Fashions change, but in classical music one thing has stayed the same for a thousand years. The church calendar, now as ever before, plays a huge role in determining what music is performed when. We might live in an increasingly secular age, but March would not be March without a sea of passions flooding churches and concert halls around the world. And as for Christmas...

Although the particular passions and oratorios famous today have only been around a few hundred years, these two annual celebrations – and Easter especially – have been notable occasions musically for much longer. The model for passions made famous by Bach, in which individuals tell the story along with a chorus representing the crowd, dates back to the 15th century. And there was a dramatic element in the presentation of plainchant passions from as early as the 13th century, when the text would be split into different parts, one representing the Evangelist, another representing Christ. This wasn’t the norm for delivery of plainchant at the time – it’s a mode of presentation specifically designed to highlight the nature of the story, and to render the suffering of Christ more vivid.

Surviving passions from earlier centuries include a St John Passion by Cipriano de Rore (1557), passions on all four canonical gospels by Orlando di Lasso (1575–82), and many others by figures lesser known today. As with liturgical practices generally, habits varied significantly across Europe. Notably, the English Reformation, which saw the English church split with Rome, meant that the extensive outputs of composers such as William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons were largely devoid of passion music – it seems not to have found resonance with English reformists from this period. On the other hand, Martin Luther’s reforms in continental Europe eventually found room for a dramatic musical rendition of the passion, even if the musical form promoted at this time – the early 16th century – was rather more austere than the florid masterpieces of Bach which the Lutheran tradition would later spawn. Heinrich Schütz’s (1585–1672) three passions written towards the end of his life epitomise this highly serious style: they are unaccompanied choral compositions, recalling earlier musical practice through their strict use of traditional melodic modes.

Though Bach was also a traditionalist in most ways, his two passions are – comparatively speaking at least – very opulent compositions, filled with remarkable dramatic effects and using very sizeable forces; they are perhaps even a touch Catholic in the extremes of form and emotion to which they go in order to convey the suffering of Christ. Not that the music is reliant on its scale for its effect: Bach expert John Butt has described the St Matthew Passion as “perhaps the most challenging and ambitious artwork on a Christian subject”, and it’s certainly hard to think of works with an equivalent depth of engagement with this story. The St John Passion may be the smaller work, but it is perhaps even more intense, featuring wilder musical strokes and an amazing sense of momentum. You can read some more about both here.

Bach’s passions vanished from the repertory after his death in 1750, although this fact alone does not indicate that the works were poorly received or valued. At this point in time, performances were expected to be of newly composed music – there was no repertory as we think of it today – and hence the music performed was expected to change rapidly over time, there being little space for the works, however great, of past generations. (Handel’s Messiah, a repertory stalwart since 1742, is very much a freak exception.) It is, all in all, significantly more remarkable that Bach’s religious works were revived as early as they were – most famously, the St Matthew Passion in 1829, by a young Felix Mendelssohn, whose presentation of the work in Berlin sparked much new interest in Bach’s music. But even this was not the first sacred Bach revival, apparently: Mendelssohn’s teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter had himself organised a performance of the St John Passion in 1822–23 and of the B minor Mass as early as 1813, as the musicologist Martin Elste has recorded.

Though Bach’s passions have been revered since Mendelssohn’s time, the history of newly composed passions becomes less pronounced after the Baroque period. Even a related work by Beethoven, Christus am Ölberge (1803), has not found lasting appeal. The related genre of the Stabat Mater – which concerns the suffering of Mary during the crucifixion – fared a little better, with Haydn, Rossini and Dvořák composing examples which are still often performed. The 20th century, however, saw a considerable revival of interest in spirituality in composition, and this has resulted in a significant number of new works on religious topics – often irrespective of their composers’ own beliefs. This has included a number of passions, most prominent among them being works by Krzysztof Penderecki and Mauricio Kagel, as well as a series commissioned by the Internationale Bachakademie in 2000 by Tan Dun, Osvaldo Golijov, Wolfgang Rihm and Sofia Gubaidulina. James MacMillan and Arvo Pärt have also enjoyed success in the medium.

Even Mendelssohn’s famous 1829 passion performances took place at roughly the “right” time of year – the first was on 11 March – and the Lenten and Easter seasons continue to be a hotbed for church music performances, which extends beyond the classic passions. The Oslo Church Music Festival this year begins with The Tallis Scholars performing a “passion programme” with a varied mixture of themed musical works – but the rest of the festival is devoted to church music in a broader sense, with a mixture of old and new works confirming that religion and religious thought continue to exert a huge influence over classical music today. Brno’s Easter Festival of Sacred Music will also present an impressive mixture of historical church music, with rare pieces by Mendelssohn himself as well as Handel’s sacred oratorio Israel in Egypt.

Bach is still in the lead though: at the time of writing, we’re listing 23 performances of the St Matthew Passion this March, and 22 for the St John Passion. Change is a slow thing.