A Look Into The Oberammergau Passion Play’s Musical Legacy

Christian Papadellis
by Christian Papadellis

October 26, 2021

3 minute read

From the triumphant arrangements of the Main Title to Star Wars to the sentimental piano arrangements of Casablanca’s “As Time Goes By,” music has been used as a tool to elevate the emotional intensity of a performance for decades. Long before Max Steiner and John Williams were tugging at our heartstrings however, Rochus Dedler’s music for The Oberammergau Passion Play was thrilling audiences at every performance.


Just like Mendelssohn’s score for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dedler’s work on The Oberammergau Passion Play helped breathe new life into a classic work of theatre.


Born to two innkeepers on January 15, 1779 in Oberammergau, Dedler’s name has practically become synonymous with the town’s world renowned Passion Play. Heavily influenced by Joseph Haydn, and of course the region’s most prominent composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Dedler’s music for The Oberammergau Passion Play sets the dramatic tone of the story and enhances the play’s sacred themes. The score also draws heavily from the oratorio—a large scale musical work composed for an orchestra and choir that typically narrates a religious story. Similar to other famous oratorio’s, like Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Dedler’s score contains an overture in addition to several arias and duets that make up roughly one-third of the play’s performance.


After three separate attempts at creating the perfect sound, Dedler’s score made its debut at the 1820 performance. This masterpiece however, would be significantly revised as the play’s text and production design underwent significant creative changes throughout the nineteenth century. As the play’s length expanded and its production design grew more elabourate, Dedler’s intimate chamber ensemble was transformed into a full orchestra and choir. Both the play and Dedler’s score continued to undergo revision after revision until Professor Eugen Papst’s 1950 production. In the 1970’s however, when many in Oberammergau called for a return to the play’s roots, Dedler’s original work became the standard. This decision was met with mild pushback, as some citizens of Oberammergau had only heard the revised version of Dedler’s work up until then.


Still, tradition persevered and now, at the 2022 performance, audience members will experience one-hundred singers and fifty-five instrumentalists performing Dedler’s music under the supervision of director and conductor, Markus Zwink. Hailing from one of the oldest families in Oberammergau, Zwink has been lending his musical expertise to The Passion Play for forty years. With his passion and familial connection to the play, Zwink’s version of Dedler’s monumental score is sure to enthrall audience members at the play’s next performance in 2022.

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