Mar 31st 2018

The passion and the beauty: why Easter music will send a shiver up your spine

by Thomas Breeze

Senior Lecturer in Music Education, Cardiff Metropolitan University

 

File 20180320 31633 1n1aq6e.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1 Caravaggio Thomas Breeze, Cardiff Metropolitan University

Easter is one of those times of year when even the most irregular churchgoer can feel impelled to don their Sunday best and attend a service. This joyful highpoint of the Christian calendar – and the darker-toned days of the Passion which precede it – may not nowadays have quite the same all-pervading presence in the secular consciousness as Christmas. But this time of year has captured the imagination of composers through the ages – not least because the Church was one of the few steady employment options available for composers for centuries. The result has been some of the best-loved, most enduring, and most ethereally transcendent pieces in the choral repertoire.


For many lovers of choral music, Johann Sebastian Bach is the go-to composer at any time of year. But at Easter, his two settings of the Passion story – as told by St Matthew and St John – are monumental presences in any discussion of great Easter repertoire. A devout Lutheran who never had the globetrotting career or musical superstardom of his exact contemporary, Handel, Bach spent almost his entire career in the service of the Church.

One of his many commitments while Kapellmeister (master of music) in Leipzig was to compose a weekly cantata to be performed in church. On Good Friday, this cantata became a setting of the Easter story running to some two-and-a-half hours. It can only be imagined how long the actual service was that contained this masterpiece, given that a sermon would originally have been preached in the interval between the two parts.

In keeping with the ideals of Lutheranism, the settings’ libretti are written in the language of the people (German, in this case) – and in earthy, direct terms, rather than florid and inaccessible phrases. Bach was ensuring that even the ordinary person could fully understand and experience this most dramatic of stories. The St Matthew has a reflective, grand character, while the St John is more dramatic and anguished, leaving the listener to muse that Bach would have made an operatic composer to rival his countryman Handel, had his life taken a very different turn.

George Frideric Handel, of course, provided his own glorious tribute to the Easter season in the second and third parts of the Messiah, his most famous oratorio premiered in 1742. Strangely, the Messiah is now most often heard in the run-up to Christmas, and yet the majority of the work deals with the events of the Passion and Easter.

By the 1740s, Handel’s glittering career as an operatic composer was waning, with public taste moving away from these enormously expensive spectacles. Ever the impresario, Handel moved with the times and began to write oratorio.

The Messiah was a huge success from the start, and can be relied upon to this day to pack concert venues – though perhaps not to the extent of the premiere performance. On April 13, 1742, when the great and the good of Dublin gathered to hear the premiere of Handel’s masterpiece, concern about the capacity of the hall to meet demand was such that male patrons were requested to attend minus their swords, and their female companions to forgo the customary hoops in their dresses. This allowed an extra 100 audience members to squeeze through the doors.

Golden age

For a golden age of religious composition in England, we need to turn back to the turbulent Elizabethan period, when religious affiliation became quite literally 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 sort 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 significance even beyond that provided by the liturgical season.

At the centre of the Easter story, with Jesus himself, is Mary, and the mother’s anguish expressed in the 13th-century words of the Stabat Mater have inspired many composers. How to choose between the multitude of settings that span hundreds of years? While Vivaldi eschews the Italianate fireworks for which his many concertos have made him justly famous, and presents a stripped-down setting for solo alto and strings, the Polish composer Szymanowski gives us a six-movement, half-hour work for soloists, choir and full orchestra that is full of earthiness and colour.

Fruits of guilt

For those music lovers who prefer to depart from the well-travelled routes and experience some less well-known Eastertide offerings, there are a couple of pieces that would reward the lover of fascinating music stories.

Carlo Gesualdo is hardly a household name as a composer, but his music tends to stay with the listener once discovered – the bizarre part-writing and tortured dissonances can lead the unwary to believe they are listening to 20th-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 at brutally murdering his wife and her lover on catching 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, supposedly, the reason for the astonishing harmonic twists and leaps in his music. His Tristis est Anima Mea is a fine example of his tormented style dovetailing perfectly with the darker moods of Holy Week.

Mystery of Mozart and the Miserere

Gregorio Allegri’s setting of Psalm 51, Miserere Mei Deus, is instantly recognisable to most listeners, with its soprano soloist repeatedly soaring to a spine-tingling top C – all the more effective for the ethereal sound reverberating from the roof of the Sistine Chapel, the venue for which it was originally written, perhaps in 1638.

As befits a work written for such an exclusive setting, plenty of mysteries and legends surround the work – not least the story that its dissemination beyond the Vatican was banned on pain of excommunication (though this was probably just a rumour put around to discourage any attempts). The embargo was finally broken – so the story goes – by the 14-year-old Mozart who, on hearing the piece performed, went forth from the hallowed chapel and promptly wrote it down from memory. The fact that the piece consists of a number of repetitions of the same musical material does perhaps reduce the genius value of this particular feat a little.

