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Text Genetics in Literary Modernism and Other Essays

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Hans Walter Gabler

14. Johann Sebastian Bach’s two-Choir Passion

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1In his obituary of Johann Sebastian Bach written in the year 1754, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach ascribes to his father five Passions, ‘including one with two choirs’. The two choirs of the St Matthew Passion have their roots in the traditions of antiphonal psalmody, handed down over centuries. From this, Bach derived a comprehensive principle of doubling in musical composition. We know that each of the two choirs he deployed had its own soloists, following the practice of Leipzig church music. The fair copy of the score, dating from 1736, allots the soprano and alto arias alternately to Choir I and Choir II. The bass soloist of the first choir is charged with singing the part of Christ. Bass arias are therefore sung from the second choir. Opposite the Christ singer, the tenor soloist in the second choir, as Evangelist, declaims the Gospel narrative, and the Passion’s tenor arias are in consequence sung by the tenor soloist in the first choir. Assigned to the two choirs are two string and woodwind orchestras. The instrumental group leader in each of the two orchestras is responsible for the obbligato accompaniment to arias sung by soloists of the respective choirs. In the version of the Passion as performed in 1727 and 1729, the two orchestras were supported by a single continuo group; yet for utmost consistency in structural doubling, the version documented in the fair-copy score furnished two continuo groups as well. Finally, as music to be integrated into the Good Friday church service the Passion as a whole is constructed in two parts, to precede and to follow the one-hour sermon.

2There is a long tradition of dual perspective in musical representations of the Bible narratives of the Passion, reaching back ultimately to the presentation of biblical scenes with allotted roles in medieval liturgy. Following the traditional practice as observed in his St John Passion, in the St Matthew Passion Bach has the Gospel text alternately declaimed by the tenor Evangelist and enacted by the choir. To this dual-perspective biblical narrative Bach adds his own ‘two-choir Passion’ counterpart, implementing once again the structural principle of doubling: he constructs a sequence of chorales and recitatives with arias, giving expression to the collective and individual dismay of the believers. The chorales and recitatives with arias bear aloft the entire architecture of the work. The profound effect of the Passion is rightly attributed to the powerful alternation between chorales, recitatives and arias, on the one hand, and the biblical narrative, declaimed in the Evangelist’s recitatives and brought to life in real time by the crowd in the turba choruses, on the other.

***

3Bach’s overall structuring of the St Matthew Passion has frequently been the subject of scholarly scrutiny. Relevant observations and interpretations have found their way into accompanying material for recordings of the Passion. For instance, the booklet (1989) that accompanies the 1988 Archiv recording, offers two competing dispositional schemes. Bringing them together can help us to define Bach’s own highly original expressive structure.

4In the 1989 booklet, the Bach scholar Christoph Wolff sets out the constructional scheme of the libretto of Christian Friedrich Henrici (named Picander) for Bach’s St Matthew Passion. This text was printed in Picanders Ernst-Schertzhaffte und Satyrische Gedichte, Anderer Theil, published in Leipzig in 1729. This was the year of the second performance of the St Matthew Passion which, as recent scholarship has shown, was first performed in 1727. Following Picander’s text, Wolff’s scheme lists seventeen scenes, grouped in seven before and ten after the break marked for the sermon. Wolff expressly points out that the text as printed includes neither the biblical account of the Passion nor the chorales, but only Picander’s share in the Passion text. A decisive factor in evaluating its relation to Bach’s composition is the year of publication. In 1729, is Picander presenting his poetic text after the event, in keeping with the Passion music as it was performed in 1727, or is he publishing it in the form he originally submitted it, when Bach’s work was still at the planning stage?

5Wolff rightly emphasises the structural incentive of Picander’s scenes, which are realised in their entirety in Bach’s composition as (recitatives and) arias, progressing in sequence, and encapsulated within the frame of the work’s opening and concluding choruses. For Wolff, their sequence constitutes the primary structure of the Passion. Beyond this, he concedes that there are secondary structural nodes, provided by chorales evidently selected by Bach himself. This concession points in the direction of the contrasting scheme in the Archiv recording booklet, as worked out by the conductor, John Eliot Gardiner. This second dispositional scheme is based not on Picander’s poetic text, but on the Gospel account of the Passion. Gardiner sees the Evangelist’s rendering of the Gospel text according to St Matthew, together with its overflow into the dramatic immediacy of turba choruses, as the backbone of Bach’s composition, segmented by (recitatives and) arias, or chorales, or both. (Recitatives and) arias, on the one hand, and chorales on the other are of equal standing and importance in this segmentation; they contemplate, comment, and reflect upon the biblical Passion narrative. According to this scheme, there are 1+12 segments in the first part of the Passion, and 1 + 15 segments in the second.

