Musical Meditation for the Third Sunday of Lent

As I reflected on Andrei Tarkovsky’s “The Sacrifice” last week, I was reminded of the wonderfully Lenten aria that serves as its musical backbone: Erbarme Dich, mein Gott from J.S. Bach’s Matthäus-Passion.

My recommendation? Don’t watch. Just listen.

Erbarme dich, mein Gott,
Um meiner Zähren Willen !
Shaue hier, Herz und Auge
Weint vor dir bitterlich.
Erbarme dich, mein Gott !

Translation:
Have mercy, Lord,
for my tears’ sake!
Look at me,
my heart and eyes
weep to Thee bitterly.
Have mercy, Lord!

This particular aria is performed immediately after the account of Peter’s betrayal: “And Peter remembered the word of Jesus which he had said: Before the cock crow, thou wilt deny me thrice. And going forth, he wept bitterly.” Yet it is sung (somewhat surprisingly) by an alto. In his article “J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion as a Lenten Meditation,” Professor Don O. Franklin speculates that Bach’s unusual choice — alto rather than the tenor voice “traditionally associated with Peter” — “extends the guilt to another voice and, in the process, to the entire range of humankind.”

(A similar musical moment from Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev’s setting of Matthew’s Passion can be found here, performed by Alexei Tikhomirov — a bass.)

Carl Bloch 001.jpgAttribution(s):Peter’s Denial” by Carl Heinrich Bloch; licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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