However, the most interesting tale is how the famous top-C moment found its way into the piece in the first place, through a bizarre series of errors once the piece had made its way “into the wild”.

Perhaps the many musical offerings by composers throughout the centuries to the Easter story provide us with a valuable antidote to the teetering piles of chocolate that greet us at every turn in the high street at this time of year. The list above, while far from exhaustive, should provide a more nutritious Easter experience, for the soul at least.

 

Thomas Breeze, Senior Lecturer in Music Education, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

May 1st 2020
EXTRACT: Alessandro Deljavan: "I bought a former convent 40 kilometers from Pescara, in Villamagna. It's very important for me to breathe clean air and live as simply as possible. Life in a giant city full of cars and smog is hard for me to imagine. My perspective is always to live fully. My aspirations for the best musical experiences guides my decisions and over the past several years I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some wonderful musicians—these experiences have brought me a sense of optimism for what might lie ahead.”
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Federico Mompou, the reclusive Catalonian composer whose calm, spare piano writing is currently enjoying a rebirth, might well look askance at any effort to pull him forward into modern mode. Such was never his genre but that’s precisely what one of his ardent admirers, pianist Maria Canyigueral, proposed to do. The result is her intriguing new CD, Avant-guarding Mompou."
Mar 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "In our interview, Prof. Réach says he cautions his students in Barcelona to approach the Variations with care, warning them “the path will be long and will require great patience”. He has personally overcome his fear of this “masterpiece of masterpieces”, having recorded them three times and performed them in about 15 countries a total of about 150 times."
Mar 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "The 88-key piano looks headed for a major transformation in the coming decades. The mechanism under the lid is based on a 130-year-old design and many specialists believe it is time to dispense with those delicate moving parts.  As innovative Australian piano builder Wayne Stuart says, “The piano has been crying out for a rethink for over a hundred years.” "
Mar 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have a Paris background. What do you bring to Granados to ensure Spanish flavor? Delicacy? Momentum? Singing and dancing undertones? Rubato?........Answer: First, I am profoundly European........."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have said that you are plagued by doubts. Is this true?.........Answer: Of course I am plagued by doubts. This is part of the artist’s life. But I continue to work and perform. I have moments of depression but I try to transform these doubts into positives. Many artists have these doubts. Some don’t talk about it. But doubt is always there."
Jan 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "QUESTION: Wouldn’t young composers of today benefit from aligning themselves with a philosophical ethos in order to find their musical voice -- as opposed to trying merely to find their own voice by drawing on imagination or personal experience?.......... ANSWER: It’s an interesting question, but open to interpretation. My impulse is to answer yes. When young I did a tremendous amount of reading in the history of aesthetics, and as a result my sense of artist -- ethos, necessity, whatever -- is not limited to post-WWII influences. One result is that I’ve never had any patience for the late-20th-century idea that art is about “personal expression.” The ancient and more enduring view is that the artist expresses what is out there to be expressed. As T.S. Eliot admirably wrote, art is an escape from personality, not an expression of it. Likewise I’ve never warmed to the idea of “finding one’s voice,” which sounds to me too much like creating an instantly recognizable trademark style that will make your music easier to market commercially."
Jan 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "It has been a long journey I enjoy re-living as I take note this year of the great Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. As a practicing music critic and journalist from American corn country, I call myself a hick hack but I experience meltdown at almost everything the great man wrote. How can one not love Beethoven?"
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Judith Juaregui, based in Madrid but peripatetic in her concertizing around Europe, is gaining an international audience of admirers, boosted by the brilliant pianistic colors of her Debussy, Liszt, Falla, Chopin and Mompou in her fifth CD, “Pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy”, just out. This album was recorded at a recital in Vienna last year, her first foray into live recording, and she is  rather pleased with the result, which, she says in our interview (below), captured a “moment of honesty”. She left everything in, including the vigorous applause from the audience."
Dec 11th 2019
EXTRACTS: "The young tousle-haired pianist from the distant Minnesota, Reed Tetzloff, is building a performance career in the U.S. and Europe by steering a course through rare repertoire that is both challenging and attractive for the listener........In our email question-and-answer discussion he explains his priorities as a musician and his attraction to a wide range of repertoire."
Dec 9th 2019
Extract: "Then the house lights came up and the rest of us rushed out, relieved that it was all over."
