So much for untouchability

Two guilders for the "two gentlemen trumpeters of Ettal" - this excerpt from the municipal bill for the Passion Play in 1700 is the first evidence that the Play was accompanied by music. Otherwise, almost nothing is known about the first 150 years. "There are only the texts, for example the text by Father Ferdinand Rosner from Ettal in the middle of the 18th century: a very long text in rhyme with heaven and hell," says Markus Zwink, the musical director of the Passion Play. "We know that there was singing, but the music has not been handed down."

Rochus Dedler (Photo: Municipality of Oberammergau)

In 1810, Othmar Weis wrote a new text for which Rochus Dedler composed the music. A contemporary noted that Dedler "improved the music; previously, it was nothing". The new composition was extensive, the orchestration was small: about 14 people in the choir, just as many in the orchestra. "At that time, the performance still took place in the cemetery," explains Zwink, "the graves supposedly were so-called folding graves, which could be folded down, so that a stage could be built on them. The audience sat on the cemetery walls. These were certainly adventurous conditions, not just from an acoustical point of view." As long as he lived, Dedler repeatedly composed additions. In 1820, he was a composer, conductor, bass soloist and prologue speaker in personal union. He died in 1822, presumably from exhaustion. "Two years ago, we made an attempt to perform the melodrama that way," says Zwink. "So I conducted, spoke and sang as Dedler did. That was very exciting. It is possible, but it is demanding."

By the middle of the 19th century, the auditorium increased to up to 6,000 people in the audience per performance, but the musical setting remained the same. It was not until 1870 that a score with additional wind parts was written for the first time. Gradually, the musical ensemble was also extended. In 1910, the orchestra and choir each comprised about 40 people. "However, the musical performance was always criticised as being amateurish," says Zwink, "Franz Liszt, for example, probably only endured the first half of the performance during his visit in 1870." So, people began investing in the musical education of the population. The schoolteacher, for example, had to be musically skilled and had to be able to sing, conduct or arrange. "They also considered which instrument was missing and motivated people to learn it," says Zwink.

"Heil Dir" in the original score by Rochus Dedler "Volkschöre zur Passionsmusik 1815. II Stimme" (Photo: Municipality of Oberammergau)

Today, there are two girls' and two boys' choirs in Oberammergau, one youth choir and one adult choir, the local orchestra and a youth string orchestra, the "Nerven-Sägen" (the “nags”). Instrumental lessons are generously subsidised by the municipality. And if one takes it upon himself or herself to learn a "lacking instrument" such as oboe or bassoon, the instruments are also supplied. "The offer is well received," says Zwink. "We also have regular musical events like carolling, where the old musicians and choristers are always listening closely. This is how children develop a sense of quality from an early age." However, gaps in young talents cannot be completely avoided. "We have singing women en masse and it also looks good when it comes to the bass. But tenors are thin on the ground as everywhere, there are just fewer of them," says Zwink. Overall, however, he is satisfied with the current status: there is a pool of 110 musicians, in the orchestra pit there are always around 55. The choir is also double-staffed.

In 1990, Zwink was the leading conductor of the Passion Play for the very first time. At that time, he composed a musical transition of seven bars - and had many scruples: "I grew up in a time when there was quite a standstill and there were no major changes in the Passion Play. Basically, there was no engagement with the content or the music, the text and music were considered untouchable." His "musical breakthrough" was in 2000, when he re-composed many living images. First, he pored over the old scores by Dedler in search of thigs he could use, but he quickly realised that he must take a fresh approach. "The stage is so large that I also have to fill the room musically," he explains, "by splitting the choir and creating a Venetian polyphony and musical depth." In 2010, when the director of the play, Christian Stückl, explored Jewish issues more intensively, Zwink set the prayer Shema Yisrael to music for the visit to the temple. "Not only the choir, but the entire people sing in Hebrew here. As an inspiration, I listened to Hebrew synagogue chants, but also to pop music by Ofra Haza, so that I can get into another world in terms of sound. It was a lot of fun for the people and immediately became a kind of classic." The fear of new compositions has long since given way to a desire to try things out - even for 2020.

Markus Zwink (Photo: Gabriela Neeb)

Text: Anne Fritsch