6The combination of Wolff’s matrix (based on Picander’s printed text) with Gardiner’s (organised according to the Gospel narrative), does indeed reveal a segmentation of the work into units of equal structural validity. The sequences of (recitative and) aria [Picander] and of chorales [presumably Bach] complement one another, reflecting with equal depth of emotion on the sequence of events, and this is how the St Matthew Passion is regularly heard and experienced:

(1):

Opening Chorus

P

(integrated Chorale: O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig)

(B)

(3):

Chorale: Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen

B

(5 + 6):

Recitative and Aria: Buß und Reu

P

(8):

Aria: Blute nur, du liebes Herz

P

(10):

Chorale: Ich bin’s, ich sollte büßen

B

(12+ 13):

Recitative and Aria: Ich will dir mein Herze schenken

P

(15):

Chorale: Erkenne mich, mein Hüter

B

(17):

Chorale: Ich will hier bei dir stehen

B

(19+ 20):

Arioso (and Chorale) ‖ Aria (and Chorus) O Schmerz,

P

hier zittert das gequälte Herz (Was ist die Ursach aller

(B)

solcher Plagen) Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen (So

schlafen unsere. Sünden ein)

(22+ 23):

Recitative and Aria: Gerne will ich mich bequemen

P

(25):

Chorale: Was mein Gott will, das gescheh allzeit

B

(27):

Duet (and Chorus): So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen

P

Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden

(29):

Chorale-Chorus: O Mensch bewein dein Sünde groß

B

(30)

Aria (and Chorus): Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin. Wo

(P)

ist denn dein Freund hingegangen

(32):

Chorale: Mir hat die Welt trüglich gericht

B

(34+ 35):

Recitative and Aria: Geduld!

P

(37):

Chorale: Wer hat dich so geschlagen

B

(39 ‖ 40):

Aria and Chorale: Erbarme dich ‖ Bin ich gleich von dir

P

gewichen

(B)

(42):

Aria: Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!

P

(44):

Chorale: Befiehl du deine Wege

B

(46):

Chorale: Wie wunderbarlich ist doch diese Strafe

B

(48+ 49):

Recitative and Aria: Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben

P

(51+ 52):

Recitative and Aria: Können Tränen meiner Wangen

P

(54):

Chorale: O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden

B

(56+ 57):

Recitative and Aria: Komm süßes Kreuz

P

(59+ 60):

Recitative, Aria (with Chorus): Sehet, Jesus hat die

P

Hand

(62):

Chorale: Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden

B

(64+ 65):

Recitative and Aria: Mache dich mein Herze rein

P

(67+ 68)

Quartet-Recitative: Nun ist der Herr zur Ruh gebracht

P

Final chorus: Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder

12 (15)

17

7The segmentation units marked ‘P’ constitute the entirety of Picander’s text. This collection of the poetic works of Christian Friedrich Henrici, however, reproduces only his seventeen ‘scenes’ as sung, and does not reflect the structure of Bach’s composition which encompasses in addition the biblical narrative of the Passion and the chorales drawn from the composer’s own treasury of hymns for divine service.

8The assumption that the chorales represent Bach’s own ‘building blocks’ towards constructing the St Matthew Passion is highly relevant to the question of the work’s genesis. In the chapter on the St Matthew Passion in Music in the Castle of Heaven, his Bach monograph of 2013, John Eliot Gardiner surmises that the work was already well under way to realisation in 1725, and that it would have been performed on Good Friday of that year, had it been possible to complete it in all compositional detail in time. We are also reminded of the correlation of Bach’s Passions to his output of cantatas by annual cycles. Bach’s ‘cantata years’ did not run according to liturgical custom from the First Sunday in Advent, nor did they commence by any secularly determined date. Bach took up his position as cantor in Leipzig around Easter time in 1723, and he chose Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Whitsun, to initiate his first cycle of cantatas for every Sunday and Christian holiday throughout the year. The first cycle ended at Whitsun 1724, and the second commenced on the following Trinity Sunday. This second cycle is known as Bach’s ‘choral cantata’ cycle. The high point of each annual cycle was the Passion music. On Good Friday 1724, this was the St John Passion. A St Matthew Passion on Good Friday 1725 would have marked the culmination of the 1724/25 ‘choral cantata’ progression. This would have been very appropriate, given the structural equivalence of chorales to the recitative-and-aria units from Picander’s text in the segmentation of Bach’s overall composition. As it was, a repeat performance of the St John stood in as stopgap also in 1725.

