Conductor Revisits Recovery of Bach ‘St. Mark Passion’

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Matthew Halls rehearses the chorus of the Oregon Bach Festival, which will soon perform a new reconstruction of Bach's St. Mark Passion.
Matthew Halls, who now helms the Oregon Bach Festival, has collaborated to reconstruct Bach’s lost ‘St. Mark Passion’.
By David Stabler

EUGENE, Ore. – J.S. Bach may have written Passions based on all four gospels, but only St. Matthew and St. John survive intact. In vivid and poignant detail, they portray the last days in the life of Jesus through arias and choruses of magnificent power.

Mathew Halls is in his first year as artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival (Artslandia)
Matthew Halls is the festival’s new artistic director. (Artslandia)

Scholars have long known about a third Passion, the St. Mark, but only its text survives. In his first season as artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival, Matthew Halls and a colleague have recreated the St. Mark Passion, an ambitious project that audiences will hear in Eugene, Ore., on July 1 and  in Portland on July 2.  

Halls and Bach scholar Dominik Sackmann aren’t the first to piece together the St. Mark. At least 18 previous versions exist, assembled between 1964 and 2009, including one by the Dutch conductor Ton Koopman. As in several previous versions, Halls and Sackmann recycled Bach’s earlier music – something Bach and other 18th-century composers frequently did – and then composed new music, basing their decisions on the latest scholarship.

Halls answered questions by email from England about how he pulled this off. Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity:

CVNA: Why another version of the St. Mark?

Matthew Halls: Everybody who has come up with a reconstruction over the years has taken a slightly different approach. It’s fascinating to chart the differences here. We have a certain amount of evidence – scholarship – at our disposal, but beyond that, there is room for considerable individual creativity. There are those who have taken on board the evidence and built their reconstructions on strong academic premises, and there are those for whom such an undertaking has taken the course of a more free-thinking approach to the task in hand. No two reconstructions are the same. In my opinion it’s the perfect sort of Bach-related project for a festival such as the Oregon Bach Festival to produce. It’s specific to the festival and highlights the two most important aspects of the festival – the academic and the musical.

BWV 198 was a funeral ode for Christiane Eberhardine, Electress of Saxony. (Louis de Silvestre)
BWV 198, from 1727, was a funeral ode for the Electress of Saxony.
Portrait by Louis de Silvestre (Wiki Commons)

CVNA: What do you think of previous reconstructions, including Ton Koopman’s?

MH: Whichever approach one takes, it’s a fairly exhausting and rigorous process. I had the good fortune in my early days as a keyboard player in the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra to participate in the concert tour of Ton Koopman’s new reconstruction. Ton took a very different approach. Rather than basing the structural pillars – framing choruses and arias – on movements from (Cantata) BWV 198 (Trauerode), as the evidence seems to suggest, he decided to adopt a much freer approach. The end result is essentially a highly imaginative (highly personal) survey of musical high points taken from the whole gamut of Bach’s sacred cantatas. Enormously satisfying and rewarding. When we decided to attempt our reconstruction, we opted to stick closer to the scholarly evidence available and base the backbone of our reconstruction on BWV 198.

CVNA: Bach frequently repurposed his own music, as did other composers of the 18th century. One scholar suggests 20 percent of Bach’s music is repurposed. Do you think he did that with the St. Mark?

MH: I personally find the evidence to suggest that he did incredibly compelling. The new text fits the movements from the Trauerode so well that it leaves little room for doubt. For whatever reasons – possibly time management or a desire on Bach’s part to elevate to a higher level of public exposure a work originally intended as a uniquely ‘incidental’ piece (and therefore, seldom heard) – Bach was perfectly comfortable with the idea of recycling. His three oratorios (Christmas, Easter, and Ascension) are all sacred parodies of earlier works (secular). It is also not entirely surprising that Bach, in reworking older material for a new Passion setting, should draw upon a funeral ode.

CVNA: You collaborated with Dominik Sackmann. What were your roles?

Bach scholar Dominik Sackmann collaborated on the reconstruction.
Bach scholar Dominik Sackmann collaborated on the reconstruction.

MH: Dominik Sackmann is a renowned Bach scholar and organist based in Zurich, and we’ve known each other for some years now. When I first decided to prepare a reconstruction for the 2014 festival, I was aware that I would need somebody to help make sense of all the scholarship and research surrounding the Markus Passion – somebody who could quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. Dominik was entirely responsible for putting together the foundations of the reconstruction, making suggestions for possible aria parodies where there seemed to be no conclusive evidence and advising me every step of the way as to how we should build on this foundation. No recitatives or chorus turbae survive, so this all had to be composed anew – and this was my central role. All the new music – and there’s a considerable amount – was written by me, attempting as best I could to compose in the style of Bach, linking together the arias and providing the central Passion narrative.

CVNA: Some reconstructors abandon Bach’s original structure, others re-use music that he probably would not have chosen, while still others include large amounts of music composed by contemporaries of Bach. What approach did you take?

MH: We took BWV 198 as the central source of the parody and found solutions for a couple of arias that clearly weren’t linked to movements from the Trauerode. Chorales were selected accordingly from the vast output of existing chorale harmonizations and then I set about composing all of the recitative and chorus interjections (some of which are based on known Bach pieces, others more freely composed in the style of Bach).

CVNA: You have written new recitatives. Where did you look for inspiration?

MH: I spent a great deal of time studying and analyzing the two Passion settings of Bach, and I revisited many of the sacred cantatas as well in the search for a reconstructive methodology, and in order to build up a large vocabulary of Bachian figures, harmonic progressions and word paintings. I think I learned more about Bach’s compositional style from this intensive period of work than I ever imagined possible!

CVNA: Tell us a little about the writing process. Did you start at the beginning?

MH: Yes. I made a complete draft and then pretty much destroyed it and started again! By the time I had finished the first draft I felt that I could do a much better job, having undergone the journey once… I still feel that way! I would happily go back to the beginning again and rethink it all if time would permit. It’s a job that never seems finished. But there comes a point where one has to say ‘Stop!’…and at that stage, one stands back a little and awaits a sense of perspective (one that’s gained only from performance of the whole in this case) before attempting any final revisions. A fascinating and deeply rewarding process of study and exploration.

CVNA: Some people think of Bach’s music as distilled water –- clear, pure, faultless, while Beethoven, who carved music out of his tortured soul throws it down. Are you messing with Bach?

MH: That absolutely was not my intention! It was a highly personal project. An investigative journey if you like. I wanted to enhance my understanding of Bach by actively engaging in the compositional process of a lost Passion.

CVNA: How do you justify your version, historically? Do you consider it historically authentic?

MH: I couldn’t possibly make such claims. It’s not so much a “reconstruction” (that would imply we have all the pieces of the jigsaw and just need to fit them together). It is simply an attempt – a study if you like – to investigate how this passion was constructed and to offer a solution for a performance of the Markus Passion in the 21st century.

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Click here for information about the concerts July 1  in Eugene and  July 2 in Portland.

[The Oregon Bach Festival has created a Digital Bach Project offering an online exploration of four works — the Goldberg Variations, St. Matthew Passion, Well-Tempered Clavier, and the B Minor Mass. Explore it here.]

David Stabler was The Oregonian’s classical music critic from 1986 to 2010. He is now an arts writer covering music, dance, theater and visual art for the paper. He has piano degrees from the Eastman School of Music and the Royal College of Music and is a Pulitzer-prize finalist for a story about a troubled young cellist.