In Christian music, a passion refers to the musical setting recounting the sufferings endured by Jesus Christ as recorded in the Bible. Traditionally, passions were mostly performed in Holy Week — also known as Passion Week — being the week leading up to Easter, or Resurrection Sunday, and are part of the liturgy. Renowned passions include Johann Sebastian Bach’s highly acclaimed work the St. Matthew Passion.
The origins of the passion can be traced all the way back to the fourth century, at a time when the Church would, as part of the liturgy during Holy Week, recite the passages of Christ’s sufferings as described in the four gospels of the New Testament. During the Middle Ages, the priest started to apply different intonations when reciting the biblical account, gradually building up into a form of interpretive chant. At that time, a range of 11 notes were divided into three parts: the lowest four notes were reserved for the words of Jesus Christ in the gospels, the middle notes were given to the Evangelists intoning the story, and the highest four notes represented the crowd, known as the turba. During the 13th to 15th centuries, the story of the passion went from being recited by a single priest to the addition of three to four other voices, all of whom would take on different roles, until it gradually morphed into an early theatrical performance. At this point, a hymn would sometimes be inserted between chants, performed by the church choir, in the polyphonic musical style that was popular at the time, to give us the earliest form of the passion.
When Martin Luther initiated the Reformation, he also promoted the theological doctrine of sola scriptura, which emphasized the importance of each individual reading the scriptures, and not relying solely on the interpretation of priests. For this purpose, he translated the entire New Testament from the original Greek into vernacular German, thereby circumventing the Latin version used by the Roman Catholic Church.
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Following the Reformation, the passion performed during Holy Week developed along two lines. Composers belonging to the Roman Catholic Church, such as Italy’s Alessandro Scarlatti and France’s Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Francois Couperin, based their compositons on the Latin text of the Book of Lamentations from the Old Testament of the Bible and wrote Responsories for Holy Week and Lecons de tenebres (lessons of darkness) that would have accompanied the tenebrae services in the three days preceding Easter. German composers following Protestantism, on the other hand, used Luther’s German translation of the Bible, combining this with the expansive oratorio style, to create passions on a much larger scale.
(Translated by Paul Cooper)
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