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Monday, March 10, 2008

Musical Musings: Passion, Death and Resurrection

Long ago one of my theology professors told us that if we were ever stumped on an exam, take a hint, the answer was always the Paschal Mystery. Ultimately our faith all comes down to this – Christ lived, suffered, died and rose for us. As we reach deeply into the celebration of that mystery over the next few weeks, alone and with our communities, music can often find spaces in our souls that our preaching cannot. To accompany you on this journey through Passiontide to the Triduum and into Easter, I offer the following.

Now we are going up to Jersusalem, and the Son of Man is about to be handed over...

Mk. 10:33

1. Allegri’s Miserere. The soaring soprano part on this is thought not to be original to Allegri, but irregardless, for me that embellishment evokes the hope of resurrection even in the face of death. This was traditionally sung in the Sistine Chapel on Good Friday. The composition was forbidden to circulate, under pain of excommunication.

2. Miserere Nobis, Domine. From Margaret Rizza. Contemplative in tone and sustaining with two verses to meditate on.

3. Drop, Drop, Slow Tears. I’ll quote Kathyrn on this one: sheer heaven!

4. Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. The male voices which open this recording, with a very sparing and slightly atonal organ accompaniment are conducive to meditation. Though it closes with a series of alleluias, it never loses it’s Lenten tone.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Stay here while I pray.”
Mk. 14:32

5. Christ on the Mount of Olives. While I tend to think of Bach and his Passions of St. John and St. Matthew when I think of “classical” Lenten music, Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives is also beautiful. Try the introduction, which captures both the intensity and the depth of Christ’s prayer in the garden.

6. Stay With Me. A Taize chant. It strikes me as very Benedictine, it tends to run through your head (as a good ostinato refrain should), nudging you to ruminate on the garden in the midst of the rest of your day.

They led him out to crucify him.
Mk 15: 20

7. St. Matthew’s Passion. You can’t have a Lent playlist without this one. This chorale, Ich Will Hier, is for me the iconic piece. There’s a reason they call Bach the Fifth Evangelist.

8. Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ. A arrangement for strings. Try Into your hands...

9. Avro Pärt’s Passio. Pärt is a contemporary Estonian composer. He calls his approach to composition tintinnabulation – it sounds very much like bells ringing. Though clearly modern, Pärt’s deep and longstanding engagement with medieval polyphony and plainchant infuses his music. If you have not heard Pärt before – listen to a snatch. The third and fourth movements are marvelous.

You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified: he has risen…
Mk. 16: 6

10. Christ Rising Again. William Byrd. A gentle movement into the joy of the resurrection.

11. Cantate Domino. Avro Pärt’s setting of this psalm (95). You can hear the bells ringing in both accompaniment and the voices.

12. Caedmon's Hymn/Christ is Risen. St. Bede had this to say of Caedmon: "there was …a certain brother particularly remarkable for the Grace of God, who was wont to make religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility in English…” The legend is that Caedmon was a shepherd who learned to compose literally overnight, in a dream.

13. Christ the Lord Hath Risen Today. Trumpets, for sure!

What music might accompany you on the road to Jerusalem and beyond?

I posted a playlist of most of the music here on iTunes.


  1. This is such a wonderful time in the liturgical calendar for music. Makes me glad to be a singer!

    This year, we're singing Byrd's Ave Verum Corpus for Palm Sunday, along with a Palm Sunday antiphon during the procession, and then the Hallelujah Chorus and Holst's arrangement of Let All Mortal Flesh for Easter Sunday. I'm singing the Exultet for the Easter Vigil and the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday.

    And of course, the hymns!!

    Makes a person happy to be alive, it does!

  2. I LOVE this arrangement of "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence." The glorious, dark chaos... it's wonderful

  3. all absolutely glorious music and it's lovely to be reminded of it. BTW if the answer isn't the Paschal Mystery, you can try to work in a mention of the Donation of Constantine [grin]

  4. chorus - sounds like an incredibly rich and exultant feast! I did the Exultet two years ago -- in a dark church lit only by the Easter candle!

    mrs. m - your description of the arrangement of All Mortal Flesh is way better than is dark and yet glorious and that chaotic ending feels like a maelstrom.

    crimson ramblet - it's good to have a back-up answer ;-)

  5. thanks for all the great suggestions!

  6. Michelle, this is wonderful. Thank you for sharing this profound music and for all of the care and love you put into this post.

  7. I agree with Zorra.

    I wonder why Margaret Rizza hasn't made it over here in the USA - at least it isn't readily available that I can see.


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