Music of Heaven: J.S. Bach’s “Erbarme dich, mein Gott”

Rembrandt, ‘The Denial of Saint Peter’, 1660. Oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

This week we’ll explore music inspired by Good Friday and Easter. I zoom in on of the most sublime and powerful corners of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: the alto aria, Erbarme dich, mein Gott (“Have mercy Lord, My God, for the sake of my tears”). In the drama, this aria reflects Peter’s solitary heartache in the garden after he denies knowing Jesus three times. Aching beauty and profound sadness coexist in this aria, along with a mix of other emotions which transcend description and literal meaning. The Polish poet and novelist Adam Zagajewski has called Erbarme Dich “the center and the synthesis of western music.” The violinist Yehudi Menuhin called the aria’s lamenting solo violin obligato “the most beautiful piece of music ever written for the violin.”

Here is “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” from St. Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach sung by the Czech mezzo-soprano, Magdalena Kozená.

And here is the instrumental rendition of aria with Hauser and Lana Trotovsek (soloists) and the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra (Elisabeth Fuchs, conductor).

Leave a Reply