What are the 15 best pieces of classical music for Easter?
- The St. Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. I don't like blockbusters, but this is one dominant piece of Easter music par excellence we can't get around. It is more “Easter” than Easter eggs, chocolate or Easter bunnies. And it goes back to a long tradition of musical settings of the Passion story. Looking back through this history, we see that the text was originally chanted by the celebrant alone, while later drama was introduced by having interventions from a chorus. The old style of chanted Bible texts with choral comments can still be heard in the oratorios by Heinrich Schütz. In the time of Bach the text had freed itself from the Gospel by adding hymns, arias and reflections, and the music was split over several singers with orchestral accompaniment, while recitative rather than plainsong was used for the Evangelist. Although the oldest Passion music was written by Italian composers as Guerrero and Di Lasso, in the 17th century the genre had become firmly protestant, being anchored in Lutheran northern-Germany. Lutheranism emphasized suffering and death, seeing the end of the body as the gate to the wished-for eternal life. There was a strong death longing in the culture (“Come sweet death...,” as Bach composed), not out of morbidity, but purely ideological – although when you see portraits of the well-fed good burghers of Bach's time, you get the impression they secretly enjoyed life as well. But this way of thinking fit well with the story of Christ's suffering and crucifixion. The oratorio sets two chapters of St Matthew’s gospel in a dramatic sequence of recitative, arias, choruses and chorales. It was probably first performed on Good Friday, 1727 at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig where Bach was the Kantor. There are two distinctive features to Bach's setting: the use of a double-choir, stemming from his own double-choir motets, and the extensive use of chorales in various forms. Bach wrote also other oratorios (a St John Passion has come down intact to us), but more than that, he composed many cantatas on the subject, from a full-fledged Easter Oratorio (which is a cantata in disguise, with an exuberantly thoughtful final alto aria) to meditative cantatas like Christ Lag in Todesbanden (see my posts on the Bach Cantatas).
Recommended recording: Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner on Archiv.
- La Resurezzione by Georg Friedrich Handel. I really wanted to bring up The Messiah here, but one blockbuster is enough and, what's more, although originally meant as Easter music, today The Messiah is unilaterally associated with Christmas (for the first movement that is correct; the second movement, however, is Easter music). So we turn to a lesser known work by Handel, a product of the composer's early Italian sojourn, the period during which he acquired the arsenal of expressive and dramatic techniques that he would go on to employ in his operas and English oratorios. La Resurezzione is a close cousin of opera, with lots of dramatic vividness and bright and evocative music. It was first performed on Easter Sunday 1708 in Rome, with the backing of the Marchese Francesco Ruspoli, Handel's patron. The characters of this liturgical drama set between Good Friday and Easter Sunday are Lucifer (bass), Mary Magdalene (soprano), an Angel (soprano), St John the Evangelist (tenor), and St Mary Cleophas (alto). The staging and scenery were lavishly produced, and though Roman censorship forbade opera, La Resurrezione was certainly produced in an operatic manner. It was performed in the main hall of Ruspoli's Palazzo. At the opening performance, the role of Mary Magdalene was sung by the soprano Margherita Durastanti, but the Pope immediately admonished the Marchese as the participation of female singers was prohibited by Papal edict. As a consolation, Durastanti later was given the title role in Handel's Agrippina - the aria "Ho un non so che" where as Maria Magdalene she anticipates the Resurrection, was without any adaptation copied to the new work! Interestingly, the violins at the first performance were led by the famous composer Arcangelo Corelli, who also conducted the work.
Recommended recording: Contrasto Armonico directed by Marco Vitale on Brillant Classics.
- Brockes' Passion by Georg Philipp Telemann. Telemann's cantatas and oratorios are only now being rediscovered, which promises still a lot of interesting music to come as Telemann was even more fertile as a composer than Bach. The Passion continued to be very popular in Protestant Germany in the 18th century, and a new form arose which was completely free from the Gospel text. The best example is Barthold Heinrich Brockes' text Der für die Sünden dieser Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus, which was set to music by Telemann (1719) and also Handel (1716). Different from the Gospels, here we have an author who goes all-out for suffering, the rather graphic focus lies firmly on the pain and death of Jesus. The text plays up the agonies of whipping, crowning with thorns, beating, stabbing and strangling, not to forget the horror of the crucifixion itself. “My entrails screech out on hot coals,” is a typical complaint. Despite all the blood and crushed bones, Telemann's music is noble and often reaches the sublime.
Recommended recording: RIAS Kammerchor & Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin conducted by René Jacobs on Harmonia Mundi.
