The St Matthew Passion tells the story of the last days of Jesus. He is betrayed, tried, crucified and buried. The lyrics were compiled by Picander (the pseudonym of Christian Friedrich Henrici), probably in close consultation with Bach himself. For their theme, they took the story as told by St Matthew the Evangelist. As different groups or people have their say, the singers get different roles – Christ, Judas, Peter, a slave girl, the pupils, the high priests, the people and the soldiers, etc.
At key moments in the story, Bach and Picander added chorales and arias as a reflection of the biblical story. The action is suspended and the events are placed in the theological context of Bach’s day.
The chorale lyrics and melodies come from the Lutheran hymn book, and were well known to the congregation in Leipzig. Even though Bach’s harmonies were new, everyone would have recognised the melody and the words. The lyrics for the opening and closing choruses and the arias were brand new, however. Both the arias and the chorales often link up seamlessly with the evangelical words.
In his lyrics, Picander distinguishes between two groups of people: the ‘Daughters of Zion’ (Jerusalem) on the one hand, and the faithful souls on the other. Picander often puts these two groups in dialogue with one another. Bach reinforces this dialogue effect by having two separate ensembles of singers and instrumentalists, which he refers to as coro I and coro II. Each of the two ensembles has its own function. The first choir is part of the story and provides the most important emotional reactions, as in the arias ‘Erbarme dich’ and ‘Aus Liebe’. The second choir asks questions, provides commentary and draws conclusions.
In the chorales, Bach combines the two ensembles, and the whole group supports the spoken word. He also uses both choirs together where he wants to portray the furious crowd to maximum effect, as in ‘Lass ihn kreuzigen’. The first choir always takes the lead, and the second follows. content provided by http://allofbach.com/
About Bach Passions
The St Matthew Bach Passion (German: Matthäus-Passion), BWV 244, is a Passion, a sacred oratorio written by Johann Sebastian Bach in 1727 for solo voices, double choir and double orchestra, with libretto by Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici). It sets chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew (in the German translation of Martin Luther) to music, with interspersed chorales and arias. It is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of classical sacred music. The original Latin title Passio Domini nostri J.C. secundum Evangelistam Matthæum translates to “The Passion of our Lord J[esus] C[hrist] according to the Evangelist Matthew”.