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.

Dig Deeper at


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).

Order it HERE today.

Order and Beauty and Essential Presence in the Transformed Life by Kate Thomsen Gremillion

Kate Thomsen Gremillion

Johann Sebastian Bach lived from 1685 to 1750. He mastered order and that mastery has captivated generations of music lovers. When listening or performing Bach, order and beauty are easily perceived and felt, but what is not always apparent in our day is the rigor and obedience to the liturgical calendar, a calendar which orders itself in the richness and meaning of Life in Christ. Bach’s history can be accessed through many sources online and other and exhaustive studies in his work abound. For our purposes I want to invite you into the beginning of the discovery I encounter whenever I allow Bach to help me gain access to richer and deeper meaning of Scripture and God’s desire to lead me to Him through beauty.

Bach’s devotion to God through beauty produced a love of music and in his music one can immediately grasp the mingling of joy and sorrow in direct relation to the rightly ordered mind. As it is the week we celebrate the Ascension of Christ, let us listen to Himmelfahrts Oratorio (“Himmelfahrt” means Ascension, from “Himmel” heaven + “fahrt” journey). The translation and a brief guide is below


Biblical quotations in BOLD font, chorales in ITALICS

1 Coro 1 Chorus [S, A, T, B]
Tromba I-III, Timpani, Flauto traverso I/II, Oboe I/II, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo
Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen, Preiset ihn in seinen Ehren, Rühmet ihn in seiner Pracht; Sucht sein Lob recht zu vergleichen, Wenn ihr mit gesamten Chören Ihm ein Lied zu Ehren macht! Praise God in his kingdoms,  extol him in his honours  acclaim him in his splendour.  Seek to express his praise rightly  when with assembled choirs  you make a song to his honour!
Listen for the words and how the music demonstrates the concepts. “Lobet Gott” (Praise God) is ushered in with heralding trumpets. The voices and instruments work and together to help usher us into a mindset that causes us to comprehend the praising of God, the extoling of his honor, proclaiming His splendor – and all of this accomplished in a community of believers and as the Scripture says “with angels and archangels”. Try to pick out each voice part as they repeat and emphasize the theme. I would recommend following along with one of the scores found here:,_BWV_11_(Bach,_Johann_Sebastian) if possible.



2 Recitativo T 2 Recitative [Tenor]
Evangelist: Der Herr Jesus hub seine Hände auf und segnete seine Jünger, und es geschah, da er sie segnete, schied er von ihnen. Evangelist: The Lord Jesus raised his hands and blessed his followers,  and it happened that while he was blessing them he parted from them.
The gentleness of the recitative (spoken part that advances the plot) is an indicator of God’s gentle and abiding love for humanity. Hear the sadness also in the voicing of the Evangelist’s proclamation. Bach writes this in a minor key to communicate the disconsolate state of Christ’s followers who are bewildered at his leaving…again.



3 Recitativo B 3 Recitative [Bass]
Flauto traverso I/II, Continuo
Ach, Jesu, ist dein Abschied schon so nah? Ach, ist denn schon die Stunde da, Da wir dich von uns lassen sollen? Ach, siehe, wie die heißen Tränen Von unsern blassen Wangen rollen, Wie wir uns nach dir sehnen, Wie uns fast aller Trost gebricht. Ach, weiche doch noch nicht! Ah Jesus, is your departure already so near?  Ah, is it already the hour  when we must let you leave us?  Ah, see how the hot tears  roll down our pale cheeks,  how we gaze after you  how almost all our comfort is lost .  Ah, do not go away yet!
The sadness continues its expression in the lost sounds of the Bass who states plainly that without the presence of Christ we are naught.



