Passion (music)

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In churches, from the very earliest times, it was usual for the appropriate parts of the Gospels during Holy week to be sung by three priests – one as the narrator, another chanting the words of Jesus, and the third representing the crowd and other characters.

The Passion of Christ refers to the tribulations of Jesus immediately before and during his crucifixion, as related in the Gospels.

From there, musically, the ritual followed the general course of western church music through chant to polyphony (where the crowd became the chorus) and into the early baroque period when settings were written by all the great composers of the day. Whilst generally retaining an appropriate austerity in the catholic settings, with the inclusion of additional material not allowed; Lutheran settings in northern Europe began admitting the congregation into the ritual with the singing of hymns and the formation of a more dramatic style. This was to culminate in the five passions of J. S. Bach (only two of which survive). Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is considered by many to be the pinnacle of all western music.

Few well-known settings have been written since that time. Joseph Haydn’s "The Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ" (or "The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross") is the best of them.