X Close

Why Easter is music to my ears Even atheists can moved by the music of Holy Week

A celebration of Lord's Passion on Good Friday at St Peter's basilica in Vatican. Credit: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty

A celebration of Lord's Passion on Good Friday at St Peter's basilica in Vatican. Credit: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty


April 2, 2021   5 mins

This article was originally published on 10 April 2020

For Christians, this week is the most important of the year. And this year’s Holy Week is, around the world, unlike any other. With churches shut, and services either cancelled or streamed online from all-but empty buildings, people will have to find their own space for contemplation. And that goes for non-believers, and lapsed or non-practising Christians, as well as the unambiguously religious.

For my own part, whether I have been in or out of faith, this week has always presented the richest musical opportunities. And though we can’t gather together these days, we can at least swop sources online; so I thought I might share some of the music which for me makes up Holy Week, and which can be heard for free. It is a feast rich enough to fill the long weekend, if not a lifetime.

St Matthew Passion, Bach — performed by Willem Mengelberg and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
 

 

Normally in this week I would try to go to a performance of Bach’s St John or St Matthew Passion. I’ve heard some wonderful performances — and a few average ones — over the years, but in some ways the performance doesn’t matter because absolutely nothing can diminish the power of these works.

Of course, both have been recorded more times than can be counted. But this week I have been listening again, as I have most years, to a performance whose style is out of fashion, but which has an extra depth that never fails to move me.

This is the recording of the Matthew Passion broadcast on Dutch Radio on Palm Sunday 1939. The annual performance at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam goes on to this day. But the conductor on this recording is the great Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951), who had been conducting the event since 1899.

While the circumstances of the performance should not overshadow the music, from the first bars of the opening chorus (“Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen” / “Come you daughters, help me to lament”) there is a portentousness that makes you breathe differently for a moment. The performance is moving in so many ways, particularly because we now know what that audience — whose occasional coughs you can hear — were about to go through.

Naturally I would recommend listening to it all, but if you must skip, then wait until the end of the opening chorus, then move on to the great Dutch soprano Jo Vincent sing the aria ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’ (‘Out of love my saviour is willing to die’) which starts at 2:00:59. The whole performance is miraculously available on YouTube. Just listen to those repetitions of the words ‘Aus Liebe’, with those flute notes tumbling down.

Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae, Thomas Tallis — performed by the Deller Consort
 

 

Period recordings are always a fraught issue. And in general I listen to modern recordings. But sometimes a particular performance is the one you’ve been brought up with or heard first — or has some other quality which keeps it high above all others.

The Lamentations of Jeremiah by Thomas Tallis is one of the jewels of the Holy Week musical liturgy. There are several great recordings, but this one by the Deller Consort from 1958 is the one I listen to most often.

The voice of the countertenor Alfred Deller is not to everyone’s taste, and there are those weird gear-changes in his voice that a modern counter-tenor wouldn’t get away with. But he was a pioneer and it is the fragility of Deller’s voice soaring above the others that makes this recording so special. His voice sounds as though it is going to crack at any moment and in a way it is the sense of how nearly it could go wrong that makes it so clear that it is right.

The full Latin text (beginning “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people”) can be found online. For me the first rendition of “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum” (“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto the Lord thy God”) at about 7 mins in here, is the demonstration of Tallis’s — and Deller’s — greatness.

The Lamentations, Edward Bairstow — performed by the Choir of York Minster
 

 

Whilst we are on Lamentations, there is one other setting from the English choral tradition which I must flag up, because it is much less well known than the Tallis. This one from Edward Bairstow was composed in 1942. I had never heard the piece until I started attending the Good Friday service at St Paul’s Cathedral some years ago: a great service, during which the choir always sing Tallis’s Litany in procession, the Allegri Miserere and this piece from Bairstow.

This is a recording from York Minster, but you can imagine the effect of those organ chords each time the choir sings ‘Jerusalem’ in St Paul’s. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it is a magnificent setting of the words and there is something deeply moving about a piece written so firmly in the Anglican choral tradition.

Versa est in luctum, Alonso Lobo — performed by the Tenebrae Choir
 

 

One piece that most certainly is a masterpiece — and from a very different choral tradition — is this work by the sixteenth century Spanish composer Alonso Lobo. In my experience, Lobo is one of those composers who, whenever you hear anything by him, makes you immediately wonder why you don’t listen to him all the time. The recording of his magnificent ‘Versa est in luctum’ here is sung by the wonderful ensemble Tenebrae, and was recorded last year in the church of St Bartholomew the Great in London.

