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Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Ten Best Pieces Of Classical Easter Music
From the intricate genius of JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion to the quiet contemplation of Arvo Pärt’s Passio, Easter has inspired some of the greatest works in classical music. Here are ten of the best.
1. The Messiah, George Frederic Handel (1741)
Probably the essential piece of Easter music and so much more than the Hallelujah chorus. Handel has endured for his mixture of Baroque monumental (here, for instance, in the chorus ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ and ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’) and delicious intimacy (‘But who may abide the day of his coming’). And The Messiah, like his famous operas which achieve success by mixing the pomp of larger orchestral sections with sensitive, memorable arias, is brilliant because it makes its huge subject matter intensely personal. My own highlight is the quiet, stately beauty of the pastoral symphony section, also known as Pifa. Sublime.
2. St Matthew Passion, JS Bach (1727)
Quite simply one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. Bach’s St Matthew Passion is regarded as a treasure trove of innovation, tirelessly surprising in its combinations of musical styles of the day and shrouded in mysticism. Some scholars associate the piece with numerology, supposing Bach’s placement of notes spells out a hidden religious or Masonic significance. Beyond the occult, the piece has been widely influential, with Paul Simon using a chorale melody that runs throughout the work in his 1973 song American Tune. It remains a piece that musicians and music lovers will constantly revisit. It played on the German composer’s mind, too: towards the end of his life, between the years 1743 - 46, Bach revisited and revised the piece.
3. Lamentations of Jeremiah, Thomas Tallis (1565-70)
Tallis served under Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth, and adapted his music to meet the need of the day, Catholic or Protestant. His Lamentations were written when the composer was in his sixties, and in the 20 minutes of music you can hear a life of religious upheaval given voice through the most tumultuous of biblical narratives. The writing is sensitive and expressive, characterised in the second of his “lessons”, my personal favourite, by breathy, questioning pauses after sinuous phrases. These settings from the Old Testament would have been included in Easter weekend services, most likely on Maundy Thursday.
4. The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross, Joseph Haydn (1783-96)
A bother for scholars but a delight for the listener. Haydn’s piece was commissioned as an orchestral work, music to punctuate seven readings during an Easter service, in 1783; it was then concentrated into a string quartet a few years later; and ended its life as an oratorio, dramatising the seven discourses that were originally to be read by priests. It is as yet undecided which is the finest incarnation, but the oratorio, with the expressive advantage of the master’s wonderful vocal writing, can hold its own among earlier classics of the genre by Handel and Bach.
5. Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem or “Passio”, Arvo Pärt (1982)
This 70-minute cantata, based on the Passion narrative of John, is one of the Estonian minimalist’s best-known works. Harking back to Medieval church music via an Eastern Orthodox aesthetic, this modern oratorio focuses on Jesus, Pilate and St John the narrator. Specific pitches are assigned to each character, building the story and its religious significance through hypnotic repetitions of similar phrases. The listener is compelled into a state of contemplation.
6. Easter Oratorio, J S Bach, (1725 - 1746)
This optimistic work – a semi-staged musical drama with religious content rather than the secular drama of opera – was revised over 20 years, growing out of a single cantata written for a Lutheran church service. The action skips the Crucifixion and begins after the death of Christ, with the discovery of Jesus’s empty grave. A joyous, trill-riddled opening sinfonia similar to the Brandenburg Concertos ushers in a work of elegant proportion and poise.
7. Tenebrae Responsoria, by Carlo Gesualdo (1611)
Italian composer Carlo Genualdo, Prince of Venosa, was an anomaly. Being rich he could write whatever he wanted, not needing to earn a living by catering to the taste of benefactors, and so developed an unorthodox, dissonant style that came to be appreciated 300 years later by modernists such as Stravinsky. His Tenebrae service – which dwells on the unhappy events of Christ’s Passion and is traditionally performed on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday – is a perfect example of his tortured mind at work. The composer brutally murdered his first wife and her lover when he discovered their affair, and towards the end of his life he turned from secular music to the religious. In his Tenebrae Responsoria we can sense Gesualdo dwell on his own uncertain afterlife.
8. Symphony No 2, “Resurrection”, Gustav Mahler (1888 - 1894)
A different sort of passion. Mahler got the idea to turn a short piece he had written into a longer work about the nature of the afterlife while attending the funeral of his friend, the conductor Hans von Bülow. Here the grandeur of the Baroque greats and their visions of Christ’s death and resurrection are answered by the young Mahler’s secular, angry, late-romantic slab of sound, in which we can hear Beethoven, his beloved Wagner and even Bruckner. Audiences loved it, and this was the work that established Mahler as a composer.
9. Petrushka, Igor Stravinsky (1910-11)
Admittedly this is a ballet about jealous puppets in a love triangle, but the source material for the music at the beginning of Stravinsky’s classic, culled from Russian folk melodies, were originally sung as Easter carols in the provinces on the Monday after Easter.
10. Stabat Mater, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1736)
Stabat Mater is a musical setting of the Stabat Mater sequence, composed by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi in 1736. Composed in the final weeks of Pergolesi's life ...
The opening of Pergolesi’s simple, resourceful Stabat Mater – a hymn focusing on the pain of Mary watching her son die – puts two singers in dissonant counterpoint over a small chamber orchestra, the duet creating the eerie feeling of voices crying out. The 26-year-old Italian composer was suffering from tuberculosis at the time of composing this restrained meditation on a mother watching her son’s pain. He died a few weeks later.