1) Johann Sebastian Bach: St Matthew Passion
The St Matthew Passion is a masterpiece that many people know well, but few tire of hearing. One of only two JS Bach passion settings still in existence (the St John is the only other to have survived), the piece was originally performed in Leipzig on Good Friday 1727, although the score as we know it dates from 1743-6.
The work’s two halves were originally intended to be sung on either side of the Good Friday sermon – a test of the piety of the most ardent churchgoers (even performances without the sermon tend to last over two-and-a-half hours).
So why do we love it so much? Could it be those intricate baroque figures that tug at the heartstrings? Or the effortless coupling of soli and chorus; of arioso with aria? Perhaps it’s simply the sheer number of terrific tunes that litter the work.
2) Thomas Tallis: Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet
Tallis composed his Lamentations around 1565-70, when he was in his early sixties. Setting Holy Week bible lessons to music was a trend that had developed on the Catholic continent during the early 1400s. Nevertheless, by the mid-16th century England had gamely caught up and the practice was enjoying a brief flourish of popularity.
Although the jury is still out on Tallis‘ religious affiliations (he may have been Catholic at a time when this was politically inadvisable), the pieces could well have formed part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy in his lifetime.
These settings of verses from the Book of Jeremiah are among Tallis’s most expressive works. The composer used all the compositional techniques available to him to squeeze every last ounce of poignancy from the text.
The five vocal lines imitate, suspend, clash and build towards the final section: ‘Jerusalem, turn again to the Lord your God!’
3) Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture
This 1888 overture is named for the Svetlïy prazdnik or ‘Bright holiday’, as Easter is known in Russia.
An avowed atheist, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that he wanted to capture ‘the transition from the solemnity and mystery of the evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious celebrations of Easter Sunday morning’. The piece paints vividly the explosion of light and colour at the end of a long, hard Russian winter.
Religious and pagan themes are entwined at the very heart of the work: Rimsky-Korsakov borrowed themes from the Obikhod, a collection of Orthodox chants that since 1848 had been a mandatory part of the liturgy for every church in Russia.
These austere motifs shine through the wild textures of the orchestra, no more so than at 8’35 when a solo tenor trombone (‘a piena voce’) evokes the chanting of a priest.
4) James MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross
MacMillan’s cantata for choir and string orchestra was commissioned by BBC Television and premiered in seven nightly episodes during Holy Week in 1994. The piece is a setting of the final sentences uttered by Jesus as he lay dying on the cross.
The Aurora Orchestra’s Nicholas Collon recently described it as ‘one of the greatest sacred pieces written in the last 100 years’ – the writing is dramatic, emotionally-charged and extraordinarily moving.
Mantra-like settings of the gospel texts are well ornamented like many of Macmillan’s vocal works. The first movement is particularly moving with the plainsong-like chant of the sopranos and altos underpinned by savagely discordant murmurings in the strings.
Not one to listen to if you’re feeling fragile, though.
5) Gustav Mahler: Symphony No 2 ‘Resurrection’
Mahler’s second symphony makes for great Passiontide listening. The journey from the tension of the first movements to the resolution of the finale mirrors Easter’s themes of destruction and redemption – hence the unofficial ‘resurrection’ title.
The symphony took six years to complete and was first performed in 1895. Mahler always planned for the fifth movement to feature voices but lacked inspiration for a text until 1894, when he heard a setting of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s Die Aufersterhung (‘The Resurrection) performed at the funeral of his colleague and mentor, Hans von Bülow.
Mahler was deeply moved. ‘It struck me like lightning, this thing,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘and everything was revealed to me clear and plain.’ He borrowed the first eight lines of Klopstock’s poem and supplied a further twenty or so himself.
Halfway through the final movement, the choir comes in with the words: ‘Rise again! Yes, rise again will you, my dust, after a short rest!’
6) Francis Poulenc: Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence
The critic Claude Rostand famously described Poulenc as ‘le moine et le voyou’ – half monk, half rascal. Though legendary in Parisian social circles as a bit of a dilettante, the death of a close friend in 1936 prompted Poulenc to make a religious pilgrimage that led to a dramatic personal transformation.
While he retained something of the rascal throughout his career, much of the composer’s work after this time bears the hallmarks of a deep and abiding spirituality.
This set of four Lenten songs, completed in 1939, are among his most popular choral works; notable for their sense of restraint, they display a beauty and subtlety appropriate to their somewhat gloomy subject matter. Yet the songs are as dramatic as they are devotional.