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The Holy Week tradition of reading a Gospel narrative of the trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus, called a “passion,” dates back at least to the fourth century. During the Middle Ages, the passion was chanted, rather than just spoken, and specific voices began to assume the roles of Jesus (bass), the Evangelist (tenor) and the crowd (altos and sopranos). Eventually, polyphonic settings were composed for various passages,  and by the time of the Reformation, through-composed passions were entirely polyphonic.

Martin Luther disapproved of many of these practices, and in his 1520 pamphlet Eyn Sermon von der Betrachtung des heiligenn leydens Christi, he declared, “The Passion of Christ should not be acted out in words and pretense, but in real life.” Despite his admonition, sung passion performances were widespread among the newly established Lutheran churches, and Luther’s collaborator, Johann Walter, wrote the simple responsorial passion used in Leipzig’s churches until Georg Philipp Telemann broke with tradition in 1717 at the Good Friday morning service at the New Church. Telemann’s passion oratorio, with its arias, recitatives and instrumental accompaniments, was an immediate success and paved the way for Bach’s predecessor, Johann Kuhnau, to gain permission to perform his own two-part concerted passion, before and after the sermon, at the Good Friday Vespers at St. Thomas Church in 1721.

Thus the stage was set for Bach’s introduction of his St. John Passion (BWV 245) at Good Friday Vespers at Leipzig’s St. Nicholas Church in 1724 and his St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) at St. Thomas Church on Good Friday in 1727.