 time mirrors and quickens Jesus’s stately 6/4, makes her sound tipsy, as though she has gotten drunk on the French wine of which Jesus spoke.[14]

In Aria 58, we hear none of this. Dance rhythm is suspended, as the soprano sings the purest aria in the Passion, a song that is purely song. To be sure, there is rhythmic life and an underlying 3/4 pulse. But these are in the service of something sung rather than danced. One effect is a greater concentration on the words, which are both adorned and laid bare by the tones. Another is that we are not so much moved forward as held in a seemingly timeless moment. To the extent that there is forward movement, this movement has the sound of inevitability, of Love that opens itself to what lies ahead and can no longer be escaped.

The opening song of the flute is haunting. It is like music from another world. The sound somehow captures a warmth and a chill. The flute steps out of the silence with a lone quarter note, a fairly long time-value given the numerous sixteenth-notes in the piece. We feel anchored, stabilized by this upbeat that ascends a perfect fifth from tone 1 to tone 5 in the scale of A minor. Soon we begin to flow, as sixteenth-note scales, occasionally adorned with chromatic tones, cast a spell that is at once exotic and restrained, passionate and chaste. The opening phrase is especially beautiful, with its eloquent upward leap of a minor sixth to C and appoggiaturas or leaning tones on either side. Tension mounts, as Bach takes us through a carefully controlled sequence of melodic phrases and underlying chords starting in the fifth measure.[15] In the eleventh measure, there is a striking rhetorical gesture: the music builds to a climax but then pauses, unresolved, on a fermata or rhythmic pause. The pulse is suspended, breath held, and the listener left hanging. A brief, limping cadenza brings us back to the marking of time, at which point the flute sings an impassioned flourish of thirty-second and sixteenth-notes. After this burst of passion, the flute regains composure and returns to its former restraint. The spare trio of flute and oboes reaches its cadence in the home key of A minor. The built-up tension is at last released, only to build up yet again as the soprano enters and sings her song.

In Aria 58 these fermatas or interruptions of measured time are not like the fermatas we find in other arias. Elsewhere in the Passion, fermatas are no more than markers that signal the transition from one main section of music to the next.[16] Here in “Aus Liebe” they are internal to the musical phrases and are integral to the haunting beauty of the piece. They recur throughout the aria, always at points where tension has built up and we are left suspended in a not-yet-finished cadence. It is as though, having taken in a long slow breath, we are then made to hold it before being allowed to let it out. The sparse, halting accompaniment, with its emphasis on the principal beats of the 3/4 measure, enhances this continual sense of breath withheld and time suspended.

Bach’s arias often feature a solo instrument that plays an obbligato part, that is, a solo part that cannot be omitted. Here that part is entrusted to the flute, the breathiest of instruments. Through kinship with the pipes of Pan, the flute has associations with the erotic, the intoxicated, the ecstatic. What Bach does with this instrument in the St. Matthew Passion takes our breath away. We hear the flute at key moments of the drama: when the high priests plot to arrest Jesus (5); when the disciples chide the woman at Bethany (7); when the crowd sings its crucifixion fugue (54, 59). In these moments, Bach takes full advantage of the flute’s power to summon the shrill demons of frenzy and mindlessness. But flutes are present in other contexts as well: when the alto, in the first aria of the work, sings of repentance and remorse (10); when the soprano sings of the bleeding heart (12); when the soprano and alto sing their duet in response to the arrest and binding of Jesus (33). And at the final moment of unsettling consummation, as we reach the end of the St. Matthew Passion, we hear the flute. At the last moment, on the word “Ruh,” rest, the flute pierces the orchestra with a shocking dissonance—a B-natural that eventually resolves to the root of the C minor triad with which the drama ends (78). In this crowning appoggiatura or leaning tone, Bach sums up the whole Passion as the suffering of divine love and the ultimate expenditure of breath. The flute’s dissonant lean is also an image of our longing for the resolution that only the Passion can accomplish: the removal of our guilt and the final rest of a tormented conscience. Never was so ordinary a musical device invested with such profound meaning.

