musica Dei donum
The "new" St Matthew Passion by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
During this year's Holland Festival Early Music Ton Koopman performed a St Matthew
Passion by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, which was thought to be lost, until it was
rediscovered in the archive of the Berlin Sing-Akademie in Kiev in Ukraine, which
is now catalogued by an international board of experts.
Although it is interesting to hear this work in what is thought to be its
original form, most of the music, in particular the ariosos and arias, isn't new
at all. At the end of the 1760's Carl Philipp Emanuel worked at a
Passionskantate which was based on a St Matthew Passion. This cantata is
Die letzten Leiden des Erlösers, recorded years ago by Sigiswald Kuijken.
The Passion which Carl Philip Emanuel had composed was meant to be performed in
churches in Hamburg. Therefore its basis is the text of the gospel, with
additional chorales, which we also know from Johann Sebastian's passions.
In the passion cantata the text of the gospel has been replaced by a kind of
meditation about the gospel, in the tradition of the passion oratorio.
The characters from the gospel - Peter, Judas, Pilate - have all disappeared, so
have the turbae and the chorales.
Whereas the aria's and chorales in Johann Sebastian's passions reflect the
emotional reactions of the believer or the community of believers, the
perspective in Carl Philipp Emanuel's work - both the passion and the cantata -
change constantly. When Jesus is arrested Peter wants to follow him. Then we hear
the arioso O Petrus! folge nicht! (O Peter, don't follow!) 'His' angel is
asked to prevent him following Jesus. Somewhat later the audience is addressed.
When Judas has cast the 'blood money' in the temple, an aria says: "Verstockte
Sünder, solche Werke begehet ihr und fühlt es nicht" (Callous sinners! Such works
you commit, and perceive it not).
The arias were clearly written with a "public", non-liturgical performance in
mind. Most of them are very long and some are quite virtuoso, in particular the
duet for two sopranos, Muster der Geduld und Liebe, which contains a
cadenza like in the classical opera.
The character of the music and the text are a result of the changing ideas of
that time and the changing circumstances in which this passion music was
performed. This work by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach clearly reflects the ideas of
the Enlightenment. Jesus is referred to as Menschenfreund (friend of
mankind), a typical term of the Enlightenment. Another feature is the fact that
Jesus is presented as model for mankind. The duet already mentioned is a clear
example: "Muster der Geduld und Liebe, möchten wir dir ähnlich sein! Flöß uns
sanfte, sanfte Triebe deines guten Geistes ein." (Paragon of patience and love,
may we also be so! Fill us with the gentle, gentle inclinations of your good
The result is a piece with two faces. One the one hand it is a traditional
oratorio passion, on the other hand it is a "modern" work which is firmly rooted
in the Enlightenment with its emphasis on the moral uplifting of mankind.
This 'split personality' of the work is underlined by the fact that Carl Philipp
Emanuel has borrowed music from his father, for instance the opening chorus
Christus, der uns selig macht and some turbae and chorales. They are
somewhat out of place, because of the difference in musical language, in particular in
the treatment of harmony.
This work demonstrates the difference in the way Johann Sebastian and Carl Philipp
Emanuel treat the text. Carl Philipp Emanuel chooses the basic mood of the moment
and writes the music which reflects that. That can lead to some strange things,
like the intervention "O Petrus! Folge nicht", which has a rhythm one wouldn't expect in
a passion. In contrast, Johann Sebastian translates every word into music, which
results in the frequent modulations in the part of the Evangelist in his passions,
and in sudden dissonances on specific syllables in the chorales.
For that reason I prefer the later form of the Passionskantate, which is
more of a unity in music and content.
Johan van Veen (© 2002)