St. Matthew’s Passion by J.S. Bach at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

Last night, I went to a live performance of St. Matthew’s Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach at St. Paul’s Cathedral​ with Laura Brennan​. I have only ever heard two pieces from this work, and it was a great pleasure to listen to it in its entirety in such a beautiful and historic cathedral.

Flagellazione di Cristo by Caravaggio, 1607-10. Museo di Capodimonte, via Wikimedia.

Flagellazione di Cristo by Caravaggio, 1607-10. Museo di Capodimonte, via Wikimedia.

Bach, who is relevant to this site because he was born in 1685, composed the oratorio Passio Domini nostri J.C. secundum Evangelistam Matthæum (commonly referred to as St. Matthew’s Passion) in 1727 and revised several times throughout subsequent years. This oratorio is about Christ’s trial, cruel treatment, and execution. You can read the full text hereConducted by Andrew Carwood, and sung in the original German by the St. Paul’s Cathedral choir and Chorus accompanied by the London Mozart Players, this was an incredible experience – and rather long! It began at 6:30pm and ended a little before 9:30pm with only a 10-minute interval. Somehow, Laura and I found ourselves sitting on one of the few cushioned seats – and we were very grateful for that! We sat in a transept. To our immediate right, was the monument to Captain Robert Faulknor who died 5th June, 1795 after being shot through the heart!

As darkness descended as the evening progressed, there was a soft golden light from the chandeliers above us and from the lights which beamed down onto the stage. The Cathedral takes on a completely different look at night, and I had only ever visited during the daylight hours so it struck me. As Bach’s music floated around the Wren’s magnificent Baroque cathedral, I felt all the awe and majesty that this piece no doubt intended to convey. Wren’s corinthian columns and Baroque architecture, John Thornhill’s gilded art, the beautifully crafted woodcarvings by Grinling Gibbons, all of which seemed to shimmer in the aforementioned golden light. It was an utterly entrancing experience.

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There were only two pieces I had been familiar with prior to this concert; the Aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” – which moved me to tears as it was performed so incredibly beautifully.

The other being the final piece, “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder”.

The only possible criticism I had (which isn’t much really) is that this final piece was performed faster than I had ever heard it before. I do prefer the tempo in the video above. But that’s just a minor thought – overall, I was profoundly moved and honoured to have been able to be in the audience last night. In my ignorance (having never attended a performance like this) I was surprised that no one clapped at the end and that the conductor, singers, and orchestra left as quietly as they had come.

The concert was free and happily quite full (which pleased me greatly – I often complain about how it seems people are losing interest in older forms of music). Volunteers stood by the exits with baskets into which we placed our donations. The fact is that places as stupendously important as St. Paul’s simply need donations. I gave as much as I could last night, will you consider doing the same and help support St. Paul’s?


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