When it comes to music, Easter’s got Christmas licked. (Readers will be reminded that The Messiah is two-thirds an Easter piece.) As heard on WQXR‘s somewhat exhausting Bach marathon, the most interesting pieces are based on dramatic texts about blood and sacrifice, more than cantatas about love and heavenly reward.
For while the Easter season does not have a ‘Joy to the World’ equivalent, it has the far more complex Stabat Mater and the theatrical passions of St. John and St. Matthew. The meditative, nearly monotone drone of the original, Gregorian St. John Passion is the starting point for understanding the centuries of passions that followed. Here it is sung in Latin with the choral responses (representing the people) by the great Renaissance composer Tomás Luis de Victoria:
I especially like the oddly chipper, ‘sol-re-mi-do’ flourish that ends most of the narrator’s lines. Nice to put on while you’re trussing your leg of lamb.
The next (perhaps only?) step up in passions are the two masterpieces by Bach. If the WQXR marathon has taught me nothing else, it is that most of Bach’s repertoire must consist of recitative. And much of it sounds oddly modern, other-worldly and at times creepy.
My very first hearing of the story of Easter – musical or otherwise – was at a performance of Bach’s St. John passion by the much-missed New York Collegium. Bach’s monumental – and much longer – St. Matthew may be hailed as the greater work, but the nimble, concise, and well, passionate, St. John knocked the socks off this good humanist. So this is the reason that so many Christians make Easter one of two occasions to come to church?
Oh those baleful oboes! Here’s the review of the 2002 concert I heard. Around 9:00 is a fluid example of the recitative.
I sang a Good Friday service yesterday, including a short gem from the ever-surprising Purcell. If the slidy chromatics don’t freak you out, the close-ups of choristers will:
Always beautiful, and even sunny, is Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, which you would think would get trotted out more frequently during the season:
And when you’ve had your fill of weeping and wailing, go ahead and remember what Easter is all about: