A high point of almost every performance of J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is the tragic and time-stopping aria “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben,” BWV 244/49. It appears to make sense in context, but commentators have long wondered how Bach and his librettist could have reused such somber music in the so-called Cöthen Funeral Music, BWV 244a, with a new text that opens “Mit Freuden sei die Welt verlassen”; the invocation of joy apparently represents a strong contradiction in affect with the music, almost uniformly understood to be very slow.
The slow tempo did not originate with Felix Mendelssohn, who included the aria in his second performance of the Passion in 1841. The aria’s character appears to have been established later in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in critical writings that regarded it as transcendent and representative of the Passion’s supposed pure tragedy. The aria arguably came to be seen as the St. Matthew Passion’s transcendent “slow movement,” a much-venerated instrumental type. Its character was codified in influential nineteenth-century editions that assigned slow tempo and metronome markings, and the recorded history of the work documents very slow tempos, only recently moderated. Adaptations of the aria have taken it to be very slow as well, and represent readings of the received performance tradition of the work. The aria’s doctrinal and affectively neutral text and its musical construction suggest the plausibility of a much faster tempo. And this, in turn, could explain why it occurred to Bach and his librettist Picander to reuse it for a text that begins with the concept of joy. The slow tempo of “Aus Liebe” and the problem of its reuse with a very different text turn out to be an inheritance from the nineteenth-century reception of the work.