My Pop Life #76 : St Matthew Passion – Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott – J.S. Bach


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Kommt, Ihr Töchter, Helft Mir Klagen   (St Matthew Passion)   –   J.S. Bach

Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott  (St Matthew Passion)   –   J.S. Bach

Erbarme dich, mein Gott,
Um meiner Zähren Willen!
Schaue hier, Herz und Auge
Weint vor dir bitterlich.
Erbarme dich, erbarme dich!

Have mercy, my God,
for the sake of my tears!
Look here, heart and eyes
weep bitterly before You.
Have mercy, have mercy!

I cannot remember where and when I first heard this piece of music.   Or why.   It wasn’t the first piece of Bach I bought – that was the Brandenburg Concertos, which I saw live in The Hollywood Bowl when I was 19 years old (along with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – clearly it was pop classic night).    Then I think the Orchestral Suites were next (include Air On A G String) which a gang of us went to see in Brighton Festival around 1999, sat in the front row of the balcony of St George’s Church, the first few notes of that famous section float up to us from the ensemble at which point Luke Cresswell turns to us and whispers “Tune!”.    But anyway, at some point in my late 20s/early 30s I bought John Eliot Gardiner‘s version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion on CD.   It is my favourite piece of classical music, along with Chopin’s Ballade #1 and Debussy’s Prelude A L’Aprés-Midi d’un Faun.

Bach is the daddy of classical music – his output, between 1708 and 1750 is immense, including organ works (Toccata & Fugue), violin concertos, over 200 sacred cantatas, 2 passions, a Great Mass, the Goldberg Variations, Brandenburg Concertos, Cello Suites,  and Orchestral suites among many other pieces.  He is considered to be a baroque composer.  Everything I’ve heard (about 10% of his output at a guess) is extraordinarily beautiful, rich and contains great depth of feeling.  It is not complex music (to my ears) but it is endlessly rewarding.  Don’t worry I’m not going to post the entire two and a half hours of the Passion here – but you should hear it once before you die.  You’ll hear it plenty of times after you die I’m quite certain of that, but the experience of listening to it whilst alive is quite excellent, and highly recommended.   But I will post the opening Kommt Ihr Tochter which is going to blow your head off, and also Erbarme Dich… which is transcendent.

Being a Passion, this means the libretto, or oratorio is taken from the New Testament of the Bible.  I’ve never actually followed the story, and I’ve heard the music many many times, I always get lost in the music and forget completely about the story it is telling – the life and particularly I suspect, the death of Christ.   It really sounds like church music though, perhaps one of the reasons I like it – the hymnal qualities, the shapes of the chords.  The layered choral effect of the opening Kommt Ihr Tochter Helft Mir Klagencome you daughters, help me lament – played by two orchestras and three choirs is probably the most fantastic and exciting piece of music ever written.  Thus it starts at the end of the story with the daughters of Zion weeping over the dead body of the lamb, our saviour.

I always heard this piece of music in my head when I was writing New Year’s Day (NYD).   Not for any intellectual reason, but because it has an immense feeling of something about to happen, something huge and undefinable.  In NYD, our two boys have survived a terrible tragedy at the beginning of the film, Christmas comes and goes with funerals, memorial services, counselling and piles of wreaths outside the school gates.  When the final death happens on New Year’s Eve, the two boys arrange to meet on the clifftop the following day.  In the first draft of the film (set in Lewes, East Sussex) they cycled from Lewes to Eastbourne, (Beachy Head more specifically a 600 foot cliff) – perhaps we’d have used Seaford Head and the Seven Sisters – but a decent 15-20 miles cycle ride by two teenage boys with this massive dramatic music of Bach supporting them.  It is a matter of life and death for them.

The second piece – Erbarme Dich Mein Gotthave pity on me my god – is just pure emotion.  Sung by a counter-tenor usually – a man with a high voice – this short piece of music really transcends intellect and debate, description and enthusiasm.  I would like it to be played at my funeral as the most beautiful piece of music I had the pleasure to hear in  my life.  It makes me weep every time I hear it, unless I’m washing up at the time.   Joke.    Now, I’m not religious as you know (see My Pop Life 24 : Faure’s Requiem) but I like to play classical music on a Sunday morning, whether it be religious or not, an LP of Chopin’s Etudes, a Mozart or Brahms symphony, Erik Satie, or some Bach.  Whatever my newest discovery is – currently Corelli a contemporary of Johan Sebastian.   It makes the day seem without stress.   Often on Sunday mornings I’m off to work – the film industry isn’t christian – but one always notices.  Sundays – or Saturdays – or Fridays – doesn’t really matter – but one day should be for resting.   St Matthew Passion is played more than any other piece of music in our house on a Sunday.

I’ve never seen SMP live.  I will though.  One day.   In the meantime, I have these….

John Eliot Gardiner conducts The Monteverdi Choir, The London Oratory Junior Choir, and The English Baroque Soloists :  

Kommt, Ihr Töchter, Helft Mir Klagen

Erbarme Dich sung by Michael Chance, John Eliot Gardiner conducting :

Erbarme Dich with Karl Richter conducting, Julia Hamari singing:

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. stevekalinich
    May 29, 2015 @ 20:14:45

    Thank you Ralph this music is other worldly and moves me takes me beyond limitations to touch another realm of beauty

    Stephen Kalinich On of my favorite pieces of mystic of al time.I use to play it every day many times for a period of years I think it helped me survive .

    Stephen Kalinich I love this .Vicci Sperry a painter and friend of mine who i worked for and with was a painter and when she painted she had me play this work for hours over and over and she painted to it .It is touching uplifting graceful i love this

    Stephen Kalinich Peace
    Like · Reply · Just now

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  2. magicman
    May 29, 2015 @ 21:49:41

    Thank you Stevie. This music is astonishing, and I too have listened to it over and over – especially these two pieces. I submit to both of them in different ways.

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  3. Trackback: My Pop Life #79 | Magicmenagerie's Blog

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