- Der Tod Jesu by Carl Heinrich Graun. This is an oratorio on another free, literary text, written by Karl Wilhelm Ramler in 1755, as part of the Empfindsamkeit movement. Telemann also composed an oratorio on this text, but Graun's – lighter and full of operatic rococo elements – became the more popular version. Graun was a court Kapelmeister in the Berlin school - centered on the court of Frederick the Great - who was famous for his religious music. The present oratorio was also influenced by the meditative oratorio (without dialogues) which had developed in Italy in the hands of Caldara and Paisiello. The soloists alternate to tell the story in recitatives, and reflect on the events in the poetic arias, with regular answers by the chorus and finally a crowning chorale that could be sung by the whole congregation The expressive and lyrical music, full of spontaneous melodies and beautiful choruses, even managed to rank as the No. 1 Passion music in the 18th century, surpassing Bach and Handel, something now difficult to imagine - until 1884 it was annually performed on Good Friday at the Berlin court. And after that, when Bach's share rose in the 20th c., it was completely forgotten, only to be dug up again in the 21st century! It is ultimately cheerful and festive music, breathing the lyrical mode of Italian opera, and deserves to be rediscovered.
Recommended recording: La Petite Bande directed by Sigiswald Kuijken on Hyperion.
- The Crucifixion by John Stainer. Subtitled “A Meditation on the Sacred Passion of the Holy Redeemer,” and composed in 1887, this work was first performed in St. Marylebone Parish Church in London. In the 19th century, the Passion tradition waned, except for a revival in late Victorian times, when choral societies were hyper-active in England. As amateurs, they wanted melodious music that was not too difficult, and that could be performed without much cost. So this oratorio is only accompanied by organ, and the music is rather of the sing-along type. It is also very sentimental, not to say mawkish – I suggest that you imbibe a certain quantity of fortifying spirits to help you face it, but be careful, because inebriation may make you so reckless as the sing along loudly with the Sunday school tunes as “Cross of Jesus, cross of sorrow...” The text is irredeemably Victorian in its predilection for suffering and gore and almost masochistic self-abnegation. Typical music also for Good Friday, when even skeptics set time aside to think about suffering and death. In the 20th century it became one of the most vilified works in the history of music, perhaps because of its previous popularity and easy sentimentality, but today we don't have to fight the Victorians anymore so we can listen without prejudice and just enjoy the tunefulness.
Recommended recording: BBC Singers and soloists, conducted by Brian Kay on Chandos.
- Stabat Mater by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Whereas oratorios were more a protestant affair, the Catholic South hit back with a vengeance in this typically Italian genre which has sprung from the medieval church's cult of suffering – and which spawned more than 400 pieces, all on a 13th c. text by Jacopone da Todi, describing the sorrows of the Blessed Virgin mourning at the foot of the cross. The best by general opinion among these often painfully beautiful works is Pergolesi's music from 1736, a setting about which the German poet Tieck said: "I had to turn away to hide my tears." It may have been composed for members of the secular nobility, the Cavalieri della Vergine dei Dolori, a group that met in Naples and commissioned a setting of the Stabat Mater every year. A few years earlier, Alessandro Scarlatti set this text for members of the same group. Pergolesi's Stabat Mater was an immediate hit, and was copied, imitated, arranged and reprinted many times throughout Europe. Bach made a paraphrase of the work (perhaps on popular demand?) in his BWV 1083, where he used the text of Psalm 51 (the Miserere) and as a good Protestant, hid the Virgin beyond recognition.
Recommended recording: Andreas Scholl, Barbara Bonney and Les Talens Lyriques directed by Christophe Rousset on Decca. P.S. There is even a whole website dedicated to this genre.
- Stabat Mater by Antonio Vivaldi. Another magical version of this dolorous text, especially when sung by a good countertenor. It was written as a hymn to be performed at the feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin on March 18, 1712, at the Church of the Oration Order in Brescia, a city under Venetian rule that Vivaldi had visited the year before. The composer maintains a gloomy, even claustrophobic atmosphere in this short, but powerful work, entirely in keeping with the sorrowful spirit of the text. Only the final, major chord of “Amen” affords a consolatory glimpse of paradise.
Recommended recording: Michael Chance and The English Concert, conducted by Trevor Pinnock on Archiv.
