By Thomas Breeze, Cardiff Metropolitan University
Easter is one of those times of the year when even the most irregular church goer can feel compelled to wear Sunday best and attend a service. This joyful climax of the Christian calendar – and the darkest days of the Passion that precede it – may not have the same all-pervading presence in the secular consciousness today as Christmas. But this time of year has captured composers’ imaginations over the centuries, not least because the Church has been one of the few stable working options available to composers for centuries. The result was some of the most beloved, most enduring and most ethereally transcendent pieces in the choral repertoire.
For many lovers of choral music, Johann Sebastian Bach is the composer of reference at any time of the year. But at Easter, his two settings in the story of the Passion – told by St Matthew and St John – are monumental presences in any discussion of the great Easter repertoire. A devout Lutheran who never had a globetrotting career or the musical superstar of his exact contemporary, Handel, Bach has spent most of his career serving the Church.
One of his many commitments while Kapellmeister (music teacher) in Leipzig was to compose a weekly cantata to be performed in the church. On Good Friday, this cantata became the setting for the Easter story which lasts about two and a half hours. One can only imagine how long the actual service that contained this masterpiece was, since a sermon would originally have been preached in the interval between the two parts.
In keeping with the ideals of Lutheranism, the librettos of the settings are written in the language of the people (German, in this case) – and in earthy and direct terms, rather than florid and inaccessible phrases. Bach was making sure that even the common person could fully understand and experience this dramatic story. St. Matthew has a reflective and grandiose character, while St. John is more dramatic and distressed, leaving the listener to think that Bach would have been an opera composer to rival his compatriot Handel, if his life had taken a turn. very different.
George Frideric Handel, of course, gave his glorious tribute to the Passover period in the second and third parts of the Messiah, his most famous oratorio first presented in 1742. Strangely enough, the Messiah is now more often heard in the run-up to the Christmas, yet most of the work is about the events of the Passion and Easter.
By the 1740s, Handel’s brilliant career as an opera composer was fading, with the public’s taste turning away from these hugely expensive shows. Always an impresario, Handel keeps up with the times and starts writing an oratorio.
The Messiah has been a huge success since its inception and can be relied upon to date to pack concert halls, though perhaps not to the extent of the first performance. On April 13, 1742, when the great and the good of Dublin gathered to hear the premiere of Handel’s masterpiece, the concern about the hall’s ability to meet demand was such that male customers were invited to attend without their swords and their companions give up the usual hoops in their clothes. This allowed 100 more members of the public to break down the doors.
the golden age
For a golden age of religious composition in England, we must return to the turbulent Elizabethan period, when religious affiliation literally became a matter of life and death. Thomas Tallis, composer of the famous 40-part motet Spem in Alium, set the Lamentations of Jeremiah not for the kind of public performance that Bach’s works enjoyed, but for the private devotions of recusant Catholics. This gives the rich polyphony, with its suspensions and dissonances, an emotional depth and a meaning even beyond that provided by the liturgical season.
At the center of the Easter story, with Jesus himself, is Mary, and the anguish of the mother expressed in the thirteenth-century words of the Stabat Mater has inspired many composers. How to choose from the multitude of settings spanning hundreds of years? While Vivaldi avoids the Italian-style fireworks for which his numerous concerts have rightly made him famous and presents an essential setting for solo alto and strings, Polish composer Szymanowski offers us a work of six movements and half an hour for soloists, choir and full orchestra that is full of earthiness and color.
Fruits of guilt
For music lovers who prefer to get off the beaten path and experience some lesser-known Easter offerings, there are a couple of tunes that would reward the lover of fascinating musical stories.
Carlo Gesualdo is certainly not a household name as a composer, but his music tends to stay with the listener once discovered: the bizarre partial writing and tortured dissonances can lead the unwary to believe they are listening to twentieth-century atonalism, but Gesualdo was in fact a prince who lived from 1566 to 1613. The source of his avant-garde compositional moments was a lifelong sense of guilt and torment for having brutally murdered his wife and her lover after having caught them in the act of adultery.
As a prince, he was able to evade justice for his crime, but the effect on his mind is, presumably, the reason for the incredible twists and harmonic leaps in his music. The Tristis est Anima Mea is a fine example of his haunted style that fits perfectly with the darker moods of Holy Week.
The mystery of Mozart and the Miserere
Gregorio Allegri’s setting of Psalm 51, Miserere Mei Deus, is instantly recognizable to most listeners, with his solo soprano lunging repeatedly towards a thrilling high C, all the more effective for the ethereal sound reverberating from the roof. of the Sistine Chapel, the seat for which it was originally written, perhaps in 1638.
As befits a work written for such an exclusive setting, the work is surrounded by many mysteries and legends, not least the story that its dissemination outside the Vatican was banned under penalty of excommunication (although this was probably just a rumor spread to discourage any attempt). The embargo was finally broken – so it is said – by the fourteen-year-old Mozart who, hearing the piece performed, left the sacred chapel and promptly transcribed it from memory. The fact that the piece is made up of a number of repetitions of the same musical material perhaps somewhat reduces the ingenious value of this particular feat.
However, the more interesting story is how the famous Top-C moment got into the piece in the first place, through a bizarre series of mistakes once the piece made its way “in the wild”.
Perhaps the numerous musical offerings of composers over the centuries to Easter story provide us with a valuable antidote to the poised piles of chocolate that greet us at every corner of the main street at this time of year. The above list, while far from exhaustive, should provide a more nourishing Easter experience, at least for the soul.
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.