Why Bach's Passion music is as relevant this Easter as ever

Photo: Alan Kerr

The St Matthew Passion is one of Bach’s most famous pieces of religious music, telling the Biblical story of the crucifixion of Jesus.

But what is it about this piece, written in 1727, that’s capturing the imagination of Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen, in their fully staged abridged adaptation, The Passion? Whether you’re coming to watch it in person, viewing on BBC Four on Easter Sunday, or catching up on iPlayer, here are a few reasons to get excited about this extraordinary and modern opera.

The ‘religious’ message speaks to everyone

The Passion is, at its core, a Christian piece of music - the story is taken directly from the Biblical account of the crucifixion of Jesus - but there’s a deep message running through the text that speaks to everyone.

Throughout the narrative, Jesus is betrayed by those who love him the most, ignored, abandoned, and left to endure his darkest hour, before dying on the cross. Although the story is set 2000 years ago, the feelings of desperation and loss are entirely relatable for a modern audience, and utterly human. 

"The seismic things that are happening in the world at the moment, with these huge numbers of people moving around trying to flee persecution…  It feels that this is really the right time to be doing this and to find a way for it to have the resonance that it should really have,” says director Penny Woolcock.

But this isn’t just about telling a story about the morality of human behaviour on a large scale. The Streetwise Opera performers, many of whom have experienced personal difficulties firsthand, are approaching the music from their own standpoint, weaving their own experiences into every line of the performance - and especially into the brand new ending. Written by Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan, the ‘resurrection’ finale was created specifically for this 2016 performance, with libretto written by the Streetwise performers.

The text offers a glimmer of hope after despair - a reminder that there is positivity after the darkest day.

The music brings people together

While there’s no ‘resurrection’ finale in Bach’s original music, the music is designed not only to sound sublime, but also to bring the text to life, even for congregations who wouldn’t have a copy of the words in front of them. Bach used specific musical ideas to highlight certain words including, crucially, ‘crucify’, when the crowds are calling to put Jesus to death. 

The St Matthew Passion contains its fair share of music that’s as challenging for the performers as it is beautiful. But nestled among the complex recitative and the ornate instrumental lines are ‘chorales’ - hymn-like sections designed specifically for the masses to sing. With a simple, repetitive tune, the idea was that the congregation could join in and be part of the music - a principle which is brought to the fore in The Passion, with amateur performers from Streetwise Opera sharing music throughout with The Sixteen’s professional singers.

It’s Bach… but not as you know it

While Campfield Market in Manchester may seem a far cry from a church in Leipzig, Germany, where Bach’s original music would have been performed, you’ll hear a surprising number of Bach’s original features - brought up-to-date by Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen.

In Bach’s St Matthew Passion, whenever Jesus is singing, he is accompanied by the strings, helping the congregation set his singing apart from the other characters. In The Passion, an interesting twist is that Jesus is played by different Streetwise performers, and he’s not always a man. (It’s 2016, after all!) 

There are eight Jesuses in total, designed to represent the universality and vulnerability of the character. While this may seem a radical departure from the original gospel account, the ‘Jesusness’ of the performers is clear, with a piece of blue cloth indicating who is Jesus at any given time.

It's 'something a bit different’

It could be seen as a maverick move to take some of Bach’s most famous music, cut more than half of it, and add a new finale.

But, as director Penny Woolcock explains, Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen are taking Bach’s original work and creating something new and modern. The result is a fully-staged, abridged version, which keeps the story and the essence of the music, but brings it to life in a contemporary space.

"We thought we’d like to do something a bit different,” she says, "that would really show off the talents of our performers."

With impressive acoustics, as well as full costumes, lighting, and video projections, The Passion breathes life into Bach’s composition, creating a performance that will not only appeal to fans of the original music, but also allow new audiences to experience the work for the first time, with a fresh and contemporary perspective.

Are you joining us? Share your thoughts using the hashtag #PassionOpera, whether you’re watching in person in Manchester, on BBC Four on Easter Sunday, or on BBC iPlayer (available for 30 days).

This broadcast is made possible by The Space.