Music for Holy Week through the centuries
The period between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday is full of musical moments that have inspired moving works for choirs and instruments for centuries. These compositions range from music intended for liturgy, liturgically inspired works meant to be performed in concerts, and especially in more modern times, pieces that put a modern and sometimes secular spin on the historic forms.
Should you want to engage musically with this season, here is a selection of works that range from very old to brand new.
The latin text “Stabat mater dolorosa…” translates as “the sorrowful mother was standing,” in this case a reference to Mary, grieving at the cross. As a hymn it goes back to the 13th century, with its text being among the responses used on Good Friday.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Later adapted for large choirs by Wagner, Palestrina set the Stabat Mater, like all of his choral works, for the 16-voice Sistine Chapel Choir. Palestrina’s take on the piece quickly became the traditional setting in the chapel for Palm Sunday offertory.
Rossini began writing sacred music after he had wrapped up a successful career composing opera. He was so beloved that he skipped some of the rehearsals of his Stabat Mater because he was drawing such a large crowd of vocal admirers. Poet Henrich Heine called the work too “sensuous and playful” for the serious subject matter, but audiences loved it.
As the Lexington-born composer’s career was beginning to take off in the 1950s, Julia Perry’s Stabat Mater for strings and soprano quickly became her most-performed work. It is a noteworthy standout for this text, which is focused on Mary, yet has been set by very few women.
Seven Last Words:
Not seven individual words, this refers to the seven last statements that Jesus makes before he dies on the cross, aggregated from each of the four gospels. The total of seven forms a parallel to the seven days of creation. But the nature of the words are quite human, coming at a point of vulnerability. Uniquely among this musical collection, the seven last words are sometimes set without the words themselves, used instead as an inspiration for instrumental music.
Schütz also wrote four settings of the Passion story in full. Given that he was writing for a protestant liturgy, he was able to set the sayings in his home language of German rather than Latin. He inscribed the cover of his manuscript with the following poem:
Lovest thou the World, then art thou dead,
and the Lord must bear the Hurt
But dost thou die red in his Wounds,
Then he liveth in thy Heart.
Haydn was commissioned to write an orchestral setting of the text for the Holy Cave Oratory in Cadiz, Spain. It lived in several versions - re-set for string quartet, then two pianos, and finally later as a sung oratorio. The piece is in nine total movements, with an introduction and a musical depiction of the earthquake that follows the final words.
- Sofia Gubaidulina’s Sieben Worte/In croce for cello, bayan, and strings - another instrumental depiction.
- James Macmillan's setting which was commissioned by the BBC.
Joel Thompson - The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed
Joel Thompson draws a moving parallel to the story with the last words of unarmed Black men who were killed by police. Thompson poured his own sadness and horror at these events into the work. In using these words - some frightened, some completely unrelated to what came next, Thompson draws a similar picture of vulnerable humanity to the biblical words.
Lamentations of Jeremiah:
This particular text is part of the Maundy Thursday service called Tenebrae - named as such because it ends as the sky turns dark in the evening. It is in the form of an acrostic poem.
While Queen Elizabeth I was protestant, she allowed Latin music in church services. Thomas Tallis was so well liked that he was an exception to the general membership in the Church of England, as an “unreformed Catholic.” Alternating between the two denominations is part of his musical fabric - with some of his works being more tonally experimental, as they would have been performed in secret, hidden masses. The voices in Tallis’s setting of the Lamentations shimmer as well as weep.
Igor Stravinsky - Threni
While one historian has linked a line of influence from Tallis’s setting to Stravinsky’s, Threni is among Stravinsky’s more experimental works tonally. However they both set the Hebrew letter at the beginning of each line in particular.
Leonard Bernstein - Symphony No. 1 “Jeremiah”
Bernstein began composing his first symphony shortly after his graduation from Harvard, then set it aside when he began studying conducting. The lamentations specifically make up the third and final movement, with a mezzo soprano soloist added to the orchestra.
A passion sets the events between Palm Sunday and Good Friday as an oratorio - like an opera, but unstaged. They would be performed in concerts, and still are quite often today - both in churches and in concert halls. The story is, musically, most often told via either the Gospel of John or Matthew.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Eclipsed in scale by only his Mass in B Minor, Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion uses multiple choirs and even multiple orchestras in order to portray all of the crowds and reactions within the story. It has been staged like an opera quite a few times, as has Bach’s smaller-scale setting of the St. John Passion.
Emperor Joseph II, best known as a patron of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, called Salieri’s passion setting “the most expressive of any written on this poem.” While the story is most appropriate for Lent, the work actually premiered during the Advent season.
- Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Weber, which is in the rock genre, but a staged opera nonetheless.
- Water Passion by Tan Dun, which uses actual water as an instrument.
- Pasio by Arvo Pärt, recommended by our evening host Laura Atkinson
David Lang - Little Match Girl Passion
While The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson is a tale for children, it is quite dark by today’s standards. A homeless young girl, barefoot in the cold, strikes matches which she was unsuccessful at selling one by one in order to keep warm. She is abandoned by a mob of people as she slowly freezes to death. Lang followed the form of the St. Matthew Passion, and even includes the words of Picander, who acted as the librettist for Bach’s passions. While the music is characterized by Lang’s usual minimalism, that only leaves the story of suffering feeling as stark as possible - rests provide moments of silence that even set a chill upon the listener.