The Latin words have been set by many other composers, including Victoria. But I know no setting as intensely moving as this one.

Versa est in luctum cithara mea, et organum meum in vocem flentium.
Parce mihi Domine, nihil enim sunt dies mei.

[My harp is turned to grieving and my flute to the voice of those who weep.
Spare me, O Lord, for my days are as nothing.]

Officium defunctorum: Parce mihi Domine — performed by the Monteverdi Choir
 

 

Incidentally, some people may know the setting of the last of these words by the slightly earlier Spanish composer Cristobal de Morales. The Hilliard Ensemble made it famous again some years ago in a setting with saxophone improvisation on top, but the sparseness of the original saxophone-less version remains my favourite. Here it is courtesy of the Monteverdi Choir.

Tenebrae responsories: O vos omnes, Tomás Luis de Victoria — performed by the Cambridge Singers
 

 

I could go on, of course. Anyone thinking I unfairly skirted over Victoria earlier might be placated by the fact that I don’t think any Holy Week should be gone through without at least one listen to his setting of ‘O vos omnes’ (the words are “O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see if there be any sorrow like my sorrow”). Any choristers reading will know that every phrase in this piece (especially ‘Attendite’) is as beautiful to sing as it is to hear.

Here is a recording (with score, for anyone who wants to sing along) by the Cambridge Singers.

Apparition de l’Eglise Ă©ternelle, Olivier Messiaen — performed by Olivier Latry
 

 

Of course, all of these works are works of mourning and lamentation, composed to fit the dejection and desolation of the Holy Week story, leading up to the crucifixion on Good Friday. Easter Sunday of course changes everything, including the music. But that is to get ahead of ourselves. Perhaps I might finish this Holy Week playlist with a rather different final piece.

One of my favourite composers is Olivier Messiaen, the great expander of the organ repertoire, and one of the searing religious visionaries of the twentieth century. One piece of his which is worth turning the volume up on (especially if you have some good bass speakers) is this short work from 1932, ‘Apparition de l’Eglise Ă©ternelle’ (‘The apparition of the eternal church’).

I select it not just because it looks forward to what is to come, but because this recording (with score) was made on the great organ of Notre Dame in Paris. Perhaps one Easter soon it will be played in that great cathedral again. It will be very much in the spirit of the Easter story if it is.

*

As an addendum, I might just say: these are tough times for many musicians, like everybody else. Huge amounts of work have been lost. So if these recordings or others that have been made available on YouTube do appeal to you, please do buy the artists’ albums, or those of other groups, and think about booking tickets for their next concerts. We will get back the joy of hearing live music again.


Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.

DouglasKMurray

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

32 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
santaka13
santaka13
3 years ago

Thank you so much Douglas for this tremendous list. By the way, Iook out for thngs you write on Unherd and Twitter or wherever else I see them. Thank Heaven for people like you and Dr Jordan Petersen.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Oh dear – all these works appear to have been written by white composers. Where is Stormzy Daniels?

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Giulia Khawaja
Giulia Khawaja
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Yes thank God.

David Zersen
David Zersen
4 years ago

Thanks for your reflections. Especially during this sequestered season, much of the music you propose has the power to free us from our stuck-at-home sadness and blow fresh winds through our open speakers. I’m grateful that already as a child I had a chorus director who had us singing parts in German, English and Latin. It lauched me on a lifetime of choral singing that helps me appreciate the great gift we have here in Milwaukee.

Kathy Lang
Kathy Lang
4 years ago

Thank you, Douglas – some of this is music I don’t know / would not have thought of, and I so much need its solace. Perhaps you would do another article for Pentecost? My all time short favourite is Tallis “If ye love me…” which I wd normally be singing in our Church Choir on Sunday – but not this year, and the tears will fall…

menekadas
menekadas
4 years ago

What an amazing playlist thank you Douglas for sharing… the Thomas Tallis piece takes me back to the mountains of India where I studied at a convent, the sister in charge would insist we sat in the chapel and educate our sinful little minds with some spirtual music that would save our souls… As a youngester choral music was the last thing I wanted but years later I am appreciating it a lot more than I did then…

Jill Mans
Jill Mans
3 years ago

Is there no end to your talents, Douglas? What a wonderful playlist. As a choral singer of many years’ standing some of these pieces are very familiar to me, but there are some which are not, and which I will make a point of listening to during the day. No singing in church this Easter, alas, which is very sad, but we are lucky to have access to all these free recordings. Thank you!

