Some of the greatest music in the history of the west was written to commemorate the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Christ. So in honor of this Holy Week, I have compiled my “playlist” if you will, of the best music written for the occasion. It is my goal to listen to these works at least once, which will be a challenge considering some are two to three hours long! Please feel free to share your attempts at music literacy during this time.
1. J.S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion. Considered by many to be one of the pinnacles of church music, Bach’s version of Matthew’s gospel account ranks as one of the most amazing achievements in western music. The work is divided in two parts to be performed before and after the sermon on Good Friday. Bach is a master at depicting the text in music, with the opening double chorus capturing the trudging of the cross-bearer setting the tone for the rest of the work. Many good recordings exist, but I prefer those by Herreweghe and Rilling.
2. Handel, Messiah. Probably the most deservedly famous sacred choral work in the English-speaking world. This oratorio traces the life of Christ from his birth to his Resurrection and Ascension, using the Biblical text prepared by Charles Jennens. While this is often played at Christmas, it originally appeared during the Holy Week season, April 13, 1742, and was revised to its present version at a benefit for a Foundlings Hospital. While the “Hallelujah” chorus receives much of the press, a perhaps even more powerful chorus is the closing “Amen.” I recommended the recordings by Pinnock, and Hogwood.
3. Telemann, The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus (Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu). A contemporary of Bach and Handel, Telemann’s work is a sort of “hidden gem” that gets performed occasionally, but is well worth checking out. His use of baroque trumpets and horns is especially memorable, and the work closes in an infectiously exuberant manner. A good recording of this work can be found here.
4. Haydn, The Seven Last Words of Christ. This work was originally intended as musical interludes between the seven last words (sentences) of Christ read during a church service in Cadiz, Spain. There is also an introduction and a closing musical depiction of the earthquake found in Matthew 27:51. The original version was for orchestra, but later Haydn would revise the work for choir and orchestra, and for a string quartet. The string quartet version is most often performed, and some church services include the gospel texts in between the movements much like the original performance. An excellent recording of the choral version can be found here, and the string quartet version can be found here.
5. Schutz, St. Matthew Passion. An important predecessor of Bach, this a cappella choral work is one of best introductions to the music of Schutz. It is written in a late Renaissance/Early Baroque style, and has one of the most achingly beautiful introductions around. Recordings are harder to find for this piece, but a good one can be found here.
6. Rimsky-Korsakov, Russian Easter Overture. This work contains many ancient Russian hymns interspersed with solo violin cadenzas that depict light shining from the tomb. Korsakov himself added hints such as Psalm 68 and Mark 16 in the score to explain his intent. The work closes with the hymn “Let God Arise, let his enemies be scattered,” followed by an exciting and loud coda. Recordings abound for this work, and it is usually coupled with Korsakov’s other orchestral works.
While more could be added (Bach’s St. John passion and Easter cantatas for example), these six works should be standard for the culturally literate during this time, especially western Christians. It is my hope that many of you that read this will take advantage of the ready availability of such masterworks, and use them to deepen one’s faith and culture.