Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Passion for the Passions

I've been graciously invited to be a new regular contributor at the classical music blog, The Ecstatic Living Room.  Below is a preview of my first post there, about Bach's Passions.  If you enjoy the preview, please feel free to check out the rest of the post at the Ecstatic Living Room's site.  Also, take a moment to browse through some of my other colleagues' posts there.  It'll be a fun time, I guarantee it...


Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, just passed by us, so for much of the world, now that the copious alcohol consumption, Paczki eating, parading, and bead-necklace tossing is over, and Guys/Girls Gone Wild has enough flasher footage to finish their 19th installment in their series, Lent has begun. I was raised Greek Orthodox, and as a result, our Easter often tends to fall at a slightly different time each year, so I actually wasn’t raised with the tradition of Fat Tuesday. Instead, while the ideas behind the holidays are the same, Lent for us always began on Clean Monday – which entailed a day of strict fasting, and was much less fun than Mardi Gras, I assure you.
On the few times my mother insisted that we strictly fast in observance of Clean Monday, it was explained to my younger brother and I that the reason for enduring the throbbing headaches caused by our hunger pains was so that we could understand the sacrifice that Jesus made for our sins by allowing himself to be crucified. It was then explained to us that the idea of giving something up for Lent continues the meditation on this particular theme. Of course, this was lost on me as a child, and I just continued to whine about not being able to eat Chicken McNuggets for 40 more days.
For singers, the Lenten and Easter season (which I can hardly believe has arrived already – where does the time go?) proves to be a time in which there is a lot of extra work singing about the Passion of Jesus Christ, as well as the Easter Story in general. The pieces that seem to get the most traction around this time of year are Bach’s two Passions. While it is pretty clear that he wrote or at least drafted four versions of the Passion story (one for each gospel – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), only two seem to have survived in a complete form to the present day: the Passions according to St. Matthew and to St. John. The way Bach conceived of both pieces is pretty extraordinary, and while they are clearly pieces of sacred church music that was not meant to be staged, both works are quite theatrical in scope. Each piece has a narrator – the Evangelist – who is like the voice of an angel, narrating the action of the story in a very simple, speech-like musical form called recitative. A baritone plays the role of Jesus in these recitatives in both pieces, and the chorus members play the other various characters in the story through their many choruses. Yet, for me, what are most compelling about both passions are the four soloists (a soprano, an alto, a tenor, and a bass) who comment on the action of the story as timeless, human observers with haunting and meditative arias. This story is one that many have heard told yearly in church – Jesus was arrested and tried under Pontius Pilate, sacrificed himself for our sins, was crucified, and was buried. The commentary of the soloists, though, is heartbreaking – relating the story to us as believers, meditating on what the various aspects of the story mean. It’s like listening to sermonizing on the lessons of the Gospel, but in a way that actually compels us to listen, and can actually move our hearts — unlike when we tune out the priest’s homily in church, patiently waiting for the offering tray to be passed our way and the post-church-service fellowship hour to begin...  (read more)


Janet said...

They are among those rare pieces that feel new every time I hear them. That was a wonderful St John at Carnegie Hall this weekend--I was particularly moved by your beautiful rendition of "Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken," which I've had some trouble responding to in the past. Thank you for that, and for sharing your experience with the Passions.

nick said...

Thank you so much, Janet! I really, really love singing that aria - it's definitely a difficult piece in many different respects, but I think it's one of the most beautiful things Bach wrote...so it means the world to hear that you were moved by it on Sunday. Sunday was an incredibly special concert - I was so grateful to have been a part of that, and I am so happy that you were able to hear it. Many thanks again for you all your kind words, as always!