BACH; AND THE “MATTHEW” PASSION AND THE “JOHN”
More is known of our mighty old Capellmeister Bach than of Shakespeare; less than of Miss Marie Corelli. The main thing is that he lived the greater part of his obscure life in Leipzig, turning out week by week the due amount of church music as an honest Capellmeister should. Other Capellmeisters did likewise; only, while their compositions were counterpoint, Bach’s were masterworks. There lay the sole difference, and the square-toed Leipzig burghers did not perceive it. To them Master Bach was a hot-tempered, fastidious, crotchety person, endured because no equally competent organist would take his place at the price. So he worked without reward, without recognition, until his inspiration exhausted itself; and then he sat, imposing in massive unconscious strength as a spent volcano, awaiting the end. After that was silence: the dust gathered on his music as it lay unheard for a century. Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven hardly suspected their predecessor’s greatness. Then came Mendelssohn (to whom be the honour and the glory), and gave to the world, to the world’s great surprise, the “Matthew” Passion, as one might say, fresh from the composer’s pen. The B minor mass followed, and gradually the whole of the church and instrumental music; and now we are beginning dimly to comprehend Bach’s greatness.
The “John” Passion and the “Matthew” Passion of Bach are as little alike as two works dealing with the same subject, and intended for performance under somewhat similar conditions, could possibly be; and since the “Matthew” version appeals to the modern heart and imagination as an ideal setting of the tale of the death of the Man of Sorrows, one is apt to follow Spitta in his curious mistake of regarding the differences between the two as altogether to the disadvantage of the “John.” Spitta, indeed, goes further than this. So bent is he on proving the superiority of the “Matthew” that what he sees as a masterstroke in that work is in the “John” a gross blunder; and, on the whole, the pages on the “John” Passion are precisely the most fatuous of the many fatuous pages he wrote when he plunged into artistic criticism, leaving his own proper element of technical or historical criticism. This is a pity, for Spitta really had