Weren’t you with him? (Holy Week, Thursday)

Posted on: 8 April 2020, by :

For Thursday of Holy Week. This is the fifth post in a series for Holy Week and Easter Day, 2020.

Peter’s three-times denial of knowing Jesus, in the hours after Jesus had been arrested and was being interrogated, is one of the most affecting and deeply personal parts of the Passion story, confronting us individually. What would I say when in fear for my own life? Here the scene is presented in the music and text of J. S. Bach’s Passion according to Saint Matthew (Leipzig, c1727), in a famous staging from 1993 directed by the renowned theatre and opera director, Jonathan Miller, who died aged 85 late last year.

Works like this for the Lutheran church, originally given in unstaged performance on Good Friday before a large congregation, combine several functions in each scene, and here we see them in turn.

(1) The drama itself. The Gospel narrative is recited whole, but in portions: in this case Matthew 26:69-75. A narrator sings all the passages except reported speech like Peter’s own words and dialogue between characters, which are taken by other singers.

(2) A non-Biblical poetic text, set to lyrical music, that explores the significance of the scene that the congregation has just witnessed. Typically, it concerns personal devotion and emphasizes the viewpoint of the individual: it is not about us collectively. In this case (from 1:18:18 in the video) it is Erbarme dich, mein Gott, today one of Bach’s most-loved arias. It speaks of ‘my’ tears, not Peter’s:

Have mercy, my God,
for the sake of my tears!
See here, before you
heart and eyes weep bitterly.
Have mercy, my God.

The Miller production, with musical direction by Paul Goodwin, was staged several times in 1993 — this particular performance was filmed for BBC Television in St George’s Theatre, London — and was revived occasionally in later years. The Evangelist (narrator) part is sung by Rufus Müller, and the countertenor soloist is Jonathan Peter Kenny.

(3) The implications of the scene are then applied more broadly for the whole congregation. Such texts are sung chorally in the manner of a hymn (here from 1:24:24), where the singers change their demeanour, stop being characters or bystanders in the drama and instead represent us or join with us. The use of familiar Lutheran hymn-tunes makes that connection: the original audience would have known the tunes even though the lyrics were specially written for the work when it was new. The words in this case (by the librettist Picander, like the aria text) still point to the beliefs and actions of the individual, but now contextualize them in a shared reconciliation:

Though I have just strayed from you, I have again returned;
for your Son has reconciled us through his anguish and mortal agony.
I do not deny my guilt, but your gracious mercy
is much greater than the sin I find forever present in me.