The practice of setting to mus. the Passion of Christ, for perf. during Holy Week, has 2 connected origins—the old mysteries (see Miracle Plays) and (a more direct and obvious source) a very ancient Holy Week practice of reading or reciting in church, in a more or less dramatic fashion, the story of the Passion of Christ. It is known to have existed in the 4th cent.; by the 8th its character was determined as follows: a priest recited, in Lat., the story of the Passion from one of the Gospels, in a speaking voice except for the words of Christ, which he gave out to a traditional plainsong. By the 12th cent. 3 of the clergy took part, a ten. as Narrator, a bass as Christ, and an alto as the Crowd (Turba). By the 15th cent. Passions of more musically elaborate character became common. The Reformation brought a further development. The Ger. (Lutheran) reformers, acting on their principle that the people should be able to follow the words of the service, adapted it to the Ger. language.
In the 16th cent., unacc. polyphonic settings of the complete Lat. text of the Passion were based on a plainchant cantus firmus. Among many such settings were those of Obrecht, Daser, Ruffo, Lassus, Victoria, and Byrd. One of the earliest settings by an Eng. composer was that by Richard Davy.
Outstanding examples of the Ger. type of Passion are the settings of Schütz (1585–1672). He adopted a type of recit. derived from the new It. style but which also had considerable affinity with the old plainsong. The 4‐part chs. are acc. by str. The various characters are allotted to different vocal soloists and the works can be designated as ‘oratorio Passions’. In the 17th cent. the ‘Passion oratorio’ developed, in which the biblical text was replaced by a metrical paraphrase, as in Keiser's Der blutige und sterbende Jesus (1704). But Bach, in his great St John and St Matthew Passions, combined both types of setting, making use of biblical text, paraphrases, chorales, arias, and imparting to the mus. a startlingly dramatic quality. In the 19th cent. oratorios on biblical subjects replaced the strict Passion settings, but Penderecki in the 20th cent. had remarkable success with his St Luke Passion (1963–6), leading to Passions by Pärt and others.