Martin Goodwin
Martin Goodwin
2 years ago
Reply to  Jill Mans

Why is there no singing in your church, Jill? The closing of churches and the banning of music in services until quite recently was quite disgraceful. My Male Voice Choir started rehearsing again months ago, and we have already given two concerts.

rwjfoster
rwjfoster
4 years ago

Thank you Douglas, for the introduction to some wonderful performances that had been previously UnHerd by me.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago

Thank you Douglas, we can always rely on you to bring on the good stuff. St. Matthew’s, St. John’s, various Stabat Maters – we spent 5 years with Pergolesi’s (with Emma Kirkby) stuck in the car CD player, as we saw no reason to change it. Until the car got replaced. Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater is excellent too.
Time to prepare the boiled smoked ham with horseraddish sauce, for Easter Morning. Happy Easter to all.

Paul Booth
Paul Booth
3 years ago

An account of what Good Friday was like in a typical English parish church on the eve of the Reformation.
“Good Friday in the late Middle Ages was a day of deepest mourning. No Mass was celebrated, and the main liturgical celebration of the day was a solemn and penitential commemoration of the Passion. The whole of the narrative from St John’s Gospel was read, with a small dramatic embellishment: at the words ‘They parted my garments among them’ the clergy parted and removed two linen cloths which had been specially placed for the purpose on the otherwise bare altar. ….
Clergy and people then crept barefoot and on their knees to kiss the foot of the cross, held by two ministers”
Eamon Duffy, ‘The Stripping of the Altars’, p. 29

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
4 years ago

Thanks for this Douglas, the first thing I did when I woke up this morning was to look for a list of musical recommendations forHoly Week, with a few different things in it. I will spend part of today listening to a compilation of things from the various lists I have found which I haven’t heard before.

My daughter came back from University for lock down with a copy of Jaques Attali’s Noise, for a philosophy of music essay. I have been torturing myself by reading it, but the central theme about noise and power does seem very relevant in this time of state imposed silence. But buying recordings is a way of stockpiling time and death, apparently, so be careful what you encourage people to do.

pauline.k
pauline.k
4 years ago

Holy Week has now gone but it is still Eastertide. I already have most of this music on CD as I too adore sacred music. I often visit York and its glorious Minster. Listening to such music there is as heavenly as St.Paul’s, but then, I am a northerner.

mcmahoncm
mcmahoncm
4 years ago

Thank you for this article Douglas. I enjoyed it alot.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Thank you so much Douglas, especially for the Concertgebouw tip. I was a regular there when I lived in Amsterdam, and played many games of football on Museumplein with the Concertgebouw as a backdrop.
Sadly, Museumplein is now home to anti-lockdown protests every weekend that are brutally suppressed by the Dutch police. A very good friend of mine was arrested there last weekend.

James Wardle
James Wardle
3 years ago

I love music with the exception of chart pop now, but I can play Siouxsie & The Banshees or something I discovered a while back bortniansky, 18th c? Choral music. The orthodox Churches Russian choral music is something else.
At school, when you were allowed to sing hymns we did so every day of the week ie 7 days.

End of term, Stanford’s Te Deum in b flat with full choir, orchestra and 600 mixed 8 to 18 children conducted by Mr Robert Smith (no not The Cure who I love, Robert Smith is a poet and 2 late, is heartache as I remember my first true and only love and he was heavenly in body and spirit), getting angrier if we were sluggish o our tempo. He died of cancer years back but what a character.
There’s something about being part of that, whether you believe or not, because it is uplifting. It would also help with less talking about identity politics and skin colours and just singing for the pleasure of it. Jerusalem was a big thing for the 6 tv form lads … the evermore was louder and louder as they attempted a record.
I do have a favourite hymn, O Thou The Central Orb sung by Halifax Choral Society is like they taped it in a local church, rather than a big set piece and it’s more endearing. The others are far too slow tempo wise.
I’m off to listen to Big Maybelle, I heard I’ve got a feeling and she’s got a big voice and she thinks her bestie is sleeping with her husband and tries to catch her by waiting under her bed to catch them out. Ace…

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
4 years ago

I was the first to comment, early this morning. What is the point of having a comments section and allowing comments under articles written by people who campaign for free speech, if you do not allow comments to appear?

Kathy Lang
Kathy Lang
4 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Free speech is essential – but not necessarily unfettered speech, full of violence or hatred or even swear-words. So i support Unherd’s policy of moderation – and your helpful comment did get through!

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago
Reply to  Kathy Lang

What exactly makes you presume that Houston’s (or anyone’s) comments contained any of those things? I had many comments removed, none of them contained “violence or hatred or even swear-words.” Nor those comments made by others which i’ve read before they disappeared. So your comment was rather unhelpful here.

Toby Josh
Toby Josh
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Happy Easter.

Wulvis Perveravsson
Wulvis Perveravsson
3 years ago

John Eliot Gardiner’s Pilgrimage to Santiago is truly a beautiful and amazing musical journey. It strikes me that the mics are gradually moved closer to the choir throughout the programme, which has quite an interesting psychological effect.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago

Must check that out, thanks for the tip! Gardiner deserves immense credit for reinstating baroque music to how it should be played, doing away with the melodramatic flourishes of postromanticism. (Was in my teens back in the eighties, slowly settling back into my childhood favourites (baroque, renaissance) after a short obligatory foray into punk – just about when Gardiner / English Baroque Soloists vinyls started to turn up, my mother hunting down each one. What a delight after the stuffy, emotised fare we had to make do with prior. The Magnificat turned up first – still haven’t heard a better one than that.)

Wulvis Perveravsson
Wulvis Perveravsson
3 years ago

You should, it’s worth it. I originally thought to mention it because Douglas included one track from it in his listing, but I think the whole thing needs to be listened to to really appreciate it.
I’m in agreement. Can’t beat the baroque!

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago

Absolutely!
And not only for listening. I suck at every instrument i tried to play (fingers too clunky), but spent years trying to learn some Bach pieces on the piano – that gave a glimpse into how they are made. It’s weeping and howling with utter delight at watching perfection constructing itself (now, that was a very contorted sentence).
Found this little piece on youtube, Bach’s Crab Canon (sorta multidimensional palindrome) illustrated:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUHQ2ybTejU

J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago

Beautiful selection and a timely reminder of the spiritual power of music.
Thank you, Douglas Murray.

Martin Rossol
Martin Rossol
3 years ago

Douglas, Thank you for a most wonderful offering thoughts and music. Its been years since I listened to Lobo. You are so right – why did I ever stop. Well, I won’t again. Happy Easter!

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago

The Hilliard Ensemble made it famous again some years ago in a setting with saxophone improvisation on top, but the sparseness of the original saxophone-less version remains my favourite. 

That would be the Officium album with Jan Garbarek (an excellent saxist). Contains one of my oldest favourites, Procedentem Sponsum (a Christmas gregorian). Same as you, i much prefer the original version to Hilliard Ensemble’s take on it. (Not that the Hilliard / Garbarek interpretation is bad – it’s good, but the original is so much better.)
Here’s the original: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FlwU0ughBMM – a fairly rare, “dynamic” gregorian tune.

Last edited 3 years ago by Johannes Kreisler
Carrie Wiebe
Carrie Wiebe
4 years ago

Thank-you for the recommendations and online musical selections. As I read your article, I thought that you might enjoy reading Charles Taylor as he discusses, “absolute music” (perhaps you already have). When i read your work here and other places, I wonder if you have considered Taylor’s understanding of “disenchantment?”

d.london98
d.london98
4 years ago

For those who use Apple Music I’ve transposed the playlist:
https://music.apple.com/gb/

Michael L
Michael L
3 years ago

Happy Easter to all Christians!!!

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

As a Benedictine educated Roman Catholic, I adore plainsong, and chant in Latin, as much as I dislike to levels of allergy, hymns, and Christmas carols are even worse… but nothing is more abhorrent than the invasion of our Church by the strumming, whistling, tamburinoid, minstrels from Hades and low church protestanism…

kfmj64t9kz
kfmj64t9kz
3 years ago

The Apparition is crazy beautiful.

it has to be incredible in person.