In Aria 58 the counter-song of the flute is like a ghost that haunts the musical space in which the soprano sings. The wordless song of the flute establishes a mood of sublime desolation. It transports the listener to a musical wasteland where some unbelievably exotic flower is in bloom. The pure but breathy tones of the flute make clear to us that the song we are about to hear is a love song. Eros, we might say, is summoned in order to be purified—purged of his self-seeking carnality.[17] The unearthly sound of the flute, with its breathy intimations of the erotic and the soprano’s song of love, are powerful reminders of the image with which the St. Matthew Passion began, that of Jesus as Bridegroom and Beloved.

The singer, who is not part of the story, must nevertheless be imagined as within the time of the drama she beholds. As Jesus suffers, so does she—reflectively. The falsely accused Bridegroom stands before her, as Pilate asks his question: “But what evil has he done?” After answering that question in her recitative, the soprano proceeds to sing of the love that is the source of everything that has happened and will happen, in the Passion. “Out of love,” her song begins, “Aus Liebe,” as she reiterates the flute’s quarter-note upbeat. Her melody resembles that of the flute but is less florid and more restrained.

Restraint is in her very words. Other arias in the Passion are either prayers or strong personal affirmations. These are often marked by an emphatic “ich will,” I will, where “will” is not the future tense but an expression of resolve and willingness. In all these arias the singer is personally part of what the song is about. In the tipsy aria I mentioned earlier, the soprano sings to Jesus, “I will give you my heart as a gift” and “I will immerse myself in you” (19); the tenor, in response to Jesus in Gethsemane sings, “I will stand watch by my Jesus” (26); and in the very last aria the bass sings, “I will bury Jesus myself” (75). In Aria 58, the soprano refers to “my Savior” and “my soul.” But beyond these fleeting, if important, moments of self-reference, the song is not about the subjective state, the resolve or willingness, of the singer. Neither prayer nor personal affirmation, it is the direct statement of a fact, the most wondrous fact the world has ever known: that Jesus, as the incarnation of divine love, submitted to a horribly unjust sentence—he stood in for man—so that the just sentence of eternal damnation would not fall upon us.[18] The song is not about the will of the singer but about the loving will of God. In this respect, too, “Aus Liebe” is remarkable for its purity.[19]

Another element of restraint is the absence of metaphor. Picander’s madrigal poems are often wildly metaphoric. Tears are transformed into an adornment for the Savior; a child nourished by Jesus becomes a treacherous serpent; sins fall asleep; the Lamb is caught in a tiger’s claws; false tongues wound; the heart weeps; sinful humanity is a group of forsaken chicks; and the cold grave becomes the loving heart in which Jesus is laid to rest. But in Aria 58, there are no metaphors. Even the image of the Good Shepherd, which appeared in the preceding chorale, is present only in the pastoral sound of the speechless oboes. What the soprano has to say here she says directly, without images. She gives passionate utterance to a theological doctrine.

The melody line of Aria 58, it must be admitted, is not much of a melody, not a catchy tune that sticks in the mind. Its enchantment lies elsewhere. Many of the other arias in the Passion are very catchy indeed, in large part due to their dance-like rhythms. Not so with “Aus Liebe,” which has a rhapsodic, free-floating sound that reminds us of the formal recitatives. The soprano begins by imitating the quarter-note upbeat with which the flute began the piece. But instead of going up a perfect fifth from A to E, she starts on the E and holds this single note for a very long time. This is followed by a somber melisma or vocalizing on the first syllable of the word “Liebe,” love. The long-held opening note conveys constancy, in imitation of the constancy of divine love. The melisma seems to float and wander, like a torn garment that has been left to blow in the wind, and yet in some curious way also to stand still. The soprano’s melody line is in fact not easy to recall or reproduce. The comfy cushion of tunefulness has been removed—yet another instance of bereftness. The melody makes the soprano sound exposed. This is a manifest identification with Jesus, who has just been exposed to judgment. And, as I suggested earlier, this quiet imitation of lonely exposure is expository in another sense: by dampening musical elements that are prominent elsewhere, Bach deputizes the soprano to reveal the doctrinal core of Jesus’ sacrifice. Jesus came to suffer and die, not merely because a debt had to be paid and only God could pay it, but because God loves man and desires to save him from the fate he deserves.

