Join us for Johann Heinrich Rolle’s „St Matthew Passion“

Johann Heinrich Rolle

Johann Heinrich Rolle is a composer who has now accompanied the Kölner Akademie for several years, especially the two surviving ones of his four Passions. The suffering and death of Christ, the depiction of which is found in all four Gospels of the New Testament, was popular material in the 18th century for creating large oratorical and dramatic works. A high point can be seen in Bach’s Passions.

Johann Heinrich Rolle was born on 23 December 1716 in Quedlinburg into a family of musicians. His grandfather was already a town piper in Halle, his father a town cantor in Quedlinburg. In 1721 the family moved to Magdeburg, where the father was appointed cantor and music director. Rolle‘s father took over his first musical training himself. This was crowned with success early on, and so Johann Heinrich had already made a name for himself as a composer and organist in Magdeburg at the age of 18. Nevertheless, a few years later he moved to Leipzig to study law and then went to Berlin to work as a legal advisor for a short time. However, music soon became more important again: in 1741 he joined Frederick II’s Berlin court orchestra as a violinist and violist, where he met, for example, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the Benda brothers and Carl Heinrich Graun, who had a significant influence on him. But only a few years later he was drawn back to Magdeburg, where he first worked again as an organist and then took over his father’s post after his death. He was to hold the post of music director in Magdeburg until his death in 1785.

Rolle composed his St Matthew Passion for the Passion season in 1748, and the first performance took place on 5 April 1748. Unlike in Leipzig, Dresden or Hamburg, where new works were required annually for the Passion season, it was customary in Magdeburg for a work to be commissioned and remain unchanged for four years, i.e. to be repeated three times.

The text is based on the Gospel of Matthew in Martin Luther’s translation from chapter 26, verse 30 (to the end of chapter 27). In Rolle’s dramaturgical concept, the work can be divided into six sections. Each section contains narrative recitative parts, ariosi, turba choruses, possibly structuring internal chorales and a central aria. At the end of each section is a chorale. The accompanying orchestra is scored with strings, two oboes and two horns for the introductory and final choruses; in addition, two flutes, two oboes d’amore and two bassoons are prescribed in individual arias.

Role’s interpretation of the text of St Matthew forms a weighty building block for a still outstanding overall description of central and northern German Passion compositions of the 18th century. For his own compositions, it represents a significant step towards his later musical dramas because of its consistent section-by-section composition.

In 2015, the Kölner Akademie recorded Rolle’s “St. Matthew Passion” in collaboration with Deutschlandfunk. At the time, the press praised the “expressive” realisation of the text and described both the vocal and instrumental music-making as “beautiful in sound, rich in colour”. In the coming days, one can convince oneself of the excellent realisation of Rolle’s work by the Kölner Akademie at concerts in The Hague (6 April), Amsterdam (7 April) and Utrecht (8 April).