4 Aria A 4 Aria [Alto]
Violini all’ unisono, Continuo
Ach, bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben, Ach, fliehe nicht so bald von mir! Dein Abschied und dein frühes Scheiden Bringt mir das allergrößte Leiden, Ach ja, so bleibe doch noch hier; Sonst werd ich ganz von Schmerz umgeben. Ah, stay yet, my dearest life,  ah, do not flee so soon from me  Your departure and your early leaving  bring me the greatest suffering.  Ah then, still stay here;  otherwise I shall be quite overwhelmed with sorrow.
I think of Mary Magdalene and her deep love for Christ because of the way He first loved her. He is the first person she has truly loved.  Ah, Lord, do not take your hand away from our lives. The richness and melancholy of the alto voice shadowed by the pleading of the violin in a wordless acquiescence give voice to the inner pleading of our souls, the noetic self that whispers ancient truths to us.



5 Recitativo T 5 Recitative [Tenor]
Evangelist: Und ward aufgehoben zusehends und fuhr auf gen Himmel, eine Wolke nahm ihn weg vor ihren Augen, und er sitzet zur rechten Hand Gottes. Evangelist: And in their sight he was lifted up and went towards heaven,  a cloud took him away from their eyes, and he sits on the right hand of God.
Again, we have scripture as recitative stated succinctly to proclaim the truth of an event. Bach keeps this announcement in a minor key to emphasize the continued state of loss. He has left them in a state that feels like abandonment. The evangelist is saying He is gone; He left in a cloud but we do not understand it. At this juncture Bach, through his choice in key and ethos helps us to feel the sense of loss even while we hear the powerful words “he sits in the right hand of God.” The hollow cadence seems to say, “and then what?”
6 Choral 6 Chorale [S, A, T, B]
Flauto traverso I/II in octava e Oboe I e Violino I col Soprano, Oboe II, Violino II coll’Alto, Viola col Tenore, Continuo
Nun lieget alles unter dir, Dich selbst nur ausgenommen; Die Engel müssen für und für Dir aufzuwarten kommen. Die Fürsten stehn auch auf der Bahn Und sind dir willig untertan; Luft, Wasser, Feuer, Erden Muß dir zu Dienste werden. Now all lies beneath you,  apart only from yourself;  the angels must for ever and ever  come to wait on you.  Princes also stand by the road  and are willingly subject to you;  air, water, fire and earth  must all be at your service.
A straightforward and majestic sounding choir states the reality of the situation and the music, still in minor key, underscores the sadness that comes from the continued separateness.



7a Recitativo T B – Evangelist, zwei Männer in weißen Kleidern 7a Recitative [Tenor, Bass]
Evangelist: Und da sie ihm nachsahen gen Himmel fahren, siehe, da stunden bei ihnen zwei Männer in weißen Kleidern, welche auch sagten: Evangelist:  And as they gazed after him travelling to heaven,  see, there stood by them two men in white robes, who also said:
Beide: Ihr Männer von Galiläa, was stehet ihr und sehet gen Himmels Dieser Jesus, welcher von euch ist aufgenommen gen Himmel, wird kommen, wie ihr ihn gesehen habt gen Himmel fahren. Tenor and Bass (Two Men in White Raiment):  You men of Galilee, why do you stand here and gaze towards heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken from you to heaven  will come again, as you have seen him travel to heaven.
And now, joy begins to enter. The Evangelists sounds utterly bewildered but wonder has begun to override lack of knowledge. Then, for the first time since the opening movement, we hear joy from the two angels who are basically saying: “you have no idea what just happened, but when you figure it out, your mind will be blown. Also, Jesus is coming back in the same manner he left.”



7b Recitativo A 7b Recitativo [Alto]
Flauto traverso I/II, Continuo
Ach ja! so komme bald zurück: Tilg einst mein trauriges Gebärden, Sonst wird mir jeder Augenblick Verhaßt und Jahren ähnlich werden. Ah then ! return again soon:  wipe away once and for all my sad demeanour,  otherwise for me each moment  will be hateful and become like years.
 The inconsolable asks for consolation.