***

9The opening chorus of the St Matthew Passion immediately signals Bach’s chorale-keyed compositional mode. The chorale O Lamm Gottes unschuldig [O Lamb of God unspotted] is woven as cantus firmus into the dialogic chorus Kommt ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen [Come ye daughters, share my mourning]. Such interweaving is highly characteristic of Bach, and frequently attested elsewhere. In the St Matthew Passion, it occurs again when the chorale Was ist die Ursach aller solcher Plagen [What is the reason for all these great torments?] is woven into the arioso O Schmerz, wie zittert das gequälte Herz [O pain, Here trembleth the tormented heart] (19). Furthermore, the double marking of Peter’s denial, by means of the aria Erbarme dich mein Gott [Have mercy, o my Lord] and the immediately following chorale Bin ich gleich von dir gewichen [Though I now have thee forsaken] (39 and 40) may be interpreted as Bach’s explicit indication of the functional equivalence of the chorales, on the one hand, and the solo recitatives and arias drawn from Picander’s text, on the other.

10The chorale-chorus at the end of Part I of the Passion, O Mensch bewein’dein Sünde groß [O man, bewail thy sin so great] indicates particularly clearly Bach’s autonomy in structuring the work. We encounter at this juncture, moreover, two versions of compositional realisation. As first performed in 1727 and 1729, Part I ended with a regular chorale, in the customary manner of this work’s segmentation — and in accordance also with the end of Part I of the St John Passion. In the fair-copy score of 1736, the chorale-chorus is inserted in place of that chorale. As is well known, O Mensch bewein’dein Sünde groß was originally an opening chorus in one version of the St John Passion. For the St Matthew Passion, the earlier chorale and the substitute chorale-chorus constitute genetic alternatives in the shaping of the conclusion of its Part I. With this in mind, we gain a more precise perception of Bach’s purposeful overall structuring of the St Matthew Passion.

11Moving forward from the end of Part I, attention focuses on the beginning of Part II. The aria with chorus Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin. Wo ist denn dein Freund hingegangen [Ah, now is my Jesus gone ‖ Where is then thy friend departed] seems at first sight to be an irregular structural element. Yet on closer consideration, it not only conforms, in dramatic terms, to Bach’s pattern of segmenting the biblical action; it also recognises the particular need to halt the biblical drama at this juncture. In terms of Picander’s libretto, the aria with (or without?) its response in dialogue from the chorus fittingly reflects on the Gospel’s preceding account of Jesus being taken prisoner. Thus retrospective in gesture, it also accomplishes compositionally a smooth continuation without structural break of Picander’s sequence of scenes. Bach, by contrast, after providing the Gospel narrative’s conclusion to Jesus’ arrest in the Evangelist’s terse words ‘Then all the disciples forsook him, and fled,’ builds a towering climax at first with a chorale, then with its choralechorus replacement. These directly involve the congregation assembled for the Good Friday service. A sense of an ending, for the time being, is created that arrests — as it were — even the musical flow, so that the preacher, for the duration of his Good Friday sermon, is integrated into the composition itself and its performance.

12Yet Picander’s aria with chorus, Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin, though deprived of its function according to Picander’s scheme of scenes, was not abandoned. To delete it would indeed have meant sacrificing its significant text and linking effect. The daughter of Zion, singing here in the allegorical tone of the Song of Songs, is one of the Töchter, daughters, addressed in the opening chorus; and she also belongs to the ‘We’ of the final chorus (Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder): for this ‘We’ includes not only the contemporary believers as mourners, but also ‘Mary Magdalene and the other Mary’ (66a) sitting next to the tomb, the two daughters of Zion expressly named in the biblical account of the Passion. Bach dealt doubly with what may have seemed a momentary structural problem. Opening Part II of the St Matthew Passion, the lament reflects not merely on the moment of the action that saw Jesus being led away captive to an unknown location. In resonance now with the resumption of the flow of the music after the sermon, the Daughter of Zion’s anguish refers back to the entire first part of the Passion. Thus Bach universalised the retrospective gesture the aria had in Picander’s scenic scheme. At the same time, enlarging on the retrospection, he accords the aria with chorus a prospective function as well. As exordium to Part II, the dialogue generates a strong forward momentum from the chorus response: So wollen wir mit dir ihn suchen [We will with thee now go and seek him].

***

13The division of the Gospel’s passion narrative by either chorales, or recitatives with arias, or both, yields units of markedly unequal length. They are not measured out mechanically but rhythmicised emotionally. After the brief opening of Part I narrated by the Evangelist and Jesus’ laconic prediction of his crucifixion, the first chorale (3) immediately responds with horror to the monstrosity of what is to come. In contrast to the brief opening section, the second section extends to several parts. It links the conspiracy of the high priests to the disciples’ dispute in Bethany in a single sequence, and brings them dramatically to life in two different scenes. The recitative and aria (5 and 6) that follow seek to offer Buß’ und Reu [penitence and remorse] for the disciples’ folly. And so, as the work progresses, the sections of biblical narrative continue to be markedly uneven in length. Their length is usually determined more by the poignant urgency of their message of suffering and salvation than by actual events. The wild and extensively dramatised scene before Pilate, for instance, in which the crowd hysterically demands the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus, is counter-balanced by the restrained and meditative chorale Wie wunderbarlich ist doch diese Strafe [How wond’rous is indeed this sentence]. Then comes the briefest of all the sections of biblical narrative, shared by the Evangelist and Pilate: Der Landpfleger sagte: ‘Was hat er denn Übles getan?’ [The governor said then ‘Why, what evil has this man done?’] (47). This is followed, at the symmetrical midpoint of the second part of the St Matthew Passion, by the recitative and aria that absorb and give transcendental meaning to Jesus’ suffering and death: Er hat uns allen wohlgetan/Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben [He hath us all so richly blessed/For love my Saviour suffers death] (48 and 49).

***

14The segments into which the chorales and recitatives with arias divide the Passion narrative may be understood as Stations of Christ’s suffering. Thus the structure of the St Matthew Passion in a sense sustains the line of Christianity’s most ancient Good Friday processional tradition: the path of the Cross, via crucis. The path begins in the opening chorus with the processional dance of the crowd up the hill to Golgotha, and ends with the chorus of mourning beside the sealed tomb. Each stoppingpoint along this path offers an invitation to meditate on the monstrosity of what is happening, on its root cause in the fallen nature of mankind, as also on its inherent promise of salvation and redemption.

15The Stations of the Cross, whether along the Via Dolorosa through the narrow streets of Jerusalem, or, especially in Roman Catholic regions, from pillar to pillar and up to hilltop pilgrims’ chapels, or simply rendered in the interior of churches in panel sequences, are always measured out in exactly the same way: there are fourteen Stations. That does not apply to the path measured out by Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and he does not invoke the regular sequence of Stations followed by the Catholic via crucis. His Passion, closely following the biblical text of St Matthew’s Gospel, inclines more towards Protestant theology. Nevertheless, it is structured according to the Stations of the Cross.

16The number of sections constructed from the Gospel narrative shows that the notion of the Passion as a Good Friday procession is more than just an associative idea. After the opening chorus the Passion narrative in Part I continues in twelve further sections, and in fifteen more in Part II (after the new opening aria with chorus discussed above), ending with the entombment and the final chorus of mourning. That makes a total of twenty-eight sections: remarkably enough, exactly double the regular number of Stations of the Cross. It is tempting to see the structure of the St Matthew Passion as a double via crucis, a further instance of the compositional principle of doubling upon which Bach’s ‘two-choir Passion’ is founded. Be that as it may, numerical observation can help us to discern the numbers and proportions of Bach’s composition, and to assess their significance.

