The performance of a Bach Passion on Good Friday is now a long-standing tradition at Symphony Hall, begun 30 years ago in April 1992 by the Bach Choir under Sir David Willcocks. Ex Cathedra took up the mantle in 2009 and have performed the St Matthew or St John Passion each year since.
That said, the tradition is an evolving one and in recent years Ex Cathedra’s Artistic Director, Jeffrey Skidmore, has been keen to give a sense of the Passions in a liturgical context that Bach would recognise – as just one part of a Good Friday service that would have included motets, chorale preludes, congregational hymns and even a sermon.
Beginning in 2017, Ex Cathedra added a short organ work commissioned from Alec Roth (‘Verlass uns nicht’ / Forsake us not) to St John Passion, along with several audience chorales and the traditional Jacob Handl motet ‘Ecce quomodo moritur Justus’ (Behold how the righteous man dies).
Two years later, they provided similar context to St Matthew Passion and this year’s performance does the same. It opens with Alec Roth’s chorale and prelude on ‘Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig’ (Now we greet you, gentle Jesus), commissioned as part of a project to fill gaps in Bach’s Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) with new work based on Bach’s intended melody.
The Passion then sits either side of an interval for tea (admittedly, not part of the original Good Friday offering!). It concludes, as in Bach’s day, with the Jacob Handl motet, and with the congregational hymn Now thank we all our God, preceded by a chorale prelude on the same theme.
St Matthew Passion was written for the Good Friday Vespers in 1727 in Leipzig as part of Bach’s duties as Cantor of St Thomas’s School and Church. There were later revisions and performances up to the 1740s after which, it is still incredible to believe, it was not heard again until Mendelssohn revived it in 1829.
Learn the (optional) audience hymn – and more about Bach’s St Matthew Passion – with Jeffrey Skidmore in a pre-concert talk at 12.45pm.