Heinrich Schi?? tz (1585 – 1672) wrote three responsorial passions late in his career. His style is much more progressive than that of his peers in many ways; although he is writing in responsorial style, his crowd scenes are motet like. The madrigalian introduction and the conclusion use non-biblical libretti, opening the possibility for later composers, i. e. Bach using Brockes’ libretto for his passions. Schi?? tz uses subtle characterisation in his use of intervals; all the supposedly evil characters have uncomfortable jumps, i. e.
Judas’ vocal line is full of fourths, and in the hanging scene, augmented fifths, an interval never used in music of that time, are used at the moment he hangs himself. The composer uses diminished fifths in the same fashion for the words ‘spilt blood’ during the crucifixion scene. The scene at the last supper when all the disciples ask if it is them who will betray Christ contains good examples of use of rhythm and rhetoric for emphasis; it is a simple version of the rhythm and rhetoric that J. S Bach will use decades later. Schi??
tz also wrote a passion on the seven last words of Christ on the cross and is remarkable because it marks the beginning of instrumentation in passions. It has a non-biblical text for the opening and explores a mirrored structure that other composers will later adopt. Thomas Selle (1599-1663) wrote a St John passion in basic responsorial style, although its performance is flexible, with optional instruments and the possibility of singing a cappella if required. The libretto is all biblical, but some sections are taken from the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament; Selle uses the text ‘Lamb of God’ as the cantus firmus of the opening.
The idea of words saying one thing while the music says another, something used extensively by Bach in his passions, is explored by using a dance form and cross rhythms for the music under the words ‘crucified on the cross’, an obvious juxtaposition of joyous music and deadly serious words. Johann Sebastiani (1622-83) wrote a Matthew Passion around 1663, which was quite conservative, but introduced the string halo to represent Christ, and he drops the violins for the words ‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me? ‘, a feature emulated by Bach in his Matthew Passion.
Sebastiani introduced chorales as a commentary tool; he has seventeen different settings of the same chorale melody throughout his passion. Christ’s vocal line is slightly different from other composers; quite often it is the bass line or doubles the bass line. This is typical of 17th Century thinking that the bass line is the firm foundation of music, and possibly a metaphor for Christ being the firm foundation on which we should build our faith. Johann Theile (1646-1724) was a well-known musical theorist, a pupil of Schi??
tz and friend of Buxtehude. He wrote a Matthew Passion which like Sebastiani’s passion, finds Christ at the bottom of the texture as the cornerstone, and again accompanied by violins. The juxtaposition of the high and low here may signify that Christ is at all ends of the spectrum; the high and low, the Alpha and Omega. Only Christ has instrumental accompaniment, all other singers have continuo alone; the texture is relentless, but becomes placid when Christ sings, a feature unique to Theile as a composer. J. S.
Bach (1685-1750) wrote several passions but only his St John and St Matthew passions survive today. They are both in oratorio style and are the climax of all the developments in passions over the century preceding the composition of Bach’s own. The John passion text is that of the Gospel story of John Chapters 18 and 19, with the earthquake scene added from the Gospel of Matthew and lines from the Passion poem by Brockes were used for lyrical parts such as arie. He uses fourteen chorales in the same manner as Sebastiani did, but in a much more interesting way.
The use of suspensions, i. e. in the opening chorus, creates a feeling of unease at the events to come. The violin parts have semiquaver turn like figures which portray relentlessness, similar to the idea of John’s gospel that the passion story was preordained before the beginning of time, and it is fate, destiny and is driving Christ towards his fate. There is always a firm belief in the fact that Christ is Lord, shown by the frequent use of the phrase ‘I am’. The aria ‘Es ist vollbracht’ (it is finished/accomplished) encapsulates this idea.
The structure is also much more complicated and unconventional for the time; the overview of the John passion reveals concentrations of the arie at the beginning and end of the work, but the middle contains more emphasis on chorus work in the trial scene. The first and second parts are also quite unbalanced, as the trial scene is long and Bach wanted to keep it intact. The final passion Bach wrote was his St Matthew passion, arguably the pinnacle of all the developments discussed in this essay.
The opening of the passion uses text from Isaiah; ‘Lamb of God’, like Selle did. The key structure creates an unsettled feeling; it begins in uncomfortable e minor and the last movement ends in the depressing key of c minor. There is a string halo that surrounds Christ, which disappears when he is dying, as in Sebastiani’s passion. The text is not all biblical; some is from the famous libretto by Brockes and other text for the arie for example is taken from a set of published sermons that Bach particularly admired.
When one looks at where the passion began in the first half of the 16th Century with Walter and where it was in the 1720’s-40’s in Bach’s compositions it has to be said that the changes were definitely improvements. It took two hundred years to accomplish the change from plainsong to the oratorio passion, but each composer who contributed did something important to further the development. The addition of choral participation as the crowd and introduction of the orchestra made the performance more interesting to all, and opened up so many more compositional possibilities.
The interpolation of non-biblical text such as the libretto by Brockes was important in carrying the message of the Christian faith. The use of word painting and musical expression is by far the most important change; the understanding and personal reaction of the public is so much more tangible when the words are understood and explained by interpolated text from other sources. The idea of music being a gift from God is, I think, a most important one here because these composers used music to express the sheer magnitude of the passion play in a way which made it more accessible and more pleasurable for the public to listen to.
There are others who would argue that the developments were not a good thing; it is possible to argue that the elaborate style distracts from the words and the sobriety of the passion story. Puritans would argue that if one enjoys listening to the passion it is lascivious and one should be feeling guilty for being a member of the human race that murdered Christ. This is rooted in the theology of the Roman Church, which used religion and guilt as a means of controlling the peasants in the middle ages.
In conclusion, I believe that the developments I have described in this essay were improvements; one is so much more inspired listening to a Bach passion than the Walter passion for example. The Bach passions present the story in a much more accessible way than Bach’s predecessors did, therefore promoting the word of God in a more positive way than before. I think this is why Bach’s passions have outlasted in popularity over the composers immediately predating him and the inspirational quality accounts for the appeal of the Bach passions to non-church audiences.