17We sketch out the structure of the Passion according to the Stations:

Part I

[13 Segments: 13 Stations]

(1)

(Station I):

Opening Chorus: Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen [anticipating Stations XXIV–XXVI]

(2–3)

(Station II):

Evangelist: The impending Crucifixion — Chorale: Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen

(4–6)

(Station III):

Evangelist: Conspiratorial unity of the High Priests, disunity of the disciples at Bethany — Recitative and Aria: Du lieber Heiland du Buß und Reu

(7–8)

(Station IV):

Evangelist: Judas’s betrayal — Aria: Blute nur, du liebes Herz

(9–10)

(Station V):

Evangelist: Preparation of the Last Supper; foretelling of the betrayal; question: ‘Lord, is it I?’— Chorale: Ich bin’s, ich sollte büßen

(11–13)

(Station VI):

Evangelist: Serving of the Last Supper — Recitative and Aria: Wiewohl mein Herz in Tränen schwimmt Ich will dir mein Herze schenken

(14–15)

(Station VII):

Evangelist: Prediction of the striking of the shepherd and scattering of the flock — Chorale: Erkenne mich, mein Hüter,/Mein Hirte, nimm mich an

(16–17)

(Station VIII):

Evangelist: Foretelling of Peter’s denial — Chorale: Ich will hier bei dir stehen

(18–20)

(Station IX):

Evangelist: Gethsemane I: ‘My soul is sorrowful unto death’—Recitative (and Chorale) ‖ Aria (and Chorale): O Schmerz, hier zittert das gequälte Herz (Was ist die Ursach aller solcher Plagen) ‖ Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen (So schlafen unsere Sünden ein)

(21–23)

(Station X):

Evangelist: Gethsemane II: ‘My father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me’ — Recitative and Aria: Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder ‖ Gerne will ich mich bequemen/Kreuz und Becher anzunehmen

(24–25)

(Station XI):

Evangelist: Gethsemane III: ‘If it be not possible… Not as I will, but as thou wilt’ — Chorale: Was mein Gott will, das gescheh allzeit

(26–27)

(Station XII):

Evangelist: Betrayal and arrest — Duet (and Chorus): So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden

(28–29)

(Station XIII):

Evangelist: Tumult — Jesus taken captive — Flight of the disciples—Chorale-Chorus: O Mensch bewein dein Sünde groß

Part II

[1 + 15 Segments: further 15 Stations]

(30)

Dialogic Aria and Chorus: Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin. Wo ist dein Freund hingegangen/o du Schönste unter den Weibern? [still referring back to Station XIII; or, overriding the Station sequence, to the whole of Part I; see discussion above]

(31–32)

(Station XIV):

Evangelist: Jesus before Caiaphas — Chorale: Mir hat die Welt trüglich gericht’

(33–35)

(Station XV):

Evangelist: false testimony — Recitative and Aria: Mein Jesus schweigt zu falschen Lügen stille Geduld!

(36–37)

(Station XVI):

Evangelist: Jesus accused of blasphemy, spat upon and struck — Chorale: Wer hat dich so geschlagen

(38–40)

(Station XVII):

Evangelist: Peter’s denial — Aria and Chorale: Erbarme dich Bin ich gleich von dir gewichen

(41–42)

(Station XVIII):

Evangelist: Jesus delivered to Pilate, Judas’s despair and death at his own hand — Aria: Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!

(43–44)

(Station XIX):

Evangelist: Jesus keeps silence before Pilate — Chorale: Befiehl du deine Wege

(45–46)

(Station XX):

Evangelist: Pilate and the crowd: release or punishment—Barabbas or Jesus: ‘Let him be crucified’ — Chorale: Wie wunderbarlich ist doch diese Strafe

(47–49)

(Station XXI):

Evangelist: ‘The governor said: What evil has he done?’ — Recitative and Aria: Er hat uns allen wohlgetan Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben

(50–52)

(Station XXII):

Evangelist: Pilate, shouted down by the crowd, has Jesus scourged — Recitative and Aria: Erbarm es Gott/Hier steht der Heiland angebunden Können Tränen meiner Wangen/nichts erlangen

(53–54)

(Station XXIII):

Evangelist: The crown of thorns — Chorale: O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden

(55–57)

(Station XXIV):

Evangelist: Via Dolorosa: Simon of Cyrene — Recitative and Aria: Komm süßes Kreuz

(58–60)

(Station XXV):

Evangelist: Golgotha — Recitative, Aria (with Chorus): Ach Golgatha, unsel’ges Golgatha Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand/Uns zu fassen ausgespannt

(61–62)

(Station XXVI):

Evangelist: Darkness, scorn, Jesus’ death — Chorale: Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden

(63–65)

(Station XXVII):

Evangelist: Earthquake, the centurion and those with him enlightened; Joseph of Arimathea — Recitative and Aria: Am Abend da es kühle war Mache dich mein Herze rein

(66–68)

(Station XXVIII):

