Perhaps, in your Lenten time of meditation, you may take the time to listen to one or all of these Lenten masterpieces compiled here. From the Baroque to the Modern, composers have tried to capture what earthly ears, hands and voices can feebly convey. From our lips, to God’s ears.
O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see:
if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.
Behold, all people, and look at my sorrow:
if there be any sorrow like unto sorrow.
Two of the great Lenten works of art are Bach’s St Matthew and St John Passions. These extraordinary pieces tell the story of Jesus’ final few days and hours in a vivid combination of drama and reflection. The Evangelist, along with a range of other characters, tells the story in free recitative interspersed with solo arias that reflect on the meaning of the action and of the individuals’ relationship with God. Many of the arias are characterised by the use of a solo instrument as well as the voice; the viol de gamba in Es ist vollbracht (St John) and the violin in Erbarme Dich (St Matthew) are two of the most poignant.
Francis Poulenc’s Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence come from a late period in his life when, after the death of close friend Pierre-Octave Ferroudin in a car crash, he refound his faith and wrote a series of searingly intense (and searingly difficult!) sacred choral works. The motets for Lent are among the most powerful, full of expressive and often dissonant harmonies. The third, Tenebrae factae sunt, is particularly striking as it depicts the moment of Christ’s death; at the phrase ‘et inclinato capite’ (and bowing his head), the altos sing a tortuous chromatically descending phrase before the whole choir sings, very softly, ‘emisit spiritum’ – he gave up the ghost.
Contemporary composers have used an extended, more dissonant harmonic language in setting Lenten texts; the Scottish composer James Macmillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross for chorus and strings has entered the repertoire as one of the most intense and powerful works of recent years.
John Sanders’ The Reproaches, setting a similar text from the Good Friday service, is a favourite in the world of English church music. The Reproaches is heard in almost every church and cathedral in England on Good Friday.
Many parts of the Church year, and their associated texts, have inspired composers to create wonderful music, especially the season of Advent, and Christmas itself. But to listen to some of the music for Lent written throughout the ages suggests that the intensity of the Passion story has been the starting point for some of the most powerful music ever created.
Dr. Lori Lind
Minister of Music