The echo in the Grote Kerk in Leeuwarden gives such a powerful, impressive sound. I’m standing in the first row, in between the sopranos, in choir one. It’s not my first concert there, singing with the NHL Stendenkoor, but the “Matthäus Passion” is really a piece that makes an impression every single time.
As a musician, you may not believe in God, but you should certainly believe in Bach
“Matthäus Passion”, or “Saint Matthew Passion” as it is known in English, is one of the latter works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Every year, around the Palm Sunday, ensembles across the Netherlands perform what is often considered the best of Bach’s works – and, as my choir conductor likes to say, “As a musician, you may not believe in God, but you should certainly believe in Bach”.
The passion tells the story of the last days of Jesus, using the gospel of Saint Matthew gospel and some additional text for arias and chorales to comment on the events from the faithful’s perspective. Lasting for over two hours and involving three choir parts, an orchestra, organs and six solo singers, the sheer size hints at how vast and complex the Passion is, not to its hidden layers of interpretation.
The music is often written to represent what is being describe, such as the “Und er warf die Silberlinge in den Tempel“, where the money Judas received for betraying Jesus being thrown on the temple floor is mimicked by the violin. There is also much room for interpretation. “One year, I heard it 12 times and I was still surprised by the new things I discovered in it,” recalls Susanne Stocker of the Dutch Bach Association (Nederlandse Bachvereiniging). Another interesting detail is that the “Matthaus Passion” has no original annotation about the tempo of the pieces, which means that different interpretations of what the composer intended can vary widely.
How did the tradition start?
And, of course, not everyone wants to follow exactly how Bach imagined it. Take Willem Mengelberg, for instance. The famous and controversial conductor (for his political naïveté with regard to the Nazis) of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam was one of the first to perform “Matthäus Passion” regularly, on Palm Sunday.
His taste could be called grandiose: with big changes in dynamics, a slow, majestic tempo, and a choir of 450 singers, Mengelberg’s performances must have attracted attention.
Although there had been others who conducted the Passion in the Netherlands before, many in the musical world still cite him as the person who started the true Dutch “Matthäus Passion” tradition about a hundred years ago, and the piece remains extremely popular with the public today. According to the Nederlandse Bachvereiniging, around 200,000 people discover and revisit Bach’s magic yearly, 30,000 of whom buy tickets for the association’s own concerts.
The fact that Dutch people have listened to it three hundred years ago and still do it today, it’s just magical
What’s quite interesting, the same audiences that are deeply moved by the suffering of Christ are not religious. Even though they are, usually, not religious anymore, there is something that really speaks to them: the “sober way of listening to the music”, according to Susanne Stocker. She insists that there is something Calvinist in the way Bach composed the Passion.
The experience of performing and hearing the piece is just a moment of rare depth and reflection, filled with mixed emotions: rage and sorrow, loss, admiration, even a tainted joy, catharsis. “And the fact that Dutch people have listened to it three hundred years ago and still do it today, it’s just magical”, Stocker says.
Where to attend a performance of the “Matthäus Passion” in the north
This month, you can find many performances of the “Matthäus Passion” in Groningen, Drenthe and Friesland, even including a recording of a translation into Frisian.
Concerts by the Nederlandse Bachvereiniging are especially noteworthy, using traditional techniques and instruments (original, “older than vintage”, or replicas) in an effort to recreate a sound close to that from Bach’s time. With fewer singers and musicians, the feeling is more intimate and natural.
The Noord Nederlands Orkest, one of the main ensembles of the region, will also perform “Saint Matthew’s Passion” several times this week in Leeuwarden, Emmen and Groningen. Tickets sales for this week are still open.
Leeuwarden, in turn, also has a local tradition of the university choir of NHL Stenden performing the piece each year, striving for perfection. The concerts will take place in the Grote Kerk on Tuesday, the 4th and Wednesday, with some last entrance tickets available.
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