Word, tone, and rhythm are all carefully coordinated. The soprano sings her opening phrase: “Out of love is my Savior willing to die.” She holds the word “Liebe,” love, for a long time, an entire measure, as the counter-song of the flute keeps the rhythm fluid. She sings the phrase “out of love” three times: “Out of love, out of love, out of love is my Savior willing to die.” Bach also gives the word “sterben,” die, a special rhetorical emphasis. The soprano stretches out the first syllable of this word, just as she had stretched out the first syllable of the word for love. In the middle of the first syllable of “sterben” and on the last beat of the measure, she sinks chromatically from a C sharp to a C natural. This chromatic going down on “die” adds a sad poignancy to the word. The soprano then outlines the falling degrees of a diminished-seventh chord, recalling the dissonances in the Passion that are associated with the Cross. As she approaches the end of the word “sterben” with this sinking and falling, she pauses on one of those literally breathtaking fermatas. The note on which she pauses is G sharp, the raised 7 of A minor and the note of the scale that has maximum tension. Harmonically, too, we are in suspense, since this G sharp is part of a not-yet-resolved dominant-seventh chord—the chord that points most strongly to the tonic chord, in this case the A minor triad. Time is arrested, and in that moment of suspense we feel the weight of what has just been said. We feel an emptiness that offers a foretaste of the word “nichts,” nothing, in the very next phrase. What does this beautiful nothing signify?

To begin with, Jesus himself is at this moment bereft. There is no one to save him from what he has willingly taken on. The sentence of crucifixion has just fallen like a hammer from the lips of the crowd, or rather has risen like a hook.[20] Pilate washes his hands and Jesus’ fate is sealed. The true agony of the Passion is now about to begin. Throughout the Passion, we are made to feel a deep personal relation to Jesus, who is very often referred to as “my Jesus.” This intimacy is most present in the arias. Here in Aria 58 the bare, lonely sound captures the terrifying vulnerability of Jesus. It also captures the profound awareness of this vulnerability by the singer, who speaks and feels for all. The nothingness or bereftness we hear is no mere expression of emotion. It is that but also much more. The lonely sound is the singer’s effort to identify with Jesus, to be one with the act of divine love, which empties itself of all self-withholding, all guardedness, all celestial safety. The aria is the sound of love as self-divestment, love as sacrifice. The loneliness we hear is an emptiness that is filled with this love. It is the sound of Love incarnate.

The sound of self-divestment, self-emptying, is highlighted by the word for nothing, “nichts,” which sounds like the spending of breath. The soprano repeats this word with a strong rhetorical gesture, as she goes from a B natural up to an F natural, that is, through the dissonance of a tritone. Jesus has done nothing, nothing, to merit what is happening to him. We are in mid-sentence at this point, as the soprano sings her first full cadence—in C major, the relative key of A minor. Here we reach the assured and lucid center of the aria, as the words take us from Jesus’s willingness to suffer an unjust death sentence to the purpose for which he did this: “So that eternal damnation / And the sentence of judgment / May not rest upon my soul.” The sound of C major momentarily transforms the desolate A minor music of the opening into something serene and pastoral. It is like the gentle smile of divine love that emerges from within all the abandonment and accusation Jesus has suffered. It is as though Jesus, the Good Shepherd on whom the death sentence has just fallen, turns to the soprano at this point and gently smiles at her as the representative of fallen Man. The pastoral smile of C major seems to say: “This is why I have done what I have done: for you, my beloved.”

The soprano now makes a new beginning. Her opening rhythm emphasizes two quarter-note upbeats. These quarter notes give her line even more a sense of standing in place rather than moving on. The sense of a firm stand is also conveyed by the two-quarter notes that repeat the same tone (G), and by the two German words that sound identical: “dass das.” She holds the first syllable of “ewige,” eternal, in a candid enactment of the word’s meaning. It echoes the other opening word that was drawn out for rhetorical emphasis: “Liebe,” love. The suggestion is that nothing less than an eternal love was necessary if we were to be saved from eternal damnation. The soprano picks up the key of C major but not for long. F major is hinted at but never established, as the harmony, now shifting and fluid, returns to the dark realm of the minor: to G minor, and then D minor, keys closely related on the circle of fifths.

With the advent of D minor, the soprano returns to the first part of her song. Her melody, however, is noticeably different from its first appearance. On the opening “Aus Liebe” she ascends through a minor sixth. Her melody now has far fewer sixteenth-notes, and whereas in the first part of her song the soprano had uttered the phrase “out of love” three times, here she sings it only twice. And yet this return to the opening melody is more intense, more impassioned than what we heard at the beginning. The aria now has more momentum and more dramatic tension. The word “sterben,” die, is more prolonged and insistent, as if the singer was now feeling death itself as more impending and inexorable. And when the soprano returns to the crucial word “nichts,” nothing, she gives it even more dramatic emphasis than before by leaping up through a minor seventh.

Bach cunningly manipulates the harmony so that, having begun this return in the “wrong” key of D minor, and with dramatic variations on the initial melody, the soprano soon arrives back in the home key of A minor. This complete return happens in measure 53, at one of those breathtaking fermata moments. Here Bach gives us a tense, dark chord that points to A minor—a diminished seventh chord based on G sharp. This is soon followed by yet another fermata moment, in which Bach gives us the dominant seventh of A minor, thereby further solidifying the home key. Such are the glories of tonal harmony, the potent musical language that Bach inherited and advanced. The singer finishes her song and returns to the silence whence she came. Again we hear the unearthly tones of the flute’s opening music, as we come full circle.[21] After a final flurry of notes played by the flute, the three instruments reach a gentle cadence in A minor, at which point Aria 58 reaches its end. The spell of meditative tranquility is then broken by the tenor-Evangelist, who sings, “But [the crowd] cried out yet again and said…” His alarming musical gesture—an octave leap upward—paves the way for a return of the crucifixion fugue, now made even more horrifying by contrast with the aria that has preceded it.[22]

Earlier I noted the curiously halting rhythm of the aria and its sense of stability or standing still. I also noted the terrifying directness of the soprano’s words, which state, without metaphor, the objective truth of divine love unmixed with the will of the singer. The stark standing there of the tones recalls the stark standing there of Jesus in his exposure to judgment. This is intimately related to the remarkable directness of the text, which captures in a few words the central point of Matthew’s story of the Passion. We encountered this rest-in-motion, this standing there of moving tones, in the stabilizing quarter-note upbeats with which flute and soprano begin their melodies. In the standing-there of Aria 58, we experience the quiet unmoving pivot and meditative center around which the entire St. Matthew Passion turns.[23] Through the power of tones in time, tones that both express a passion and release the spirit of words, the listener is put into direct contact with a felt symbol of that eternal Love around which human history turns. We are arrested by the sound of Bach. We hear and feel something haunting and mysterious but also precise and orderly. Through the power of music—more precisely, the power of tonal harmony—we experience with our whole soul what Good Friday is all about.

Concluding Thoughts

Tones bring singer and listener into immediate contact with what the words of the song mean. Through the power of tones in time, we do not just register meaning but experience it. It is the prerogative of tones to do with words what words cannot do for themselves. Tones take us beyond words and at the same time more deeply into them. Words that are sung take on new life—they become winged—as tones transport us from the letter of the word to its indwelling spirit. Music strikes us. And when words and tones are wedded, these words strike us, come home to us, in a most intimate and powerful way.

