Today at the Proms - Day 42


Continuing our daily coverage of what's on at The Proms 2021, Susan Omand takes a quick look at today's Proms...

So, it's Day 42 of this year's Proms season but is it really the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything? Well, in some ways it probably is as we get the full two and a bit hours of Bach's stunning oratorio, St Matthew Passion. If you've been paying attention to my ramblings over the years, you'll remember that an oratorio is structured like a religious opera, with story (recitatives) and clickbait headlines (arias) but without the staging, costumes and acting. Tonight, they are promising us a full orchestra, alongside TWO full choirs and "a glittering line-up of soloists" all of whom will be singing in German.

That kind of begs the question, do we really need to be able to understand everything that is being said/sung in music?  For me, no. I know the general gist of a Passion play - it's the portion of the New Testament (here, as it is told in the Gospel of Matthew in the Luther Bible) that deals with the final days of Jesus Christ on Earth, his betrayal, trial and death - so the emotion of the music and orchestration will be dictated by that, and I find the voices are more like another instrument in that complexity - the actual words are incidental.

This opinion, however, may be bordering on heresy but Bach also put a little bit of devilry into his Passion. Listen here to the recitatif (story bit) from when, as was customary at the Feast of Passover, the crowds got to choose whether to free Jesus or one of his co-condemned, a thief called Barrabas. That shocking chord you'll hear at 1:51 in, where they shout the name of the man they chose to save, Barrabas [spoilers! - Ed], is a specific music device called "the Devil in music" and it scares the heck out of me every time I hear it.



Here's the full programme for today's Proms which you can listen to live on Radio 3 or on the iPlayer

Johann Sebastian Bach
St Matthew Passion (157 mins) (sung in German)

Image adapted from NORTH-FACING ENTRANCE OF THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL AT DUSK © David Iliff