Thursday, March 24, 2016

Three Chorales from Bach's St. Matthew Passion: Cheap Grace, Costly Grace

St. Peter's Denial

Rembrandt (1606–1669)

Peter's left hand suggests dismissal of the charge, "This man is one of them," made by a servant girl (Matthew 26:71), who illumines Peter's face with a candle. Guards sit in the foreground. Barely discernible in the background, Jesus, his hands chained behind him, looks over his shoulder at Peter (Luke 22:61).


In German protestant tradition a chorale is a religious text set to a traditional tune, often sung in unison by worshiping congregations. Over his career Bach composed more than four hundred harmonizations for chorale tunes. His matchless St. Matthew Passion includes twelve chorales harmonized for a chorus of soprano, alto, tenor and bass singers, accompanied only by low strings doubling the bass line. The Passion's chorales were not intended to be sung by the congregation but rather to represent the congregation's responses to the unfolding gospel story.

Here I want to share an observation about three separate appearances of one chorale tune in which Bach communicates, by musical means, a contrast between naive faith and mature faith.

Bach uses this harmonized chorale tune five different times in the Passion. The tune is best known in English as "Oh Sacred Head Now Wounded," after a Latin text of ten verses translated into German by Paul Gerhardt as O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. In each of the chorale's instances Bach sets a different verse of Gerhardt's translation. Bach composed four different harmonizations for these five occurrences, the first two instances being harmonically identical. 

We shall consider the 1st, 2nd, and 5th of these occurrences of the O Haupt tune, first examining the three texts and their contexts within the Passion, then turning to Bach's expressive harmonic settings.

The Texts

With a solo Evangelist as narrator, Bach's oratorio presents the passion story as told in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 26–27. The movements immediately preceding the first occurrence of O Haupt present the story of Jesus's last supper with his twelve apostles. The narrative includes several disturbing sentences: "Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me"; "Woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed"; "You will all become deserters because of me this night."

Then comes the chorale's first occurrence (Movement 21 of the Passion). The text represents a worshipper pleading for Christ's acceptance and acknowledging Christ's spiritual blessings:

        Erkenne mich, mein Hüter,
        Mein Hirte, nimm mich an;
        Von dir, Quell aller Güter,
        Ist mir viel Gut's getan.
        Dein Mund hat mich gelabert
        Mit Milch und süßer Kost;
        Dein Geist hat mich begabet
        Mit mancher Himmelslust.
        Acknowledge me, my Guardian
        My Shepherd, accept me.
        From Thee, Source of all goodness,
        Great good hath come to me.
        Thy mouth hath nourished me
        With milk and sweet sustenance;
        Thy Spirit hath favored me
        With many a heavenly joy.

In the succeeding movement the Evangelist particularizes the passion story by focusing on the apostle Peter:
Peter said to him, "Though all become deserters because of you, I will not desert you." Jesus said to him, "Truly I tell you, this very night, three times before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." Peter said to him, "Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you." And so said all the disciples.

At this point we hear the second occurrence of O Haupt (Movement 23), this time representing Peter's response, with which the congregation may also identify. Peter pleads for Jesus not to scorn him, and pledges to remain with Jesus even unto death:

        Ich will hier bei dir stehen:
        Verachte mich doch nicht.
        Von dir will ich nicht gehen
        Wenn dir dein Herze bricht.
        Wenn dein Haupt wird erblaßen
        Im letzten Todesstoß,
        Alsdann will ich dich faßen
        In meinen Arm und Schoß.

        I will stay here with thee:
        Oh do not scorn me.
        I will not leave thee
        Though thine own heart is breaking.
        If thy face should grow pale
        In the final shock of death,
        Even then shall I embrace thee
        within my arm and breast.

In the 3rd and 4th occurrences of O Haupt the texts relate to specific subjects distinct from these pleas for Christ's acceptance, so let us move on to the chorale's 5th and final occurrence (Movement 72) where the theme of pleading recurs.

In the intervening forty-nine movements of the Passion, Jesus is arrested, and his disciples have now "deserted him and fled." Peter alone remains close by.

Peter is recognized by two different servant girls and then by other bystanders, all of whom declare his association with Jesus. Twice Peter denies this. Upon the third accusation "he began to curse, and he swore an oath, 'I do not know the man!'" Then Peter remembers Jesus's earlier words to him: "Truly I tell you, this very night, three times before the cock crows, you will deny me three times."  The Evangelist concludes: "And he went out and wept bitterly."

Jesus now suffers mockery and physical abuse. He is crucified between two bandits, and hangs exposed for hours. The Evangelist sings: "And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice...'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' ...Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last."

