Of Motets and Minuets: A Look at Renaissance and Baroque Music

During the Renaissance period in Europe, a new way of thinking emphasized art and literature. Music was celebrated, and it continued to thrive entering the following period of music: Baroque. In this column, aided by ten years of musical experience and passion, I examine the musical gems of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Read on, and, I assure you, what’s below will bring music to your ears!

Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” shines among the greatest masterworks of the Baroque period. Abundant in musical genius, the work itself could feed the mind for years on end. In religious summary, the Passion shares the story of the last days of Jesus, during which he is betrayed, tried, and crucified. The different vocal parts and choirs represent different groups of people—soldiers, priests, and pupils—all of whom share their opinion on the matter at hand. From these vocal parts come the arias and chorales that constitute the score’s passion. 

I am eager to dedicate this installation of the column to enjoying one specific aria from the Passion: “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben,” or simply, “Aus Liebe.” Although this aria serves a greater purpose within the larger context of the work, we will focus on the music phenomena that support the aria in communicating its message. The lyrics and translation of the aria read as follows:


Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben,

von einer Sünde weiss er nichts,

dass das ewige Verderben

und die Strafe des Gerichts

nicht auf meiner Seele bliebe 


Out of love my savior is willing to die,

– Of any sin he knows nothing –

So that eternal ruin

And the punishment of judgment

May not remain upon my soul.


Analyzing the lyrics, ‘Aus Liebe’ reflects upon the idea of Jesus dying for the peoples’ sins. Instead of directly interrogating religious significance, however, we can admire the ways in which Bach communicates this sacred idea to music and adds emotional dimension. 

Upon first listening to St. Matthew Passion, this aria stood out to me mainly because of the seemingly simple orchestration, yet complex and hauntingly beautiful interplay between the parts. For me, the orchestration—baroque oboes (akin to modern-day English horns) supporting a duet between a baroque flute and the soprano voice—communicates a certain purity. In this sense, an ideal environment is created in which to engage with the sacred. Yet, I see the winding journey of the duet representing the trials and tribulations that come with losing a loved, admired one. 

Looking deeper, the internal rhythm of the aria and the corresponding musical phenomena further its emotional impact. While the aria follows a steady three-beat rhythm, commonly featured in waltzes, it is no dance. Instead, it is slow-paced and riddled with fermatas, or interruptions in measured time, that help the aria create an unsteady and other-worldly musical environment. Listening to the aria, I feel as if metered-time is suspended and that I am in a vacuum, weightless and rebounding off of sound waves. In other ways, too, the unsteady rhythm confers to the idea of breath. Anecdotally, the winding rhythmic journey of the aria is akin to uneven inhales and exhales—some stressing, some relieving—that coalesce in heavy emotional weight. All these emotional effects of the aria are universal, and instead of solely exemplifying the struggle surrounding Jesus’s death, they perfectly present Bach’s musical genius and the ways in which music can empower our emotion, especially when it comes to the beliefs most dear to us. 

Speaking of the sounds of the duet, a lot of times the flute and the voice sustain a dissonant, tension-filled chord during a fermata, after which they finally resolve into moving passages that wander once again back to dissonance. Working in tandem, therefore, the rhythm and sound facilitate an emotional tide that induces an intense heart-throb effect. At one point, your back is rigid and you are holding your breath as you hear conflicting tones reverberate, and during the next, you are consoled by pleasing harmonies and you sink back into your chair. 

Desolate yet lovely, harsh yet welcoming, cold yet warm, indisputably stunning, I highly recommend that you give ‘Aus Liebe’ a listen!