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Spring 2015

On the St. Matthew Passion

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Mark Padmore

What do we mean when we talk of Bach’s Matthew Passion? In what sense does it exist outside an actual performance? Is it contained in a score or on a recording? Can it exist in the memory? Does it belong to tradition or is it yet to be discovered in some ultimate, authentic performance? What is it for? I’m not sure that we think hard enough about these questions, although there are plenty of strongly held views about what should or shouldn’t be done when it comes to performance.

My experience of working on the Matthew Passion with Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars was transformed and liberated by the change that they encouraged from “should” to “could” —from the prescriptive to the imaginative.

The Matthew Passion is full of questions: the opening chorus is a series of them. Four of the chorales pose questions. Judas, Pilate, the disciples, the maids, the high priests, even Jesus himself, all ask questions. (The one person seemingly sure of himself is Peter—until the cock crows). Very often answers are either cryptic or withheld entirely: Jesus asking if the cup might be taken away, or even more desperately, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In most performances we, performers and audience alike, are not required to notice the questions, let alone engage with them, so embedded are they in the beautiful music.

This seems to me to be a particularly acute problem for classical music and is caused in part by the abundance of recorded performances. We become familiar with a piece to a certain point; we can hum a theme or two and we would notice if a performer started making it up, but it is all too easy to cease to have an engaged, rhetorical involvement with what the music is saying. We allow a performance to unfold in the confidence that it will be pretty similar to all those that we remember, and if we judge it at all, we judge it for its resemblance to other performances. Or we simply zone out and find ourselves thinking of other things entirely.

Addressing this was, for me, the most important task of Peter Sellars’s staging of the Matthew Passion. If the performances were to have a powerful impact, the Passion needed to be experienced as if for the first time. The music’s capacity to shock and disturb had to be reawakened, and we all needed to forget that we thought we knew it. (It is worth noting that Bach probably only heard the Matthew Passion four times in twenty-five years).

Paradoxically, as the storyteller, the Evangelist, I was asked to listen: to be present and to experience fully the story even as I retold it. Peter Sellars insisted that I take notice of everything—the sensual anointing of Jesus’s body by Mary the prostitute, Judas’s kiss, Peter’s denials, the wrongful arrest, the false accusations, the torture, the humiliation, the nailing of a man to a cross and his slow, painful death. These events are the subject of Bach’s music, and every moment required attention and concentration, not just the dramatic parts but also during the reflective arias. The music is there to make us think and feel more intensely, not to distract or soothe us. The extraordinary repetitions of the music and text are designed to increase our engagement and our empathy. This is rhetoric in action.

Dennis Potter, the great television playwright, said in his last interview as he was dying of cancer, “For me, religion has always been the wound, not the bandage.” For me, the Matthew Passion is exactly that—it strips away the bandage and looks unflinchingly at the wound. This is where we find the Matthew Passion: in its dialogue with suffering.



Mark Padmore is singing (and directing) the St. Matthew Passion with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on Rotterdram, Amsterdam, Paris, Bristol, and London during the spring of 2015. He also subscribes to, and reads, The Threepenny Review.
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