- Stabat Mater by Giacomo Rossini. And now it is time for some musical theater – the antics beginning even before the piece has been fully composed. In 1831 Rossini was traveling in Spain when Fernández Varela, a state councilor, commissioned a setting of the Stabat Mater from him. Rossini was in ill-health and only managed to complete half of the piece; in order to fulfill the commission he asked his friend Giovanni Tadolini to finish the work for him. Rossini then presented the completed work to Varela as his own and it was premiered in 1833 in Madrid. But when Varela next dies, the antics start. His heirs sell the manuscript to a Paris publisher, but Rossini wants the publishing rights for himself and disowns the work as half of it has been written by his stand-in. Rossini sells the rights to another publisher in Paris, lawsuits ensue, and the last publisher is victorious. Rossini now finishes the work himself and the final version of the score is sold for performance to the Théâtre-Italien – the price has by now increased from 2,000 francs to 20,000 francs. Religious music is not bad business, something Rossini was criticized for by the young Richard Wagner. “Action! Action! Once more, Action! And money is fetched out, to pay the best of lawyers, to get documents produced, to enter caveats. O ye foolish people, have ye lost your hiking for your gold?” (Quotation from Wikipedia). The first performance was an enormous triumph for Rossini, but cooler critics as Heinrich Heine blasted the piece as “too worldly, sensuous, too playful for the religious subject.” Be that as it may, Rossini's version fits the Stabat Mater tradition like a glove. The most popular movement of the ten is the second one, “Cuius animam,” characterized by a rollicking and memorable tune, and a good demonstration of the singer's bravura technique.
Recommended recording: The Philharmonia Orchestra and soloists conducted by Carlo Maria Guilini.
- Stabat Mater by Antonin Dvorak. A big-boned and large-scale work, the longest Stabat Mater ever written (a performance takes between 80 and 90 minutes). In contrast to the Rossini (and similar to the Stabat Mater in Verdi's Quattro Pezzi Sacri) a work of a serious and deeply personal inspiration: it is in fact linked to the death of the composer's daughter, Josefa. Nonetheless this Stabat Mater ends in a major key, as if expressing hope. The style is a mixture of symphonic poem and German oratorio and the work was written in several settings, with the final version completed at the end of 1877 – at a time when two more of Dvorak's young children died. The first movement is an extended symphonic sonata-form; the final movement recalls the opening themes of the work, but then turns into the major key for a triumphant Amen fugue. The first performance took place on December 23, 1880, at the Jednota umělců hudebních (Association of Musical Artists) in Prague. The composition is traditionally performed in the Czech Republic during Easter time.
Recommended recording: Staatskapelle Dresden and soloists conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli on Deutsche Gramophon.
- Stabat Mater by Francis Poulenc. Poulenc composed this work in 1950 in response to the death of his friend, the artist Christian Bérard; he considered writing a Requiem for Bérard, but, after visiting the shrine of Rocamadour, he selected the medieval Stabat Mater text. The work is therefore explicitly associated with the mysterious Black Virgin of Rocamadour. Poulenc's setting, scored for soprano solo, mixed chorus, and orchestra, premiered in 1951 at the Strasbourg Festival. The music is written in a mystical, almost experimental language and is certainly no easy-listening. There is also an explicit baroque side, such as the use of a Sarabande in the tenth movement. In the first movement the composer gives the opening phrase to the basses, imbuing a dark color to the work, alleviated by the almost voluptuous solo for the soprano. All twelve movements are relatively short. Poulenc himself saw the Stabat Mater as the most noble of his works and I think we can fully agree with that assessment.
Recommended recording: BBC Singers and BBC Philharmonic, directed by Yan Pascal Tortelier on Chandos.
- The Seven Last Words of our Savior on the Cross (“Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze”) by Joseph Haydn. “The Seven Last Words” refers to the seven short phrases uttered by Jesus on the cross, as gathered from the four Christian Gospels. At least 16 composers have written musical settings of the Seven Last Words, for various combinations of voice and/or instruments. By far the best known of these settings is that by Joseph Haydn, who produced three different arrangements of his own work. In 1786 Haydn had been invited by a canon of Cádiz Cathedral in Spain to provide music for a Lenten devotion. As Haydn himself explained: “It was customary at the Cathedral of Cádiz to produce an oratorio every year during Lent, the effect of the performance being not a little enhanced by the following circumstances. The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the center of the roof broke the solemn darkness. At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse. My composition was subject to these conditions, and it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners; indeed, I found it quite impossible to confine myself to the appointed limits.” (Quotation from Wikipedia) The original version of Haydn's set of remarkably varied slow movements was scored for orchestra. The work had wide currency throughout Europe and was instrumental in establishing Haydn's international reputation. Haydn made the version for string quartet three days after completing the fuller orchestral version in February 1787. In 1796 he devised a choral version, having overheard a similar arrangement which he did not find entirely satisfactory. The seven main meditative sections — labeled "sonatas" and all slow — are framed by an Introduction and a short "Earthquake" conclusion, for a total of nine movements; most of the music is consolatory in nature.