The power of tones has an important bearing on human learning. Often our failure to comprehend something fully is due to a failure of feeling. We hear or read words, we register their conceptual meaning, but we fail to feel their weight and power. We fail to be struck, thus failing to live up to the demands of meaning. The twentieth-century physicist Niels Bohr once said: “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” So too, in order to be fully awake to faith, we must be struck by the objects of faith. Great sacred music is in this way faith’s faithful ally. The music of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion stirs feeling. In doing so, it can strengthen faith by bringing about a renewed, vigorous, and more reflective relation to that faith. This power to renew and invigorate, and to induce reflection, is most pronounced in the arias, which explore the various ways in which a contemporary individual may be imagined to respond to the sacred paintings in Matthew’s story. As we have seen, emotion is no simple thing here, since Bach’s music stirs contrary emotions at one and the same time. Paradox is everywhere heard and felt. By evoking the paradoxical unity of contrary feelings and ideas, the fusion of gravity and grace, Bach captures a truth in its wholeness. He puts our souls, as I noted earlier, into direct contact with the bittersweet meaning of Good Friday.

Aria 58 pierces us with its beauty. It does so by means of the musical elements I have tried to point out in the course of my essay, elements that are describable to an astonishing degree. In being pierced by these elements in their precisely defined relations, we are made to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice as rooted in God’s love for man. The tones of the singer beautify the words. But they also interpret them. In the Passion Bach, as theologian and teacher, inflects aspects of the story in order to stress themes close to the heart of the fervent Lutheran: the tormented conscience, the profound innocence of Jesus, the human passions of Jesus, the believer’s passionate and personal relation to Jesus as Bridegroom, the frailty and folly of our good intentions, and the treachery of the human heart.[24] God is in the detail. In the beautifully precise details of the St. Matthew Passion Bach gives us something to ponder as well as something to experience. Perhaps most amazing of all, the music of Bach offers the listener food for thought. He does so through the listener’s faculty for delight. What the French poet Paul Valéry said of lyric poetry applies to the music of Bach:

Thought is hidden in verse like the nutritive virtue in fruit. A fruit
is nourishment but it seems to be nothing but pure delight. One
perceives only pleasure but one receives a substance. Enchantment
veils this imperceptible nourishment it brings with it.[25]

Could it be, precisely because its fruit is so delicious—passion fruit—that Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is for the non-believer as well as the believer, not just for his delectation but also for his redemption?

I have often meditated on this possibility. The beauty of all sacred music, not just that of Bach, is perhaps invested with a conversionary power, a power to bring the not-yet-believing soul, if not to faith, then at least to the threshold of faith. It is not difficult to imagine that music, like Dante’s Beatrice, is one of the ways in which grace operates through beauty—that music, like Beatrice, is a mediator. Bach’s Passion is unique in this regard. The music is seductive, even voluptuous. One can only imagine what St. Augustine, who agonized over the seductive dangers of chant, would make of it. In the St. Matthew Passion, Bach indulges his gypsy soul. It is as though Bach, in his broad and deep humanity, his capacity for feeling all kinds and degrees of sorrow and joy, was reaching out to all his fellow human beings, believers and non-believers alike, and impressing upon them what was for him the potent truth of Christian faith. All the exotic chromaticism, the dance rhythms, the tender passions of the arias are so many ways in which Bach puts carnality and sensuousness, the earthy passions we all feel, into the service of transcending carnality and sensuousness. I have no idea whether Bach intended this. I can only say that I have seen it happen, that non-believers who fall under the spell of this music begin to feel the pull of Christian faith, as though Christianity were speaking to them for the first time in their lives.

