Of Bach's three surviving oratorio Passions, only two, the St Matthew and St John, survive complete. The St Matthew Passion, written in 1727 and commonly referred to in Bach's household as the 'Great Passion' is one of Bach's most revered and best-loved works. The biblical story of the Passion is retained in its entirety while lyrical 'madrigal' pieces, set to Picander's freely composed text, and chorales for the chorus are interposed.
The St Matthew Passion seems to have been written for performance at the Thomaskirche on Good Friday 1727, and though expanded for a. 1736 performance, the St Matthew underwent none of the radical revisions of the St John Passion. Altogether, it seems the work was performed four times in the composer's lifetime.
The highlights of this profound work are too numerous to mention. The returning chorales such as nos 15, 17, 44, 54 and 62, all employing the melody "Herzlich tut mich verlangen", are particularly attractive and help unify the work. "Kommt, ihr Tochter", forms a powerful opening chorus and the bass aria "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein" (no. 65) is a popular extract. The final chorus, "Wir setzen uns" overflows with palpable grief and anguish.
One of the greatest composers in history, Johann Sebastian Bach (father of C.P.E, J. C. and W. F. Bach) was by far the most significant member of the Bach dynasty of musicians.
He outshone his forebears and contemporaries, but did not always receive the respect he deserved in his own lifetime. After a brief engagement as a violinist in the court of Weimar, Bach became organist at the Neukirche in Arnstadt. In June 1707 he moved to St. Blasius, Mühlhausen, and married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach. In 1708 he was appointed court organist in Weimar where he composed most of his works for organ. In 1717, he was appointed Court Kapellmeister to the young Prince Leopold at Cöthen, but was refused permission to leave Weimar. The Duke only allowed Bach to go after holding him prisoner for nearly a month.
While at Weimar, Bach wrote his violin concertos and the six Brandenburg Concertos, as well as several suites, sonatas and keyboard works, including several, such as the Inventions and Book I of the 48 Preludes and Fugues (The Well-tempered Clavier). In 1720 Maria Barbara died, and the next year Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcke. Bach resigned the post in Weimar in 1723 to become cantor at St. Thomas’ School in Leipzig where he was responsible for music in the four main churches of the city. Here he wrote the Magnificat and the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, as well as a large quantity of other church music. In Leipzig he eventually took charge of the University “Collegium Musicum” and occupied himself with the collection and publication of many of his earlier compositions.
Over the years that followed, Bach’s interest in composing church music declined somewhat, and he took to writing more keyboard music and cantatas. As his eyesight began to fail, he underwent operations to try and correct the problem, and these may have weakened him in his old age. He died at age 65, having fathered a total of 20 children with his two wives. Despite widespread neglect for almost a century after his death, Bach is now regarded as one of the greatest of all composers and is still an inexhaustible source of inspiration for musicians. Bach’s compositions are catalogued by means of the prefix BWV (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis) and a numbering system which is generally accepted for convenience of reference.