Bach places the final occurrence of O Haupt at this intense moment. The text is a fervent plea for Christ not to be absent in the hour of the worshipper's own death:

        Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden,
        So scheide nichts von mir.
        Wenn ich den Tod soll leiden,
        So tritt du dann hierfür.
        Wenn mir am allerbängsten
        Wird um das Herze sein,
        So reiß mich aus den Ängsten
        Kraft deiner Angst und Pein.

        When some day I must must depart,
        Do not then depart from me.
        When I must suffer death,
        Then come to me.
        When the greatest anxiety
        Will agitate my heart,
        Then wrest me from my fears
        By virtue of thine agony and pain.

The Harmonizations

This review of the three chorale texts brings us to Bach's musical arrangements. As we have noted, the harmonic settings of the first two occurrences of the chorale are identical, except that the first is in the key of E major and the second is in the key of E-flat major.

The first occurrence:

A performance of Movement 21 may be found here.

The second occurrence:

A performance of Movement 23 may be found here.

This is Bach, and so we may expect the four-part arrangement shared by these two movements to be perfect. And indeed it is. Each vocal line proceeds smoothly. Moving parts—that is, single syllables that are assigned two notes—steer a placid course between sounding too spare and becoming too complex, and each of the four parts gets its fair share of melodic movement. Moments of harmonic tension are mild and promptly resolved. It is the kind of arrangement found today in most protestant hymnals. I played this setting for a friend who was not well acquainted with chorales and he exclaimed "beautiful!"

Bach's arrangement of the chorale's fifth and final occurrence bears the key signature of C, which has no governing sharps or flats:

In the chorale's first two occurrences Bach began on a major chord. Here he opens with a minor chord. In measure 2, on the word scheiden ("depart"), the bass line drops downward, not by the comfortable interval of a 5th as in the earlier settings, but to a 5th that is diminished by a half-step. This is the interval of a tritone—two notes separated by three whole tones—and the tritone is historically regarded as the most discordant of intervals. 

That downward stride to F-sharp gives the bass line the lowest note to be found among O Haupt's five settings. Indeed, it is the lowest note in all of the Passion's twelve chorales. Also the movement's key of C is lower than the tonality of any other chorale in the Passion, giving this version a darker hue overall. 

In measure 3 Bach has the sopranos sing the word scheide ("separate", "depart") not with the expected single note or two-note slur but with a nervous figure involving 16th notes—a musical gesture that twice in other Passion chorals Bach chooses to set the word Missetaten ("sins," "misdeeds").

After the double bar line, with the words Wenn mir am allerbängsten wird um das Herze sein ("When it befalls my heart to become most fearful"), the bass line again drops a tritone and then follows a tense melodic course of five successive 2nds—2nds being intervals discordant enough to evoke a need for resolution. In the chorale's final four measures, on the words so reiß much aus den Ängsten ("then pluck me from my fears"), Bach assigns to the tenors the 16th-note shiver sung earlier by the sopranos, and on Ängsten ("fears") he has the basses sing yet another downward tritone.

In the final phrase of the chorale, kraft deiner Angst und Pein ("by virtue of thy agony and pain"), seven of the eight intervals sung by the basses are 2nds; for the tenors all of the five concluding intervals are 2nds. This tense and serpentine chromaticism requires Bach to notate five accidentals—that is, flats or sharps added to notes in order to indicate departures from the basic tonality. In contrast, the first and second versions of the chorale conclude easily, requiring no accidentals to set their comforting closing words "with many a heavenly joy" and "within my arm and lap."

Accidentals can in fact serve as a gauge for the contrast between the two earlier choral settings and this final one. Each of the earlier settings involves 7 accidentals overall; this last setting requires 25. I think that Bach got the proportion about right. I suspect that having made vows in times of relative tranquility many of us find it at least three or four times more difficult to carry through when a moment of testing arrives. 

Movements 21 and 23 come early in the Passion, at a narrative distance from Jesus's suffering and death. From that distance the chorus finds it relatively easy to vow fidelity, come what may. In contrast, Movement 72 sounds in the immediate presence of Jesus's suffering—his cry of despair, his agonizing death—and the chorus expresses the congregation's existential dread regarding their own denials, their own broken vows, their own deaths.

The chorale of Movement 72—despite its dissonances and tensions, indeed because of them—is fully as beautiful as the chorales of Movements 21 and 23. On first hearing it might not strike us as particularly distinctive. The Passion's chorales are not dramatic music, but they impart musical drama. Like all masterpieces, they reward repeated exposure with new disclosure.

In the music of Movement 72 I hear struggle with suffering, despair, and death. In retrospect I recall Movements 21 and 23 as all too smooth, all too placid, all too mild. Borrowing language from The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was arrested and executed by the Nazis, I hear in Bach's three chorales a distinction between "cheap grace" and "costly grace." Cheap grace, Bonhoeffer writes, is "grace without cost." Costly grace
is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.