“How wondrous indeed is this sentence that has been passed on Jesus!” On this note of wonder, I bring my reflections to a close. Music does not merely sound: It enchants. To listen to music is to give our souls to its power. We do not merely hear and feel but are held and possessed. Music is uncanny. Aria 58, in its haunting beauty, brings to the fore the unearthly character of all great music. In this musical meditation, Bach evokes a twofold wonder at a twofold mystery: wonder at the sacrifice that is at the center of Christian faith, and wonder at the power of music that can bring about a more intimate union with this faith.

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[1] See Christian Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2000), pp. 288-303.

[2] Spitta makes a highly interesting remark that underscores Bach’s fusion of voices and instruments. Commenting on the chorale that most invites the omission of instruments—the one that appears right after Jesus’s death—Spitta writes: “Bach’s chorale settings can produce their special effects only by that peculiar colouring which results from the mixture of human voices with the organ and the tones of instruments. The instruments have besides, in Bach’s hands, so much to say of their own individuality that they constitute an intelligible symbolism when they come in unanimously with the four parts” (Johann Sebastian Bach, translated by Clara Bell and J.A. Fuller-Maitland, New York: Dover Publications, 1951 [originally published in 1889 by London: Novello], Volume 2, p. 550, note 632).

[3] Wolff observes: “Picander’s allegorical dialogue and lament, ‘Kommt, ihr Töchter,’ is set by Bach in the manner of a French tombeau, as a funeral march for the multitude of believers who ascend to Mount Zion and the holy city of Jerusalem” (ibid. p. 302). In Picander’s original version, the opening number called for a single soprano, the Daughter of Zion, who engaged in a musical dialogue with the chorus. The vestige of this soloist is preserved in the use of the singular pronoun: “Come, you Daughters, help me lament.” For a discussion of this point, see Albert Schweitzer, J.S. Bach, English translation from the 1908 German edition by Ernest Newman, London: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1911 (reprint 1955), p. 211.

[4] An amazing example of the musical dialectic at work in this opening chorus can be seen in Bach’s use of chromaticism in the opening melody, where the G natural becomes a G sharp, thus suggesting E major. The D sharp and C sharp in the supporting lines further suggest the fleeting presence of E major. The exotic chromaticism of the opening of the Passion, in other words, results from a weird bi-modality of major and minor.

[5] Wolff, pp. 298-299.

[6] His real name was Christian Friedrich Henrici.

[7] See Wolff, pp. 296-299.

[8] The hymn tune the chorus sings at this point is used three times in the work, each time with a different harmonization. In #3, the very first chorale of the Passion, the chorus asks what Jesus could possibly have done to deserve so harsh a judgment (“Urteil”); in #25, where the chorale is woven into the tenor recitative, the chorus asks what the cause (“Ursache”) of Jesus’ woes could be; and here in #55, the chorus, in an apparent intensification of its earlier questions, expresses wonder at the sentence (“Strafe”) that has been passed on Jesus. It seems clear from the words judgment, cause, and sentence that Bach intends the three occurrences of the hymn to be heard as a three-fold meditation on the marvel of Jesus’ innocence.

[9] Elke Axmacher calls the pair of verses—“He has done good for us all” and “Apart from this my Jesus has done nothing”—“poetically surely one of the most beautiful parts of Picander’s libretto.” See Aus Liebe will mein Heyland sterben”: Untersuchungen zum Wandeln des Passionsverständnisses im frühen 18. Jahrhundert, (Neuhausen-Stuttgart:Hänsler Verlag, 1984), p. 177.

[10] In addition to “Aus Liebe,” the preceding crucifixion fugue, and Jesus’ death on the Cross, A minor music in Bach’s Passion includes the tenor aria about patience (“Geduld,” #41) and the final appearance of the “Passion chorale” right after Jesus’s death (“Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden,” #72).

[11] In an earlier version of Picander’s libretto, the aria was in the first person singular: Jesus himself was to sing! His words were as follows:

Out of love I am willing to suffer everything,
Out of love I die before the world.
Out of love and not for being guilty,
Am I the ransom for sin.

