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One of Bach's two famous sacred oratorios, this amazing piece was first performed on 11 April 1727 in Leipzig.
Good Friday 1727 in Leipzig was a particularly good Good Friday, thanks to the performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion, which he composed that year. When Bach had first arrived in Leipzig four years earlier to become the Kantor of the Thomaskirche he had no doubt wowed his employers – not to mention the congregation – with that year’s Easter offering, the St John Passion, so expectations were high.
Luckily, the congregation would not have been disappointed. The music is based on the Biblical account of Jesus' crucifixion, and the manuscript bears the Latin title: Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the Evangelist Matthew. It's a brilliant combination of the best of Baroque choral music: chorale passages with a full choir, recitative passages where the narrator – the Evangelist – tells the story with impassioned speech-inspired singing, and gorgeous solo arias.
Bach's attention to detail is also pretty striking; on words like 'crucify', he uses chilling chromaticism to highlight the emotional nature of the words, and when Jesus sings, high strings accompany the singing to represent a musical 'halo'.
He revised the music in 1736, again in 1742, and once more between 1743-6 (Bach's attention to detail strikes again). The latest version is the version we know today, and is now seen as one of the masterpieces of sacred Baroque music – and indeed sacred music in general.