There is nothing quite like choral music at Easter. Apart from choral music at Christmas, but then again the Christmas story has it easy – everyone’s happy apart from Herod. The Easter Story does, admittedly, culminate in Christ’s glorious resurrection and ascension. And yet Christ’s betrayal, his ensuing trial, and his crucifixion make for truly harrowing moments. Easter is clearly not only a time for elation, but also for reflection on loss, violence and spiritual desolation.
For hundreds of years, composers have been inspired by the Easter story to write some of the most beautiful and heart-rending music ever created. Around the world, choral music provides solemn accompaniment to Holy Week and clamorous jubilation to Easter Sunday’s celebrations. But more than that, it has a resonance that carries far beyond the walls of any cathedral or concert hall. It speaks to the condition of being human.
At medici.tv we’ve (albeit slightly prematurely) had a bit of an Easter egg hunt, and have found some delicious eggs/choral-masterpieces-perfect-for-Holy-Week for you – enjoy!
1) J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion
The St. Matthew Passion is one of the most monumental works in the Western sacred repertoire. It tells the story of the last moments of Jesus Christ on Earth, from the Last Supper to the crucifixion. Premiered on Good Friday in St Thomas Church, Leipzig, in the late 1720s, the Passion’s two halves were originally intended to be sung on either side of the sermon – a daunting prospect for the congregation, given the piece alone already lasted over two-and-a-half hours!
Here’s the Thomanerchor performing the Passion in Bach’s own Thomaskirche in Leipzig. In the second chorale, entitled “Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen?” (“Ah, Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended?”,) Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem where he will be crucified. Chorales like this include us in the story and really tug at our heartstrings.
“The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” – JS Bach
… and his St. John Passion
The St. John Passion is shorter and more dramatic than the later St. Matthew Passion. Where Bach’s second passion is more introspective, his first is more theatrical. In the St. John Passion the singers play the parts of violent mob and sneering High Priests, urging Pilate to convict Jesus. In this excerpt, Bach’s dissonant and repetitive “Kreuzige!” (“Crucify!”), brilliantly depicts the mob baying for Christ’s blood.
… and his Mass in B Minor
… this is the last one, we promise – it’s hard not to get a bit obsessed with Bach’s choral writing when it’s this good. His interweaved arias, recitatives, choruses and chorales create rich tapestries of emotion that provide the perfect accompaniment to Easter. From contemplative fervor to electric exhilaration, Bach’s music has it all.
This setting of the “Cruxifixus” drives in every nail until it hurts. The music itself seems to moan.
“If there is anyone who owes everything to Bach, it is certainly God.” – Emil Cioran
2) Dvořák’s Stabat Mater
The Stabat Mater is a 13th-century Christian hymn to Mary. The first line, “Stabat Mater dolorosa,” means “the sorrowful mother was standing,” and there is perhaps no more heartbreaking Holy Week hymn than this portrayal of a mother’s anguish as her son is crucified.
Dvorak may be known more as a symphonic than choral composer, yet his simple, unassuming faith and personal tragedy (the deaths of three of his children in quick succession just months earlier may well have compelled him to complete the Stabat Mater) gave rise to a true choral masterpiece. His timeless setting pays universal tribute to human sorrow and hope.
This excerpt from the movement Fons amoris, performed by a vintage Prague Symphony Orchestra and Prague Symphonic Choir, beseeches Mary: “Mother, fountain of love, make me feel the power of sorrow, that I may grieve with you.”
3) Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”
First performed in 1895, Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is telling of the Austrian composer’s lifelong infatuation with the beauty of the afterlife and of his belief in resurrection. Mahler uses Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s poem Die Auferstehung (“The Resurrection”), where the dictum calls out “Rise again, yes, you shall rise again / My dust.”
The choir is instructed to sing mit höchster Kraft (“with utmost power”) and this excerpt under the baton of Claudio Abbado surely showcases the transcendent power of choral music at its best.
I’m not crying, you’re crying.
4) Handel’s Messiah
Despite its regular appearance at Christmas time, Handel’s Messiah is essential Easter music. Only part one is actually concerned with the Christmas story, whereas part two tells the Passion story of Christ’s trial, death, and resurrection. From memorable arias such as “He was despised” to emphatic choruses such as “Worthy is the lamb,” the Messiah beautifully captures the highs and lows of the Easter story.
Here is the colossal “Hallelujah!” chorus, probably the most famous chorus in all British music!
5) Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem
Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem was first performed on Good Friday in 1868 with Brahms himself conducting. It may be a “German” Requiem, but Brahms considered it above all a “human” Requiem, written to offer hope and comfort to humanity. The text features a glorious battle between Life and Death (spoiler: Life wins!) Brahms was so well-versed in the Bible that he not only composed the music for his Requiem, but also translated and adapted the Bible verse into his native German.
Here is Claudio Abbado again (he did such a great job with the Mahler), this time with the Berliner Phil, the Swedish Radio Choir, and the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir. In the 6th movement of the Requiem, Life’s battle against Death reaches its apogee – Death is fatally “erstochen” (“stabbed”), whilst Life taunts “Wo ist dein Sieg?” (“Where is your victory?”)
This is high drama, but the exhilarating result is utterly (after)life-affirming.
… and a bonus egg!
Verdi’s Requiem is a hellfire choral masterpiece and perhaps not an obvious choice for Holy Week. A piece of pure theatre, the Requiem is nevertheless unafraid to do away with drama and to lay the human voice bare. In this excerpt from the Agnus Dei, the voices of the choir move in naked unison and the effect is breathtaking. Verdi the showman manages to create a moment of perfect vulnerability, strength, and unquestioning faith all rolled into one. Bravo.
We hope you enjoyed our Easter egg hunt. But eggs are for sharing! Do you have any Easter favourites? Let us know in the comments! And why not feast your eyes and ears on our choral masterpieces playlist? We’ve got everything from the Carmina Burana to Haydn’s Creation to Beethoven’s 9th… Dig in!