For a discussion of this fascinating transformation of the text, see Axmacher, pp. 167 and 177-178.

[12] The technical term for this sort of upper-register continuo was “bassetchen” or “little bass.” See Eric Chafe, Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J.S. Bach (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), p. 350, note 27. Chafe observes that the “bassetchen” “probably represents God’s love (as it does in a number of cantatas and, above all, in ‘Aus Liebe’ from the St. Matthew Passion)” (p. 168).

[13] Another moment in which Bach conveys an almost terrifying sense of breath withheld occurs in the tenor recitative, #40, just before the aria about patience. Here too Bach uses oboes.

[14] The overflowing gaiety of this aria makes one wonder how Spitta could have asserted that in the arias of the St. Matthew Passion, “every sentiment of joy in its various shades is wholly excluded; they are all based on the emotions of sorrow” (ibid. p. 558).

[15] The overall pattern of phrases is that they ascend through leap and descend through step. The step-wise sinking of phrases is especially evident in measures 5-7. Note the gradual harmonic descent in the accompanying oboes, which sink slowly in thirds. The most eloquent moment in this harmonic descent is the appearance of the B flat in measure 6.

[16] One exception is number Aria 61, “Können Tränen meiner Wangen,” which, like “Aus Liebe,” features fermatas on unresolved dissonant chords, though to a lesser extent.

[17] It is tempting, in this regard, to contrast Bach’s aria with the first aria from the Bachianas Brasileiras by Villa-Lobos. In this aria, a soprano sings of a rising moon that “awakes cruel memories of laughter and tears.” The haunting opening of this dreamy nature music seems to have been inspired by Aria 58. The Brazilian composer grounds his aria in a luscious sounding surge of cellos and invests it with a distinctly sensual feel. It is like the sound of “Aus Liebe” shorn of its chastity and made into something carnal and erotically anguished. It is the voice of the earth rather than the voice of heaven.

[18] For a discussion of how Bach, in his St. Matthew Passion, gives musical expression to St. Anselm’s doctrine of redemption as the payment of a debt, see Jaroslav Pelikan, Bach Among the Theologians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), pp. 100-101.

[19] See note 11.

[20] In his final moments on the Cross, as Jesus utters his last words of abandonment—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—Bach removes the halo of strings that has surrounded Jesus’ words up to this point. Bereft of this timeless-sounding halo, Jesus appears as thoroughly mortal. This withdrawal of strings is both brilliant and heartrending.

[21] This aria is not the usual da capo aria, which has a straightforward ABA structure. Aria 58 is, in fact, closer to so-called sonata form—the form cultivated by the classical composers (Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven). It is a form in which three structural parts have a tighter, more organic relation than the ABA structure that we hear in most of the other arias in the Passion. Another instance of this quasi-sonata form occurs in Aria 47, “Erbarme dich.”

[22] The crucifixion fugue returns, but not in the earlier key. Originally in A minor, it now appears a step higher, in B minor.

[23] As Friedrich Smend aptly puts it, the aria “Aus Liebe” is the “Herzstück” of the entire work—its heart and core (“Bachs Matthäus-Passion,” Bach-Jahrbuch 25 [1928], pp. 29-300. For references to Smend’s idea of the “Herzstück” in relation to “Aus Liebe,” see Chafe, ibid. pp. 350 and 380. It was Smend, according to Chafe, who first saw that the ten turbae or crowd sequences in Part 2 of Bach’s Passion form a symmetrical series. At the center of this series stands the aria “Aus Liebe,” flanked by the two appearances of “Lass ihn kreuzigen,” “Let him be crucified.” For Smend’s symmetrical arrangement, see Chafe, ibid. p. 381.

[24] For more on this subject, see Pelikan.

[25] Selected Writings of Paul Valéry (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1950), p. 148.

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