Nov 15th 2019
Extract: "Question: Mompou was modest, yet one of his famous comments is similar to Handel’s remark that he was writing down what God dictated. Mompou said he did not think up music, he simply transmitted it. Answer: The Mompou’s idea about God was interesting. God was a great force that also could destroy his own creation, like a child who in a moment of joy treads on an ant without noticing. Mompou explained that, in his case, the music was not coming from inside to outside, but the opposite way, from outside to the inside, with him being the intermediary of this flow, as a kind of medium. Mompou felt embarrassed to be called on stage after a performance of his music. He was convinced that if the work was really good, it was not entirely created by himself. 
Oct 27th 2019
Composer Kyle Gann’s new book ‘The Arithmetic of Listening’ analyzes microtonality and makes a plea for the music fraternity to open its ears to the new directions possible. After 22 years of teaching at Bard College in the eastern United States, Gann has become a guru or godfather of new music, and continues to produce captivating compositions, as in his new two-CD album ‘Hyperchromatica’. His latest book analyzes and explains tuning theory. In this interview he asserts that new music that gets the attention of publishers and producers today is mostly “derivative crap”. The golden age of “downtown” music from 1960 to 2000 assembled “a bunch of escapees from the twin hells of academia and corporate commercialism”.
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "A powerful new talent from Italy, Alessandro Deljavan, made his U.S. East Coast debut October 19, with a magnificent reading of the Brahms Piano concerto No. 2 under conductor Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra."
Sep 18th 2019
EXTRACT: "This is some of Ilic’s best work. A California native of Serbian extraction, he is emerging now as a major player in a crowded field."
Sep 8th 2019
Extract: "Chopin’s two piano concertos are among the most frequently recorded of 19th century works, both for their melodic charm, their pulsing rhythms and their historical significance. Young Chopin wrote the piano part with exceptional verve, showing the way for future composers to let the piano burst free from its orchestral surroundings."
Sep 8th 2019
Extract: "David Fray looked surprisingly alert when he arrived for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast interview at a comfortable inn outside of La Roque d’Anthéron in the south of France. We had both been at a midnight dinner following his performance at the famous piano festival. I left the dinner early with a colleague but he stayed till 3:00 chatting and laughing with the violinist he had just performed with, his friend Renaud Capuçon. Their Bach sonatas and a Bach piano concerto were the highlights of the evening. Over breakfast (David ate a bowl of chocolate-flavored cereal sweetened with ample spoonfuls of Nutella) we indulged a few minutes of smalltalk, then got down to business. He responded lucidly in French to some heavy questioning. He only stumbled once, at the end, when I asked him,  “What does music really mean to you?” His reply, ”That’s a big subject for so early in the morning!” But he continued searching for the words, and he found them."
Aug 31st 2019
François-Frédéric Guy was just finishing his 20th performance at the piano festival of La Roque d’Anthéron in the south of France. The 2,200-seat outdoor amphitheater was almost full as Guy displayed his love of Beethoven –playing two of his greatest sonatas, No. 16 and No. 26 (“Les Adieux”). After intermission, Guy took his place at the Steinway grand again and rattled the audience with the stormy opening bars of the Hammerklavier sonata. It was like a thunderclap, as Beethoven intended. The audience sat up straight and listened in stunned silence. There were more surprises to come. Guy’s first encore was the little bagatelle “Letter for Elise”. A titter ran through the amphitheater. Was he joking? He looked out over the crowd and smiled back. A few bars into the piece, total silence descended once again on the crowd as Guy brought out the depth and beauty of little “Elise”. Everyone thought they knew this piece by heart. They were wrong. No one had heard it quite like this. Huge applause erupted a few seconds after the last note. Several spectators near me wiped away tears from their eyes.
Aug 3rd 2019
Combining “telepathic improvisation” plus original instrumentation, two adventurous Australian musicians have just launched a digital album of 12 new pieces brimming with sounds never quite captured before in recordings. The pianist plays two expanded keyboards simultaneously while his partner meets his ideas on an 18th century cello. The result is a marriage of the new and the old with echoes ranging from Bach to Arvo Part. 
Jul 20th 2019
Extract --- Question: What is your view of stage antics of ambitious pianists – the swoons and hair-flicks (Khatia Buniatishvili), the miniskirts and six-inch heels (Yuja Wang), the eye makeup and winks to the audience (Lang Lang)? --- Answer: It’s all show-biz. All three of those pianists, though, really CAN play (though in varying degrees of success in varying repertoire). No matter how short Yuja Wang’s vestigial swath of skirt becomes, no matter how vertiginous her high heels, she knows her way around the ivories (I especially like her Prokofiev), and I think she makes music more fun for a wide variety of listeners. If she couldn’t play, all the short skirts in Christendom couldn’t save her career. Same goes with the emoting of Buniatishvili, and, of course, most of all, the ultimate showman, Mr. Lang, the classical world’s answer to Liberace.