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A Very Quick Guide to...Passion Music

Image of a performance of one of Bach's Passions
Image of a performance of one of Bach's Passions

What’s it all about?

Holy Week is a significant period in the Christian liturgical calendar, leading up to Easter. For Christians round the world this is traditionally a time of contemplation, marking the events which collectively are known as the Passion of Christ. These begin with Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and culminate in his crucifixion on good Friday and resurrection on Easter Day. Passion music, traditionally performed on Good Friday, is a dramatic re-enactment of these events.

Pretty somber stuff then?

Yes, it certainly is. And it is no coincidence that such a serious topic inspired some of the greatest piece in the history of music...

Such as?

The most famous retellings of the Passion are those by J.S. Bach. He is reputed to have written four, each based upon a book of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), but the two that survive are the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion.

So what’s the difference?

Both works are undisputed masterpieces. The John Passion is shorter and more densely dramatic; the St. Matthew, generally considered the greater of the two pieces, places more emphasis on the contemplative side. We recommend the St. John for those starting out.

So did Bach invent the form?

No. From medieval times composers have written passion music, or at least music that includes the story of the Passion. Predating Bach, for example, is the St. John Passion by Heinrich Schütz. Other composers have written music that includes elements of the Passion story. These include Stabat Maters by Pergolesi and Vivaldi. This type of piece portrays the sorrowful contemplation of the Virgin Mary of her son on the cross. Then there is Handel’s Messiah.

I know that one! Hal-le-lu-jah!

Hard to escape it... Messiah is not specifically a Passion piece, since it deals also with the birth of Christ. But the second section, which culminates in the famous ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, concerns the events of Christ’s Passion.

This music all seems kind of old. Did composers loose their ‘passion’ for it?

I see what you did there. No, not at all. Composers have continued to write passion music to this day. Here are three examples by living composers:

For contemplation you can’t beat the slow unfolding of the story of Christ’s last days in Arvo Pärt’s ’St. John Passion.’

If you want a dramatic retelling, full of modernist thunder try the ‘Passion According to St. Luke’ by Krzysztof Penderecki. Be prepared for a lot of lovely crunchy dissonance!

And if you want the Passion of Christ as an insanely catchy rock opera, look no further than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’

That’s a lot to digest!

It's an Easter feast!

Official line:

Some of the greatest music ever written.

Out of line:

When it comes to this kind of thing, my tastes are quite passion-ate

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