Form, musical meaning and content in the aria “Erbarme dich” from the St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244, of J. S. Bach
Thrasybulos Georgiades in his classic book Music and Language: The Rise of Western Music as Exemplified in Settings of the Mass, commenting on the setting of “Et incarnatus est” from the B minor Mass, argues that Bach “no longer employs language as a resonant-receptible form of meaning; he regards it not as an autonomous conceptual structure, as linguistic form, but rather as a sign for relationships of meaning which are not of a specifically linguistic nature, as a mere reference to that which is meant. This permits him to realize his conception as purely musical meaning. […] And thus it is that Bach’s music is intrinsically instrumental. The essentially new aspect of the B minor Mass compared with the music of Schütz, and that of earlier settings, is the instrumentalization of the music”.
The Aria “Erbarme dich” from the St. Matthew Passion is a particular case, where the “musical meaning” is not resulting from the “instrumentalization” of the melody of the aria (alto) but from the melody of the solo violin. As we shall try to show in this paper, the pre-eminent conveyor of the musical meaning is not the melodic line of the voice as it unfolds in time, but rather the “thematic structure” of the melody of the violin. The latter is not complementary to the tune of the alto, as with other arias of the Passions, but, on the contrary, is that which guides the musical meaning while the melodic line of the alto – in certain phases of its development – completes the melody of the solo violin.