Origins of the Passion
The Passion is one of the genres of church music. It portrays the sufferings of Christ in long narrative works whose texts are drawn from the Gospels. The origins of the Passion lie in the Middle Ages, in the Passion plays performed during the solemn Offices of Holy Week, which had an immense emotional impact. At this time the texts were sung on a reciting tone by the officiating priest and his deacons. Christ was sung by the lowest voice, the narrator or Evangelist by a medium voice, and the female roles and the crowd by the highest voices. The dramatic accents at the most intense moments, like the last words of Christ on the Cross, aroused the fervour of listeners.
Development of the Passion
From the sixteenth century to the late eighteenth, Passions were heard in all the churches of Europe where they expressed the renewal of faith. Orchestra and chorus now accompanied the solo voices and heightened their expressive power. Catholics and Protestants vied with each other to write spiritually edifying works, using learned musical languages that sometimes involve hidden symbols. Like all the music of the period (oratorios, cantatas), Passion settings are founded on polyphony (several intertwining voices) and make use of cantus firmus (an ever-present melody). They can assume exceptional dimensions, requiring dozens of musicians and several hours to perform.
Germany made an outstanding contribution to the genre. Heinrich Schütz wrote three Passions (St Matthew, St John, St Luke); Reinhard Keiser composed a St Mark Passion. Georg Philipp Telemann wrote no fewer than forty-six Passions. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote only two, the celebrated St John Passion (1724) and St Matthew Passion (1727). His son Carl Philipp Emanuel composed around twenty. Italy also produced fine Passions by Antonio Caldara and Alessandro Scarlatti.
The rationalism of the late eighteenth century put an end to the vogue for these works of meditation on the mysteries of faith. Even Mendelssohn, who revived Bach’s work by conducting the St Matthew Passion in 1829, did not manage to restore the genre’s prestige.