Recommended recording: (orchestral version) Le Concert des nations, directed by Jordi Savall on Alia Vox; (string quartet version) Quatuor Mosaïques on Naive.
- Threni by Igor Stravinsky. The special Catholic services on the last three days of Holy Week are known as “Tenebrae,” and there have been many famous musical settings of the readings from these services, especially those from the “Lamentations” of the Prophet Jeremiah. Classical settings in the French chamber music tradition were written by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Francois Couperin, while Jan Dismas Zelenka composed his version in the high baroque Central European style. But we turn to something more modern: Stravinsky's setting for the Venice Biennale from 1958 for solo singers, chorus and orchestra. It is Stravinsky's first and longest completely dodecaphonic work, austere and structurally the most complex of all his religious compositions. As Threni was intended for concert rather than liturgical use, Stravinsky chose the text freely from the Book of Lamentations. There are three movements, a large central movement surrounded by two much shorter ones. An influence on Stravisnky may have been Ernst Krenek who composed a setting of the Lamentations in 1957, but other conscious predecessors include Renaissance composers as Tallis, Byrd and Palestrina.
Recommended recording: The Simon Joly Chorale and the Philharmonia conducted by Robert Craft.
- Vespers ("All-night Vigil") by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Called the most profound liturgical music ever composed, Rachmaninoff wrote his All-night Vigil in 1915, just before leaving Russia. The Russian term “vsjenoshchnoe bdeniye” refers to a vigil that lasts through the night, a historical practice that survives to this day. In Chekhov's short story “Easter Night” a beautiful description of such a vigil is given. Such nightly prayer services were particularly associated with Easter and have their model in the New Testament, where Christ himself is described as praying through the night. There is documentation from the end of the second century onwards of solitary ascetics saying prayers at night. In later times, the monks valued nightly services for ascetic reasons but also because the night was more conducive to prayer than the distraction-filled daytime. The Saturday All-night vigil became popular in Russia. It prepared for the liturgy and Eucharist of the following day. The vigil as celebrated in Russian cathedrals in the twentieth century had two forms: the Resurrection Vigil and the Festal Vigil. Rachmaninov's setting follows the order of the Resurrection Vigil. The content of the vigil is extremely profound. The narrative in the evening service begins with the creation of the world, the Fall of Man and the expectation of the Savior. The morning service on Sunday focuses on Christ's Resurrection.
Recommended recording: Finnish National Opera Chorus and soloists conducted by Eric-Olof Söderström on Naxos.
- My opera suggestions boil down to two short pieces so I'll smuggle a bit and list them both: the Good Friday Spell (Karfreitagszauber) from Parsifal by Richard Wagner (1882) and the Easter Hymn from Cavelleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni (1890). I am no great fan of Wagner's cardboard gods constantly hollering at each other, but his final opera based on the quest for the Holy Grail, makes much good. Act 3 takes place in a forest on a Good Friday and the Good Friday Music occurs as Parsifal looks around him and comments on the beauty of the meadow. Gurnemanz explains that the day is Good Friday, when all the world is renewed, and Parsifal baptizes the weeping Kundry. The music is often extracted as a purely instrumental concert item of about ten minutes, but that version seems to have been more popular with conductors from the past than the present.
Mascagni's early verismo opera features two numbers, the Intermezzo and the Easter Hymn, that soon took on an extra-operatic life in the concert hall. The hymn comes at a point in the action where the village choir inside the church is heard singing the Regina Coeli. Outside, the villagers sing an Easter Hymn, joined by the opera’s heroine Santuzza. The villagers enter the church with the exception of Santuzza and Mamma Lucia. Santuzza cannot enter the church because she is considered by the villagers as excommunicated because of a recent "sexual fall from grace." Santuzza begs Mamma Lucia to go inside and pray for her, joining the choir in the hymn from her place outside.
Recommended recordings: (1) Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus directed by Hans Knappertsbusch on Naxos Historical; (2) Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala di Milano, directed by Tullio Serafin on EMI.
- Russian Easter Festival Overture by Rimsky-Korsakoff. Also called “Overture on Liturgical Themes.” The work received its premiere in St. Petersburg in late December 1888. The overture's themes are based on a collection of old Russian Orthodox liturgical chants called “The Obikhod.” Rimsky-Korsakov (who was incidentally a non-believer) says in his autobiography that he is aiming to reproduce “the legendary and heathen aspect of the holiday, and the transition from the solemnity and mystery of the evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious celebrations of Easter Sunday morning.” In that respect, I would like to make one last suggestion for Easter music: the primitive heathen dances of Le Sacre du Printemps by Igor Stravinsky!
Recommended recording: L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Ernest Ansermet.