7c Recitativo T 7c Recitative [Tenor] ( Evangelist)
Evangelist: Sie aber beteten ihn an, wandten um gen Jerusalem von dem Berge, der da heißet der Ölberg, welcher ist nahe bei Jerusalem und liegt einen Sabbater-Weg davon, und sie kehreten wieder gen Jerusalem mit großer Freude. Evangelist: But they worshipped him, then went back to Jerusalem from the mount  which is called the Mount of Olives and which is near Jerusalem and is situated a Sabbath’s journey away  and they returned back to Jerusalem with great joy.
In a minor key they worship and then take leave to go back to Jerusalem. But something happens on long walk home. After the Sabbath, they are filled with joy.



8 Aria S 8 Aria [Soprano]
Flauto traverso I/II, Oboe, Violini all’ unisono
Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke Kann ich doch beständig sehn. Deine Liebe bleibt zurücke, Dass ich mich hier in der Zeit An der künftgen Herrlichkeit Schon voraus im Geist erquicke, Wenn wir einst dort vor dir stehn. Jesus, your gracious look  I can still see continually.  Your love remains behind,  so that here in this present time  I may already beforehand refresh myself in spirit  with the glory that is to come  when we one day shall stand before you there.
Acceptance has come and a level of understanding has tempered the response of the soprano who in my mind represents the soul renewed. She celebrates the wisdom of keeping our eyes on Jesus (“Kann ich doch beständig or “I can yet see continually”) and the vow to remain patient after the refreshment of the Sabbath. I adore how the voice is made to climb up in to heaven in anticipation.



9 Choral 9 Chorale [S, A, T, B]
Tromba I-III, Timpani, Flauto traverso I/II, Oboe I/II, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo
Wenn soll es doch geschehen, Wenn kömmt die liebe Zeit, Dass ich ihn werde sehen, In seiner Herrlichkeit? Du Tag, wenn wirst du sein, Dass wir den Heiland grüßen, Dass wir den Heiland küssen? Komm, stelle dich doch ein! When will it happen,  when comes the dear time  that I shall see him  in his glory?  You day, when will you come  that we may greet the Saviour,  that we may kiss the Saviour?  Come, be present soon!
And now the stalwart and determined praise of the church militant joins with the church triumphant in an acknowledgement of Truth. We glory in the knowledge and we wait. Man your stations, followers of Christ: we will one day see Him face to face and all will be well.


Beauty produces Love which ends in Joy. Beauty produced love and love gave me a desire to endure. “I mastered my ignorance and found joy” … I found beauty that was there.

–          Dr. John Mark Reynolds

Through the order and disciplined approach to music through the liturgical calendar we train minds to be rooted. Bach demonstrates for us the value of continuity on soul. Dietrich von Hildebrand elegantly and eruditely expounds the importance of liturgical life in Liturgy and Personality. He states how difficult it is to live in a “separate moments without any link to them… [and that] we would be only a bundle of disconnected experience.” This continuity is what is required to gain to be transformed. It is so essential that God has wraps it in beauty. From baptism forward, we must rightly order our thoughts through the reorienting of them. Otherwise, we are susceptible to the prevailing winds. Bach helps us through our days through discipline that begets beauty and ultimately joy.


“So make known your right hand to us, that we may number our days and our heart may be bound with wisdom”

–          Psalm 90


“Surrounding people with beauty matters. If we believe that beauty is objective, then suddenly, we are free.”

–          Dr. John Mark Reynolds



John 1:1

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


Kate Thomsen Gremillion resides in Newport Beach, CA. After pursuing a music degree at Trinity University and Indiana University she currently studies at HBU in the Master of Arts in Apologetics program. She is a full time homeschooling mother of four, two of whom have graduated to college (Cornell and LMU). She is also a professional singer performing regularly with the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale. Kate gives regular recitals in Art Song and Opera and conducts the St Matthew’s Choristers at St Matthews Anglican Church in Newport Beach where they study Latin, Liturgy and Music. Her newest projects are the establishing of The Children’s Conservatory at St Matthew’s Montessori school and… as a contributing writer to Literary Life!