The account of the birth of Christianity as depicted through the life of Jesus some 2,000 years ago has been celebrated for centuries through masterpieces of the Western European classical music tradition. Formats include the Passion, the Stabat Mater and the Requiem Mass.
Music-lovers will have their own favourites and, no doubt, the CDs to go with them: Mozart’s Requiem (8.557728), J. S. Bach‘s St Matthew Passion (8.557617-19) and Pergolesi‘s Stabat Mater (8.550766) will surely figure high on people’s lists. But this whole notion of pain, separation and spiritual optimism for the future has been lifted out of its exclusively sacred context by numerous composers and re-clothed in more secular expressions. The message is no less powerful as a result; some would argue that the bottom line is even more poignant. For this week’s blog, we thought we could take a look at a few of these works that offer an extension of the traditional Easter message; they may even recommend themselves sufficiently to find a place among your existing collection.
Jesus was Jewish, yet his life sparked the offshoot of Christianity—parallel, but distinct, faiths. When Thomas Beveridge wrote his Yizkor Requiem: A Quest for Spiritual Roots (8.559453), he sought to bridge the schism by combining the memorial services of both the Jewish and Catholic religions; the title reflects the first words of the Jewish Yizkor Service and the Catholic Requiem Mass. First performed in 1994, the work was inspired by the death of the composer’s father, Lowell Beveridge, who had conducted his own “quest for spiritual roots”. His early career was spent as organist and choirmaster at St Paul’s Chapel, when on the faculty of Columbia University. After retirement, he spent two years in Israel at the ecumenical institute Tantur, with representatives of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths. Thomas’ Yizkor Requiem reflects the influence of synagogue music on the early Church and the common themes of the two rituals. Notably, the Catholic Dies Irae description of the torments awaiting the souls of the damned is omitted. The only ripple of terror occurs in the setting of Psalm 23, which is used universally in all of the faiths of the Judaeo-Christian spiritual heritage. At the words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death”, the music is coloured by muted brass and strings playing col legno, striking the strings with the back of the bow, simulating the sound of rattling bones.
Born in 1933, the Polish composer Krzystof Penderecki has lived long enough to witness mankind’s self-inflicted suffering at first hand and to record his comments in a number of works, beginning with his starkly simple and emotionally direct Stabat Mater. Written during 1962 in the conformist environment of post-Stalinist Poland, this work by a devout Catholic in a nominally atheist society was among the first open expressions of faith in Poland following the Second World War. Four years later came the première of his St Luke Passion (8.557149), which was based on the models of J. S. Bach’s great Passions that narrate the events leading up to the Crucifixion.
His A Polish Requiem (8.557386-87) was written over a period of 13 years; individual sections were written in response to different stimuli. The Lacrimosa was written in 1980 for Lech Walesa and his trade union Solidarity as an in memoriam for the Gdansk dock-workers who had died during confrontations with the authorities ten years earlier. The Recordare Jesu pie was written in 1982 to mark the beatification of Father Maximilian Kolbe who, in 1941, volunteered to die in Auschwitz in place of another prisoner and his family. In 1984 the Dies Irae was added as a 40th anniversary remembrance of the Warsaw uprising against Nazi occupation; the Sanctus completed the work in 1993. The composer conducted the first performance that year in Stockholm on November 11, which is Remembrance Day, the occasion established to mark the end of hostilities in World War I.
Peter Ritzen‘s Chinese Requiem (8.223980) is an intriguing mix of sacred and secular, with a text that acts as a tribute to those who shaped China. Dating from 1990, it was inspired by Buddhist temple music, but cast in the form of the Catholic Requiem Mass. The three bass drum beats that open the work recall the Chinese drums that hang outside Buddhist temples; they also suggest the Holy Trinity. The numerical significance appears again in the Offertorium, the text of which reflects the three great foundation stones of the history and culture of China: Confucian philosophy, Lao-Zi’s supreme wisdom in society, and the Buddha.
Gloria Coates’ Cantata da Requiem ‘WW II Poems for Peace’ (8.559371) was completed in 1972; it was originally titled Voices of Women in Wartime. The American composer has lived in Germany for the past 45 years. When she visited the Dachau concentration camp at the time of the Vietnam War and the terrorist attack at the Olympic Games, she resolved to channel her outrage into an anti-war work centred around the events of the Second World War. From the thoughts of a newly-widowed woman to a BBC weather report and the chilling description of overhead bombers, the work concludes with Marianne Moore’s words from 1942: If all these great dyings, …can Teach us how to live in peace / Then all these dyings, / All these sorrows were / Not in vain.
May you enjoy a very reflective, and very musical Easter.