St. Matthew’s Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach (1727)

Last measures of movement 1 and start of movement 2 in Bach’s autograph score

Come, daughters, help me lament,
behold! – Whom? – the Bridegroom!
Behold him! – how? – As a Lamb.
Behold! – what? – behold the patience,
look! – where? – at our guilt.
See him, out of love and graciousness
bear the wood for the Cross Himself.
  O innocent Lamb of God,
  slaughtered on the trunk of the Cross,
  patient at all times,
  however you were scorned.
  you have borne all sins,
  otherwise we would have to despair.
  Have mercy on us, o Jesus.

RickLeonardo da Vinci’s famous painting Last Supper captures the moment immediately after Jesus told the disciples that one of them would betray him.  John 13:22 tells us they were stunned to silence at such a statement.  In her wonderful book Saving Leonardo, Nancy Pearcey writes that it is “that dramatic moment of confrontation when the disciples asked, “Is it I, Lord?” And as Bach says in his St. Matthew’s Passion, for each person the answer must be, Yes, it is I and my sins that put Jesus on the cross. It is I who should have suffered what he is about to suffer out of love for me.”

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:

Like so much of Bach’s work, St. Matthew’s Passion was written to be performed at the church for which he regularly contributed new compositions to use in the weekly worship services. It was not written as a piece for the concert hall but for the Sunday service. Over the course of his life, he wrote music for every season of the church year but it was in this composition for Holy Week that he particularly outdid himself. St. Matthew’s Passion was first performed on Good Friday, 1727, though it underwent numerous revisions as it was performed again and again throughout Bach’s life. What an experience it must have been for members of his congregation to spend a portion of Good Friday in such a manner, meditating on this majestic combination of words and music. And its power to move the listener to the deepest spiritual contemplation remains just as great today.

Marshaling all his compositional skills, and putting them at the service of not one but two orchestras and choirs, Bach was able to fashion a piece of great musical complexity and spiritual depth, one that went far beyond the standard Baroque passion settings with which the audiences of his day would have been familiar. The text was created by Christian Henrici, who wrote under the pen name Picander. Like Bach, he lived in Leipzig, and there is little doubt that the two men collaborated on this sublime combination of the actual text from the latter chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, already extant hymns and chorales (which would have been familiar to their audience), and original poetry of great beauty and emotional weight.
The passion opens with a chorus that sets the tone for the entire piece: “Come you daughters, share my mourning.” What follows is a sustained meditation on the atoning death of Christ. Unlike the more celebratory Messiah by Handel, the concentration of Bach’s work is upon Christ’s agony, suffering, abandonment, and death. In fact, the resurrection is only mentioned in passing. The emphasis is upon the pain and anguish that Jesus took upon himself in our stead: scourged, mocked, beaten, spat upon, tortured, then crucified. Hence there is a stately, elevated, brooding sadness that marks both the words and the music, and the listener is left to contemplate the great exchange—the innocent Lamb of God dying for the guilty.

To listen intently to this masterpiece is to be reminded of the immensity of what Jesus Christ accomplished as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Bach does not allow us to simply contemplate this sacrifice as a theological abstraction. Instead, we feel it. The deeply emotive music lets us experience again the redemptive sacrifice that arises from the boundless depths of God’s grace and mercy. Bach reminds us that our salvation comes at a very high price. Therefore, our proper response is not only wonder at what God has wrought on the cross but also heartfelt introspection and repentance.

Is the crucifixion beautiful?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.



D I G  D E E P E R


Johann Sebastian Bach


Death Set to Music: Masterworks by Bach, Brahms, Penderecki, and Bernstein, by Paul S. Minear. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987. Pp. 144. $14.95.

Throughout the twentieth century theologians have appreciated and explored the theological significance of musical composers. Most notably, Albert Schweitzer, Karl Barth, and Jaroslav Pelikan have written musicological analyses and theological interpretations of Bach. And shorter essays and religious reviews have dealt with the theological significance of works ranging from the ebullient melodies of Mozart to the stark dissonance of Ives. Yet little has been written about theological themes or issues shared by great musicians.

In Death Set to Music Paul Minear, Emeritus Professor of Biblical Theology at Yale Divinity School, begins to correct this deficiency as he analyzes the ways in which four composers deal with the complexities of death: J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, Johannes Brahms’s Requiem, Krzysztof Penderecki’s St. Luke’s Passion, and Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Minear does not attempt to explicate each composer’s theology or “world-view” (in this case, perhaps, “world-sound”); instead, he focuses on the ways in which the works interpret familiar biblical texts and contemporary poetry about death itself and the human recognition of mortality.