Evangelist: Entombment and sealing of the tomb — Quartet-Recitative: Nun ist der Herr zur Ruh gebracht ‖ Chorus of mourning: Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder

***

18The foundations of numerological semantics were laid in the early Greco-Roman and Jewish and Jewish-Christian thought-worlds. Numbers, numerical values and proportions carried meaning; they were signifiers. In the Renaissance and early modern era numerological science entered with new intensity into philosophy and aesthetics, whence it found widespread application in the arts. It seemed that God’s gift to artist, poet, or composer could be translated into artistic form, and this, ordered according to measure, number and weight like the creative power of God himself (Book of Wisdom, xi.21 [20?]), figured forth the art-work’s meaning. Johann Sebastian Bach’s familiarity with number semantics, number symbolism, and numerically proportional composition is beyond doubt. As is demonstrable from the St Matthew Passion, Bach deployed his knowledge and understanding of numbers to the art of composition according to his self-understanding as creator and composer.

  • 1 The analysis laid out in my Foreword of John Milton’s numerology in his poem At a Solemn Musick lai (...)

19In the Passion, several significant numbers and proportions expressed in numbers are invoked and layered one above another. Part I of the two-part Passion represents in the number of its segments the 1 + 12 persons gathered together for the salvific event — the Last Supper. This event, heart of the action narrated, is thereby transfigured into the number ‘13’, which thus symbolises the Sacrament instituted. Part II, in contrast, configures in two different ways a musical proportion richly semanticised in numerological tradition: the double octave. A double octave has on the one hand fifteen steps, arranged symmetrically around a central tone counted once: there are fifteen Stations in Part II of the St Matthew Passion. Yet added one to another, two octaves yield sixteen tones, which match the totality of segments in Part II, including its opening aria with chorus. As numerological configuration the double octave not only relates to the fifteen Stations; it also has transcendental meaning. Traditionally the perfect unison double-octave proportion (1: 2) expresses the relationship between creation and creator.1 Theologically speaking, the Passion of Christ as act of redemption is a realisation of this relationship. The second part of the St Matthew Passion translates the truth and certainty of belief into the architecture of musical composition. By precise design, it places in the symmetrical centre of the fifteen-tone double octave, as the eighth of fifteen Stations, the aria expressing the true sense of the way of the Cross: ‘ Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben,/[…]/Dass das ewige Verderben/und die Strafe des Gerichts/nicht auf meiner Seele bliebe’[For love my Saviour suffers death […] That eternal condemnation/And the sentence of God’s judgement/Weigh no longer on my soul].

  • 2 On this essay, I have happily collaborated with Dr Charity Scott-Stokes, who rendered it in its ent (...)

20This enables us to grasp Bach’s passionate commitment to compositional perfection, and encourages us to pursue the significance of the overall number of Stations in the St Matthew Passion. Numerologically, ‘28’ has outstanding significance as a ‘perfect number’. Perfect numbers are so called because the sum of their factors once more yields the number. This is true of ‘6’, the sum of (1, 2, 3). Conspicuously often, Bach groups compositions of a kind in sixes: violin sonatas, for instance, or suites for violoncello, Brandenburg concertos, ‘French’ or ‘English’ harpsichord suites. The perfect ‘28’ (factors 1, 2, 4, 7, 14) as compositional number presented a task of greater complexity for the composer as creator of his work, by which to emulate divine creative power of configuration by measure, number and weight. In setting out his Passion music for the Gospel of St Matthew in twenty-eight Stations, according to the measure of the perfect number, Bach rose to the challenge of absolute perfection in the work of art in succession to God’s work of creation. In humble self-assurance he finally inscribed himself in the Passion as well, mirroring the relational proportions between creation and creator. The proportions 1: 2 of the double octave, transposed to the total number of Stations in the Passion, may also be expressed as 14: 28. The number 14 is a specific Bach number: in terms of the number alphabet, B + A + C + H adds up to fourteen, and Bach frequently invoked this number 14, as is well known, with reference to his name. The number signifies the name. As we can now see, Bach left his signature in his Great Passion, inscribed as the number of his own name.2

Notes

1 The analysis laid out in my Foreword of John Milton’s numerology in his poem At a Solemn Musick laid the foundations for understanding Johann Sebastian Bach’s workmanship by numbers in the St Matthew Passion.

2 On this essay, I have happily collaborated with Dr Charity Scott-Stokes, who rendered it in its entirety into English from its propaedeutic original in German.

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