St Matthew Passion

Rehearsing for the St Matthew Passion

First year Choral Scholar Amatey Doku interviews soloist Madeleine Shaw, chorister Harry Shapiro and Senior Organ Scholar Ben Morris about Jesus College Choir’s performances of the St Matthew Passion with Britten Sinfonia.

Madeleine Shaw, Mezzo-soprano

Soloist Madeleine Shaw

Amatey: You have performed Bach’s St Matthew Passion with Jesus College Choir once before. What was the memory of that experience?

Madeleine: My most vivid memory is of the choir. Their commitment to every aspect of performing the work was so moving. It was the first time I had sung the St Matthew Passion and I was blown away to be part of the ensemble of musicians Mark had drawn together. Also the intimacy of the College Chapel lent itself so beautifully to the musical forces telling the text.

Amatey: You have known the conductor Mark Williams for some time. When have you worked with him before?

Madeleine: We have been friends for many years and he played at my wedding 5 years ago. I’ve sung at so many other weddings of mutual friends with Mark at the console and have many wonderful memories of him improvising on very eclectic combinations of melodies in a bid to entertain the congregations whilst waiting for the bride.

Amatey: As well as singing in Jesus College Chapel there will be a performance at Bury St Edmunds. Do you have personal connections with Bury St Edmunds?

Madeleine: My father was a Canon in the Cathedral for 15 years.  I grew up in the Close, was exposed to all the music making, made life-long singing friends and the rest is history. 

Harry Shapiro, Head Chorister

Head Chorister Harry Shapiro with his fellow choristers

Amatey: When did you last perform the St Matthew Passion?

Harry: About 4 years ago we sang the St Matthew Passion at King’s College with King’s College Choir. At the time I was quite a young chorister so I wasn’t too sure about all the notes but now that we’re doing it again it’s easier because of that experience.

Amatey: The mixed choirs also sang with Britten Sinfonia recently. What were your memories of that performance?

Harry: We performed Handel’s Messiah with them just before Christmas and it was a really good performance. It is an excellent orchestra and there was something exciting about us all singing and performing together.

Amatey: What is the most challenging thing about singing a piece like the St Matthew Passion?

Harry: Throughout the piece you always have to be alert and ready to come in at the right moments.  The notes and the rhythms are not always that difficult but singing in German can be a challenge, especially when you have to use sounds which you wouldn’t normally make in English!

Amatey: Will you enjoy the performance?

Harry: Yes, I will enjoy the performance. I really like performing and I like the piece, especially the last chorus.


Ben Morris, Senior Organ Scholar

Senior Organ Scholar Ben Morris

Amatey: The St Matthew Passion is regarded as one of Bach’s greatest works, if not one of the greatest pieces ever written. Why do you think that is the case? 

Ben: The St Matthew Passion has such a range of emotional intensity. It is obviously a very long work based on a familiar story but it manages to sustain the emotion throughout so it draws you into the piece either as a performer, listener or spectator; it gives you a real involvement in the emotional drama of the piece.

Amatey: Which moment for you in the piece encapsulates his genius as a composer?

I don’t think I can choose just one so I hope you’ll let me choose one from each part. In the first part, near the end, when Jesus has just been arrested there is a very still and calm duet between the soprano and alto punctuated by the chorus calling for Jesus not to be bound. This then leads suddenly into the “Thunder and Lightning” moment which is an extraordinary moment of extreme intensity and tension which seems to come out of nowhere. In the second part, just after Jesus has died, bearing in mind that there would be many ways to set that part of the story, Bach chooses to use the “Passion Chorale” melody which has recurred throughout the piece, but it doesn’t seem repetitive because of the way Bach reworks it each time.  That moment is reworked to bring out the complete anguish of the situation. The way Bach is able to manipulate the one tune throughout the whole piece and bring it to a climax at that one moment is very moving and effective.

Amatey: You played with Britten Sinfonia for Jesus College Choir’s performance of Handel’s Messiah last year. What is it like playing with Britten Sinfonia?

Ben: For someone of my age and experience, it is both very daunting and very exciting; daunting, because they are such a high quality group and work very well within themselves. So to have to come in quite at the last and fit in with that seems quite scary. At the same time the musicality and ability of all those players affects you and draws you in which is also very exciting to be a part of.

Amatey: What should the audience expect from the performance?

Ben: I don’t think the St Matthew Passion is a piece you look forward to in the same way you look forward to other pieces. Obviously it is full of extraordinarily beautiful and moving music but at the same time its can be a difficult experience because of the emotional intensity and the sheer length. What you get from it is to be touched by the whole experience and brought into it as well as being able to experience the amazing music.

Rehearsing with the Britten Sinfonia


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