Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Passion Music

From volume 11 of the work.

Precisely when, in the development of the liturgy, the history of the Passion of Our Lord ceased, during Holy Week, to be merely read and became a solemn recitation, has not yet been ascertained. As early as the eighth century the deacon of the Mass, in alb, solemnly declaimed, in front of the altar, on a fixed tone, the history of the Passion. The words of our Lord were, however, uttered on the gospel tone, that is, with inflections and cadences. The original simplicity of having the whole allotted to one person gave way in the twelfth century to a division into three parts assigned to three different persons, the priest, or celebrant, the deacon, and the sub-deacon. To the priest were assigned the words of our Lord, the deacon assumed the rôle of the Evangelist, or chronista, while the sub-deacon represented the crowd, or turba, and the various other persons mentioned in the narrative. The interrelation of the alternating voices, their relative pitch, and the manner of interpreting the part allotted to each have come down to us and may be heard in Holy Week in almost any city church, the only change since the early times being that all three parts are now generally sung by priests. The juxtaposed melodic phrases extend over an ambitus, or compass of the whole of the fifth and two tones of its plagal, or the sixth mode. The evangelist, or chronista, moves between the tonic and the dominant, while the suprema vox, representing the crowd, etc., moves between the dominant and the upper octave. The tones upon which the words of our Lord are uttered are the lower tetra-chord of the fifth mode with two tones of the sixth. Later the fourth tone of the fifth mode, b, was altered into b flat, to avoid the tritonus between the tonic and the fourth. Throughout the Middle Ages the Passion was the theme most frequently treated in mystery plays and sacred dramas. The indispensable music in these performances was either the plain chant or liturgical melodies or religious folk-songs. It was not until toward the end of the fifteenth century that the whole narrative received harmonic treatment.

Jacobus Hobrecht, or Obrecht (1450-1505), was the first composer, so far as is known, who presented the subject in the form of an extended motet, a departure which laid the foundation for a rich and varied literature of passion music. In Obrecht's composition the three melodic phrases are, in a most ingenious manner, made to serve as canti fermi, and, by skilful combining of the various voices and letting them unite, as a rule, only on the utterances of the turba, variety is maintained. The work must have become known in a comparatively short time, for it soon found imitators, not only among Catholic composers, of almost every country in Europe, but also at the hands of those in Germany, who joined the Reformation. Besides the choral, or motet, form, of which Obrecht's work has remained the type, another species of setting came into vogue in which the three original chanters were retained, and the chorus participation was mainly confined to the utterances of the turba. Both forms were cultivated simultaneously, according to the predilection of the composer, for almost a century and a half. Among the more noted Catholic masters who have left settings of the passion texts must be mentioned Metre Jehan (Jean le Cock, d. before 1543), choir-master at the Court of the Duke of Ferrara, who wrote a work for from two to six voices. Cyprian de Rore (b. 1516), left a setting for two, four, and six voices. Ludovicus Daser (1525-89), Orlandus Lassus's predecessor as choir-master at the ducal Court of Bavaria wrote one for four voices. Lassus himself gave to posterity four different interpretations which are notable for the fact that the master frequently substitutes original melodies for the liturgical ones and sometimes the chorus is employed to give expression to the texts belonging to a single person. The turba is always represented by a five part chorus. Probably the most important musical interpretations of this text are the two by Tomas Luis da Vittoria (1540-1613). Vittoria, retains the plain-chant melodies for single persons and makes them serve, after the manner of Obrecht, as canti fermi in the ensemble. The value of these works is proved by the fact that for more than three hundred years they have formed part of the repertory of the Sistine Chapel choir for Holy Week. Giovanni Matteo Asola (d. 1609), in his three different settings, ignored the traditional custom of employing the chorus for the turba only, but used it indiscriminately. The Spanish master, Francisco Guerrero (1527-99), in two works, is quite free in his treatment and replaces the Roman by Mozarabic plain-chant melodies, while William Byrd's creation for soprano, alto, and tenor, still further departs from the accustomed form, not only by limiting his vocal means to the three high voices, but also by substituting for the liturgical melody recitatives of his own invention, all of which gives the composition a character lyric rather than dramatic. Jacobus Gallus, or Jacob Handl (1550-91), wrote three settings, one for four and five voices, one for six, and the third for eight voices in which, in a general way he follows Obrecht's model.

The passion texts seemed to have particular attraction for many of the composers who cast their lot with the Reformation. For a considerable period they adhered in their manner of treatment to the original Catholic model, inasmuch as they used the Latin text and retained the liturgical melodies. Between 1520 and 1550, the Lutheran Johannes Galliculus (Hähnel) produced at Leipzig a work, resembling Obrecht's in many ways, which constitutes the beginning of a long series of works important not only as music, but more particularly on account of the rôle they played in the development of Protestant worship. While Joachimus von Burgk (1540-1610), whose real name was Möller, was the first to discard the Latin text and compose passion music to the German vernacular, it was Johann Walther (1496-1570), Luther's friend, whose four settings, though retaining most of the Catholic form, voiced more than any other works the new spirit. They retained their hold upon German Protestants for more than a hundred years. Bartholomeus Gesius's (1555-1613) two settings, one for five, the other for six voices, are modelled on Obrecht and Galliculus, but Christoforus Demantius (1567-1643) in a six part composition, in addition to adopting the German vernacular, abandons the liturgical for original melodies and shows those chromatic and dramatic elements which find expression with Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), who, in his epoch-making; "Historia der fröhligen und siepreichen Auferstehung unseres Herrn Jesu Christi" for from two to nine voices, abandons the a cappella style in which all previous passion music had been written and calls into service stringed instruments and a figured bass to be played on the organ. Johann Sebastiani (1622-83) anticipated Schütz by the employment of a single violin as an accompaniment to the chorales sung by the congregation during the performance, a custom be also originated and which became such a great feature in later Protestant works, but it was Schütz who assigned to the instruments an integral part in the harmonic structure.

With Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) whose monumental work "Passion according to St. Matthew" for soli, eight part chorus, a choir of boys, orchestra, and organ is the creation of a great genius imbued with profound faith, the form reaches its highest development. Only one other similar work by a Protestant writer, Karl Heinrich Graun's (1701-59) "Tod Jesu", has enjoyed as great popularity in Protestant Germany. Schütz's passion music as arranged for performance by Karl Riedel, Bach's "Passion according to St. Matthew", and Graun's "Tod Jesu" continue to be to non-Catholic Germany what Händel's "Messiah" still is to the English-speaking world. While the source resorted to by non-Catholic composers for the last mentioned great works seems to have been exhausted, no similar compositions appearing for more than a century, three Catholics have essayed the form: Joseph Haydn and Théodore Dubois have interpreted "The Seven Last Words on the Cross" and Lorenzo Perosi has set to music the "Passion according to St. Mark", but these compositions partake of the form of the oratorio. Settings in which the utterances of the turba, in falso-bordone style, alternate with the liturgical melodics are numerous. Among the more noted are those by Caspar Ett (1788-1847), Ignatius Mitterer, Franz Nekes, Emil Nikel, and others.

SPITTA, Die Passionsmusiken von J. Sebastian Bach und Heinrich Schütz (Hamburg, 1893); AMBROS, Gesch. der Musik, III (Leipzig, 1881); KADE, Die ältere Passionskomposition bis zum Jahre 1631 (Gütersloh, 1893).