A setting of one of the four Gospel accounts of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. The genre sprang from a traditional practice of reading or chanting the passion accounts during Holy Week—St. Matthew on Palm Sunday, St. Luke on Wednesday, St. Mark on Thursday, St. John on Friday—and it retained its liturgical function until the late 18th century.
   A distinct, even dramatic mode of chanting these particular Gospel excerpts may be discerned in ninth-century manuscripts written in litterae significativae, indicating differentiations of pitch, dynamics, and tempo. Recitation tones distinct from the normal psalm tones are known by the 12th century, the particular pitches varying by locality. The Dominican Gros livre (1254) is the earliest evidence of the various parts of narrator, Christ, turba (crowd), and other speaking roles divided among diverse singers. By the 15th century, the use of three singers became customary, although an entire schola might take on the turba role.
   All of these performance modes were monophonic, preserving some quality of chanting the Scripture. Composers in the 15th century began to set some of the text polyphonically. If the narration is chanted, with polyphony being reserved for the turba, and one or more of the solo roles, including Christ, it is classified by scholars as a "responsorial passion" (also "choral passion," "dramatic passion"). If the entire text is polyphonic, it is a "through-composed" or "motet passion." The text could be truncated, or enlarged by combining texts from all four Gospels into a summa passionis. Frequently an introductory exordium and a final conclusio were added, both set to polyphony. Liturgical preferences in all these matters varied by region.
   Despite Martin Luther’s reservations about performing the passion texts and compiled summae, the monophonic and polyphonic passion were widely practiced in Protestant Germany. Two Germanlanguage responsorial passions, St. Matthew and St. John, attributed to Johann Walther, Luther’s most important musical collaborator, exercised great influence on the Lutheran passion until well into the 18th century.
   The north German Hanseatic cities contributed the next innovation by modeling the passions after Italian operatic practices: Thomas Selle’s (1599–1663) St. Matthew Passion of 1641 provides a continuo throughout the score as well as melodic instruments to accompany Christ and the narrator. Heinrich Schü tz invented his own recitation tones having the character of recitative for his three passions, and others added instrumental sinfonias. The "oratorio passion" also added non-Biblical texts drawn from hymns, spiritual verse, and other sources that subdivided the Gospel into episodes. After the publication of Erdmann Neumeister’s operatic cantata texts after 1700, the recitation tones could be abandoned in favor of free recitative, with arias for the poetic texts. Reinhard Keiser’s (1674–1739) St. Mark Passion (c. 1710), performed by Johann Sebastian Bach at Weimar, is such an oratorio passion, and could have provided the model for Bach’s own St. John and St. Matthew Passion( s), which are the culmination of the genre and own permanent places in the choral concert repertory.
   The early 18th century saw the conversion of the liturgical passion into secular form completed. In Protestant Germany, poets wrote passion texts that could replace the Biblical accounts: C. F. Hunold’s {}Der blutige und sterbende Jesus ("Jesus, bloody and dying"), set by Keiser in 1704, omitted the narration altogether and B. H. Brockes’s {}Der für die Sünden der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus ("Jesus, martyred and dying for the sins of the world") use expressive paraphrase and became very popular, set by Keiser (1712), Georg Phillipe Telemann (1716), Georg Frideric Handel (1717), and Johann Mattheson (1718), among others. In Catholic Vienna, the sepolcro (passion stories) followed the opera completely, even to the point of staging a scene at Christ’s tomb. Performances of the sepolcro took place only on Holy Thursday or Good Friday, thus retaining a link with the liturgical tradition.
   In the latter half of the 18th century, however, the interest of the best composers in liturgical music declined, and so did the tradition itself. With few exceptions, vocal works composed around the passion story—e.g., Ludwig van Beethoven’s Christus am Ölberg (1803), Krzysztof Penderecki’s Passio et mors Domini nostri Jesu {}Christi secundum Lucam (1965)—are concert oratorios and cantatas.

Historical dictionary of sacred music. . 2006.


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