Readings of the Gospel accounts of the Passion of Christ were part of the Christian liturgy going back many centuries. Originally, the text was chanted by the deacon on one of the “passion tones,” in other words, on a single pitch punctuated at cadences by conventional melodic formulas. By the twelfth century, texts were divided among the priest in the role of Jesus (bass), the deacon (Evangelist, tenor) and the subdeacon (remaining roles, alto).
Polyphony was employed in passion settings increasingly from the beginning of the fifteenth century. While “motet passions” employed fairly elaborate polyphony throughout, in settings of a more dramatic type, the Evangelist and Jesus still chanted the liturgical melody, but the words of the other characters were often enhanced by polyphony.
In the first dramatic passion in German (ca. 1530), Johann Walther adapted the Latin passion tones to Luther’s German translation. All the individual characters chant on the passion tone, while the choruses are set to repeated chords. The melodies of individual characters barely resemble the old passion tones in the St. Matthew Passion by Heinrich Schütz (1666). But only the Evangelist and Jesus are taken by solo voices, other characters being represented by two- or three-voice polyphony.
For many of us, the settings by Johann Sebastian Bach of the Passion According to St. John (1724) and According to St. Matthew (1729) represent high points — if not the culmination — of the dramatic passion. Yet we have more to discover. On Good Friday in Jordan Hall, the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber and Vocal Ensembles under Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs presented the little-known Passion According to St. Matthew by Johann Sebastiani (1622-1683). Born in Weimar, Sebastiani studied music in Italy and in 1663 became court Kapellmeister to the Elector of Brandenburg in Königsberg (now Kalinengrad), then the capital of the Duchy of Prussia and an important cultural center. Sebastiani’s Passion was written for the court and later published with a dedication to the Elector in twelve separate partbooks, supplying the music for five vocal and seven instrumental parts. Solo songs with accompaniment are assigned to the individual characters, who also sing in ensemble numbers. Placed at key points in the action, chorale verses serve as emotional commentary on the proceedings, as they do in the Bach passions; as it turns out, Sebastiani was the first composer to insert Lutheran chorales in a passion.
The opening Sinfonia, a simple announcement of the Gospel account to come, calls for a five-voice “chorus” and an instrumental ensemble of two violins, four viols, and basso continuo. In Friday’s performance, the violinists were Robert Mealy, concertmaster, and Cynthia Roberts; playing the four viole da gamba were Christel Thielmann, Beiliang Zhu, Arnie Tanimoto, and Laura Jeppesen. Theorbists Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette, along with Michael Sponseller, organ and harpsichord, made up the continuo. With the exception of Jesus (bass João Fernandes), who sat in front of the ensemble and sang only his own solo part, and the Evangelist (tenor James Taylor), who stood in front and only joined in the ensemble when five parts were called for, the soloists stood behind the instruments and joined together to make up the vocal ensemble. Taylor made a compelling Evangelist, with forthright German diction and fine sensitivity to the declamatory nuances of the freely expressive Italianate recitatives. Sebastiani’s addition of a polyphonic viol consort, a holdover from Renaissance tradition, to the Evangelist’s recitatives gave them special color along with rhythmic anchorage. Another distinctive color, that of the two Baroque violins, was reserved for obbligato accompaniment of Christ’s recitatives, which were further set off by the gravity of Fernandes’s resonant bass. The inserted chorales were sung, not by the ensemble nor by the congregation but, as specified by Sebastiani, by a solo treble voice with the accompaniment of four viols and continuo. Danielle Reutter-Harrah’s clear, bright, and beautifully attuned mezzo was ideally suited to this intensely moving role, intended to represent both individual anguish and collective remorse among the spectators. Reutter-Harrah also took part in the dramatic representation, doubling in the roles of the first maid in Peter’s denial scene, and as Pilate’s wife. Countertenor Ian Howell combined smooth clarity with dramatic force in the role of Judas, and also doubled in the roles of second maid and, in duet with Jason McStoots, as first witness. Tenor McStoots doubled as Kaiphas, the high priest, and Pilate, and basso John Taylor Ward sang the role of Petrus.
The dramatic representation increased in intensity with the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane and the introduction of chromatic touches in the Evangelist’s account. The language of recitative expanded rhythmically and melodically with the arrest and betrayal, Christ’s restraint giving way to indignation, and the Evangelist breaking into extravagant roulades to describe the disciples’ flight. Enraged outbursts of the crowd on rhythmically declaimed chords were accompanied by the full ensemble of violins, viols, and continuo. Peter’s final denial, followed by the cockcrow reminder of his betrayal, evoked a surprising tonal shift on the Evangelist’s words “And he went out and wept bitterly.” After a concluding chorale verse, the score specifies the reading of a passion text. In its place, we heard a fine performance of the E minor sonata for two violins and continuo by Sebastiani’s contemporary Johann Rosenmüller. The conclusion of the trial scene, with its angry cries of “Let him be crucified!” from the crowd and remorseful chorale verse, calls for another reading. David Funck’s Intrada and Lamento (1677) for a consort of four viols, in a restrained, motet-like style, provided an appropriate substitute. After the crucifixion, burial, and closing of the grave. the lamento “Ach dass ich Wassers g’nug hätte in meinem Haupte” (Oh, that I had water enough in my head) by Johann Christoph Bach (an older cousin of Johann Sebastian) was sung by Ian Howell, accompanied by solo violin, viol consort, and continuo. The extraordinary emotional intensity of its arioso melody, heightened by affective chromaticism, was perfectly in keeping with the tone of Sebastiani’s passion story.
The intimate ambiance, good sight lines, and fine acoustics of Jordan Hall were ideal for a non-liturgical performance. Nevertheless, occasional problems of coordination might possibly have been avoided with a different arrangement on stage. The instrumental ensemble was placed front and center, with the ensemble singers spread out behind them. This meant that mezzo Danielle Reutter-Harrah, who sang the chorales from behind on the far left, was not always quite in time with Paul O’Dette, directing from the front on the right, and similar coordination problems occasionally occurred with the entire ensemble. Perhaps a closer grouping of singers and players would have helped. Additional singers for the minor parts rather than doubling would have meant fuller choruses. Since there was only one keyboard player, the harpsichord, brought on for just a few numbers, substituted for the small chest organ rather than reinforcing it. Sebastiani’s congregation would certainly have been very familiar with Luther’s text. At Jordan Hall, we were supplied with a handsome print of the entire text with excellent translations by Paul O’Dette and Christel Thielmann. The result was that, in the dim light, we tended to bury our faces in the text, trying hard not to rustle the pages as we turned. If only we had had (admittedly expensive) projections of the German and English texts to keep our eyes turned to the stage! These are minor quibbles. This remained a stellar performance by stylistically expert singers and players, sensitively put together, as usual, by Stubbs and O’Dette, whose diligent research and sure musicianship can be counted upon to delight us with fine productions of little-known masterpieces.