An interesting musical detective story

In music, a PASSION is an Oratorio about the capture, torture, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

Two of Bach’s finest works are John and Matthew Passions

(Remember it is not St Matthew’s passion but “The Passion of our Lord” according to St Matthew.)

Critical opinion that these two Passions along with Bach’s Mass in B Minor are the finest pieces of music ever written (remember popularity and greatness are two entirely different things.)

Before going on the Mark passion, I need to talk a little more about the Matthew and John.

Bach never had the resources to perform his Matthew Passion. He had hardly enough for one choir and orchestra never mind the two required here (or three choirs if you count the repieno choir)

The two choirs and orchestras work antiphonally, (one on each side of the church) one asking the question “whom? how? when? and the other choir answering.

Bach’s friend and sometimes rival Telemann was a much more expedient person (and far more successful in his lifetime than Bach) and wrote for the resources he actually had. He kept the harmony simple so the congregation could sing along in the choruses. Telemann wrote thirteen St Matthew Passions during his long tenure of office in

Hamburg, as Cantor for the four principle churches. It would have four times that number if Telemann had not successfully prevailed on each one to take it in turn.

One of the reasons many think the Matthew is superior to the John is because the words fit the music better. In the John, Bach took the words straight from the Bible whereas in the Matthew it was first turned into poetry by a man very well known at the time who rejoiced in the nickname of Picander (his real name was Henriki – he was head of the post office in Weimer) – and used the nickname to distinguish his part time activities. Picander’s role as literary collaborator is equivalent to a librettist in an opera.

Much of Bach’s music has been lost. We have Mendelssohn to thank for rescuing much of it. Amazingly he found a butcher’s shop in Weimer, where Bach’s manuscripts were being used to wrap up meat. He did the same in a florist, where Bach’s manuscripts were being used to wrap up prickly roses; in addition some of his music disappeared in WWII.

It would be a wonderful day for music if a Bach Passion according to one of the other Apostles turned up. One according to St Luke did appear, but it was found by scholars to be spurious.

We can be quite certain that a St Mark Passion existed because Picander published his texts separately.

At the time of writing the St Mark, Bach was under even more pressure and I suspect that he was also going through one of his slightly rebellious moods. After all he had to produce a truly eye-watering amount of music for the church each Sunday, as well as train the choir etc and with a status the same as that of the cook. He must have thought of the huge amount of music that he had written, which had only been performed once; so, he decided to write the St Mark using what is confusingly termed “Parody technique”.

He searched among his own music for something that would fit the emotions of the St Mark story and employed his poet (Picander) to write words that fitted the music.

So, in order to reconstruct the St Mark, the task is to find which piece of music Bach used. Two well-known attempts are (a) by Ton Koopman, who is Director of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and, therefore, exposed to a great deal of Bach’s music, and (b) by Andor Gomme, a professor of English, at Keele University; who took a more scholarly approach , studying manuscripts in Germany, all in his own time, and basing his work largely on Cantata203 . The scholarly on approach is very evident in the accompanying notes to the CD: GAX23712. Which is a performance conducted by Geoffrey Weller

Whether the correct music for the construction, or not, my own view is that Goome’s reconstruction is 2 correct” it is very much to be preferred ;being more cohesive as well as giving great uplift

Yet Coopman is preferred by many perhaps because of his position in the professional musical world reactive to Gomme’s

Scholars are not convinced that either is correct. Here is your chance, not just for 15 minutes of fame, but to go down in history as a person who reconstructed the St Mark. No ability to write music is required, but

bare in mind that the task may be impossible because the music you seek may be among the Bach music which is lost. Possibly one of the manuscripts used to wrap up meat in the butcher’s shop in Weimer, before Mendelssohn got to rescue it.

For an unconnected reason Mendelssohn is sometimes known as “the butcher of Weimer “ because he arranged and performed a version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which was absolutely “butchered”; in ways which would nowadays make our toes curl. He greatly shortened it and simplified it to require fewer resources, added inappropriate rubato and other Romantic style musical effects. Unbelievably he also changed some of the notes to suit the singers available. Never the less it achieved Mendelssohn’s aim of drawing attention to Bach’s choral works.