St Matthew Passion – Johann Sebastian Bach wrote St. Matthew Passion to present the Passion story in music at Good Friday vesper services. Through the orchestra and singers, Passion retells the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus, from the last supper, to the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus. This monumental work is moving and intimate, deeply sorrowful and powerful.
In 1697, Gottfried Vockerodt, rector of the high school in the southeast German town of Gotha and a self-styled “good Christian,” directed his students in an evening of dramatic scenes from Roman antiquity. Among them were reenactments of the death of Caligula, killed as he chatted with some actors, and of Nero’s descent into insanity, its paranoid confusion ushered in by his reckless violin-playing and frequent visits to the theater.
The point of the scenes was clear: the arts, and above all, the theater, were dangerous, something to be avoided at all costs lest one wander into sin and wantonness.
Musicians and performers around Germany leapt to the theater’s defense, unleashing a blitz of rhetoric against Vockerodt. With a single gesture, Vockerodt had positioned himself as the Jesse Helms of the 17th century, battling the heathen filth seeping from the stages of Germany’s theaters.
What does all of this have to do with Bach’s St. Matthew Passion? Well, in a way, the St. Matthew Passion – or, to give it its full title, the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ According to St. Matthew – is the end of the story that began with Vockerodt, a triumphant affirmation of the power of theater to depict profound spiritual drama. Where the Gotha schoolmaster saw only depravity and sin, Bach found a means of capturing a religious moment, the Passion of Christ, in all of its complexity.