In addition to chapters devoted to analyses of each of the musical compositions, Minear introduces his book with a summary of the biblical theologies of death, wherein he notes that biblical concerns with death are not confined to medical death: “Only in relatively few instances do the [biblical] nouns and verbs for dying bear the medical definition as their primary denotation” (p. 8). Biblical concerns with death extend to emotional and religious deaths—fears and sins—that persons experience throughout life. In this line of reasoning Minear emphasizes the Pauline maxims of “death in sin” (the fallen state of human beings) and “death to sin” (the salvation achieved through commitment to God).

With this general background Minear comments upon the four compositions because of their common biblical concerns with death—“their extensive use of Scripture and their abilities to express in musical language the biblical perceptions of mortality” (p. 146); but he does not intend primarily to compare the musical perspectives on death. For the composers span four centuries, four cultures, four religious traditions (“orthodox” Lutheran, liberal Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish), and even more musical styles. Just as the biblical texts throughout different periods and perceptions treat the subject of death in a variety of illuminating ways, so too these composers treat the subject of death in equally variant, reflective, and revelatory ways.

Minear’s primary purpose is to provide an exegesis of the texts about death that the composers have adopted and adapted. As such, almost half of the book is devoted to a reproduction (and translation) of the librettos from the musical works. Basically, he applies the methodologies of form criticism and redaction criticism to the literary texts of the compositions. He remarks on the collaboration of Bach with Picander to make the Matthean passion story a contemporaneous event. He muses about Brahms’s choice of Hebrew scriptural texts for the Requiem, noting that the choice of non-exclusively Christian texts extends the universality of Brahms’s perceptions of death. Minear also comments on the insertion of numerous excerpts from the gospel of John into Penderecki’s rendering of the Luke passion story, and he notes Bernstein’s weaving of texts from the mass with modern verse by Stephen Schwartz to interpret the political and public mourning of John F. Kennedy. By their formulation of texts, he contends, the composers disclose new insights into the human condition in terms of its anticipation of death and its reflections on mortality.

Minear avers that these new insights reveal an emotional intensity (“the rich subtleties experienced in suffering and joy” [p.18]) often lacking in academic interpretations, but he does not dwell on the distinctive visions or perspectives that the compositions finally offer. Nor does he fully elaborate the theological significance of sound and musical style, a process which he adequately begins. For instance, he notes that musicologists have often remarked on Bach’s use of the sostenuto violins accompanying the recitatives of Jesus, thus creating a kind of “halo effect” around his words. Just as the presence of the violins suggests the transcendence of Jesus’s words, however, so too their absence is significant in the occasions of Jesus’ abject refusal to answer Pilate and in his agonistic words on the cross. Yet Minear could have gone further in his analysis of the theological significance of the musical score. Equally as impressive as the violin sostenuto underlying Jesus’ transcendent words is the fact that the voice of Jesus is that of a deep baritone. With that choice of tessitura, Bach identifies the “transcendent” voice of Jesus not with that which supervenes, but that which underlies. Transcendence is not carried by the high voice of a tenor (which Bach assigns to the literarily transcendent perspective of the Evangelist), but the voice resonating with that which comes from the depth of all creation, from “the Ground of Being,” to use one of Tillich’s appellations for Transcendence.

Although Minear does not provide a final overview of the volume or a thorough analysis of the theological contributions and innovations of the various interpretations of death in the compositions, he does offer a practically oriented conclusion in his “Postlude,” which is directed to theological exegetes, musicologists, and musicians and suggests how they might improve their appreciation, understanding, and performance of the works.

Despite these shortcomings Minear makes a significant new contribution to biblical interpreters, theologians of culture, and sacred musicians by establishing a context in which they inform each other about the experience and understanding of the potential pathos and power of death. As both a theologian and a musician who has performed three of the four works, I attest to the provocative and enlightening character of Minear’s work. Consistently illuminating and stimulating, the book is theologically accessible to church musicians and concert masters and musicologically accessible to theologians and pastors. It is highly recommended for all library collections in religious studies and sacred music.

Joseph L. Price, “Review of Death Set to Music: Masterworks by Bach, Brahms, Penderecki, and Bernstein by Paul S. Minear,” Critical Review of Books in Religion (1989): 124–126.

Greenburg, Robert. Bach and the High Baroque. DVD. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 1995.
Koopman, Ton, and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir. Bach: Matthäus Passion. DVD. Amersfoort, Netherlands: Challenge Classics, 2006.
Marschall, Rick. Johann Sebastian Bach. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011.
Pelikan, Jaraslov. Bach among the Theologians. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.


Terry Glaspey

Terry Glaspey

Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

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