Thursday, April 28, 2005


J. S. BACH "St. Matthew Passion" (1729) No. 19, CHORALE with RECITATIVE: "O Schmerz!"

"O Pain!" cries the Narrator, locked in miserable sympathy with Jesus's every nerve-ending as the Romans slash their whips across him over and over. "Here shudders the tortured Heart! How it sinks! How pale its Face!"

In the Lutheran church the congregation looks on in holy dread as the orchestra pulses a pedal tone, a jugular throbbing with fear. The tenor, eyes wide, narrates a grisly scene as though convulsed by a vivid hallucination- Jesus whipped and dragged friendless before the Judge. The choristers punctuate his story with bursts of a hymn tune that has been cut to pieces and strangely harmonized, its diminished harmonies underscoring the suffering and impending tragedy of the scene. This, in 1729, was how you did the Passion of the Christ.

In this case, the Passion according to St. Matthew. DeVoto chooses, for the next entry in his anthology, a "chorale with recitative"- the chorale in this case being the same Herzliebster Jesu (which we've now seen in no less than five versions). This is the second use of this chorale in this work- Bach uses it earlier in the piece in a more conventional harmonization. Now - for this pivotal dramatic moment - he alternates passages of tortured tenor recitative melody with blocks of Herzliebster Jesu, reharmonized and fitted with new words to suit the dramatic moment.

I'm not sure if there's an equivalent of tunes like this for the modern audience. I'm sure, if you're a regular churchgoer, certain religious songs are so familiar that you could still recognize them if they were cut to pieces for compositional purposes. Ives chopped up American tunes regularly for his compositional processes- but who recognizes one in ten of them anymore? The density of Ives' allusions can now only fully appeal to scholars of Ives and American religious music. Which is to say that I've heard of the Old Rugged Cross, but I certainly can't hum it.

What is the effect like? Well, to make a slightly ridiculous analogy:

TENOR: "Oh, she comes! Her Hands are Red with Blood! The Stones echo with her Footfalls!"

CHORUS (minor key): "She'll be comin' around the Mountain when she comes!"

TENOR: "She will wreak her Vengeance on the Evil-Doers!"

CHORUS (major key): "She'll be comin' around the Mountain when she comes!"

And so forth.

This part of the Passion of St. Matthew is only 27 measures long, but it certainly doesn't feel that way when you're analyzing it. The harmonies are extremely dense and seemingly every other chord is diminished, creating a very 'black' feeling (the infusion of tritones and major/minor seconds seems to do that- sort of like how the 'black' and thorny style of Shostakovich is instantly discernible). Speaking of 'thorny'- I should mention that the tenor recitative line is very chromatic and a little hard to sing.

It's in F minor, although the key signature has three flats. I don't know if this is for purposes of utility (for the modulations) or whether the keys of the surrounding movements are in the three flats. As it is, Bach writes in that D-flat accidental quite often. I am wary of distinguishing full-on 'modulations' and 'tonicizations' in this piece, since the sheer number of diminished chords and unexpected chromatic developments make the situation ambiguous. It is, mostly, in F-minor, with excursions/tonicizations of A-flat Major (the relative major, natch), B-flat minor (the minor subdominant - add 2 flats), and C minor (the minor dominant - subtract one flat).

The way the modulations work tends to go like this: the recitative starts in one key, modulates (or, you know, tonicizes), and then modulates again to arrive in a new key at which point the choir starts its fragment of Herzliebster Jesu. This choral fragment usually undergoes a modulation, which leads in turn to a new key for the beginning of the next section of recitative. These fragments of recitative and chorale are short - three or four bars - so the modulations are frequent (and chromatically intense, owing to all the diminished sonorities). At the end of the piece, we get a seven bar (long, in this context) passage of recitative which moves through a curious sequence in F minor (IV7, ii dim7, V, V/V, V6, vii dim of V, V 4/2, vii dim7) of sufficient ambiguity that we aren't that surprised that, after arriving at a tonic, we immediately modulate into C minor and then somehow conclude on a G major chord (which doesn't quite feel like a dominant of C minor in this context).

It's interesting how Bach distinguishes between the recitative and chorale passages- the recitative gets throbbing sixteenth-note pedal tones (very menacing) which frequently shift by a semitone to usher in an unexpected diminished chord to introduce a modulation. These abruptly cease for the chorale passages, which feel monumental and stoic by comparison (the lack of 'heartbeat' makes them observers of the narrative rather than participants, I think). When the recitative starts again, the sixteenth note pedal does as well. It's like a movie cutting between a close-up of a terrified face (the jaw termbling) and a crowd of mournful - but calm - observers.

Oh, and DeVoto takes special care to point out that Bach uses an augmented sixth chord in this piece, which is apparently a really rare thing for Bach. If you're curious, it's right there in measure 23 (in inversion). It sounds sort of weird in context, since everything else feels diminished but in a slightly different way (all the other predominant chords tend to be viis / Vs etc), and makes for an eyebrow-raising choral climax. This is highlighted by the fact that, if you're playing this edition at the piano, you have to turn the page to get to measure 23. It's kinda like in comic books where they have a 'splash' page with an alarming full-page image at a major structural point.

So, I think that sums it up. Next post: more Bach, but at a keyboard, and mercifully free of Herzliebster Jesu.


Post a Comment

<< Home