The tradition of writing liturgical music began centuries ago, when the main employer of European composers was the Christian church. Since then, an abundance of music has been created to commemorate the Biblical events leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
Composers approach musical retellings of Christianity's most important holiday from a variety of perspectives; here are just a few pieces to listen to during Holy Week:
Ludwig van Beethoven, Christ on the Mount of Olives (1803)
Beethoven’s sole oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, tells the story of Jesus's final night of prayers and suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest. Composed shortly after Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter to his brothers in which he agonizes over his increasing deafness, the composer could no doubt relate to the torment of awaiting an impending fate. In the oratorio’s final movement, as Jesus accepts his destiny and proclaims triumph over Hell, a choir of angels sing the Hallelujah chorus and bring the work to a triumphant close.
J.S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion (1727)
290 years ago this month, Bach debuted what has become perhaps his most beloved sacred work: the St. Matthew Passion. Composed for Good Friday vesper services in Leipzig, the piece has been described as “one of the pillars of Western sacred music… at once monumental and intimate, deeply sorrowful and powerful.” Scored for double orchestra and double choir, the oratorio is divided into two parts, meant to be sung on either side of the Good Friday sermon. The first depicts events leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, while the more somber second half illustrates the trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus.
Tan Dun, Water Passion after St. Matthew (2000)
Chinese composer Tan Dun’s take on the Passion is unique in both origin and aesthetic. Born in 1957, Tan grew up under a policy of state atheism and the suppression of religious practice. To connect with the story of Christ, Tan says he watched dozens of films, studied the Bible, and listened to J.S. Bach's Passions, which he first heard after China’s cultural revolution in the 1970s opened the door again to Western art. Musically, Tan mixes cultural influences, fusing Mongolian throat singing and Peking Opera vocal styles with the Western choral sound. Instruments draw from ancient Silk Road traditions, using bent pitches, microtones, and alternate tunings. Bowls of water, lit from below, line the stage in the shape of a cross and serve as both instruments and symbolic markers — the 90-minute piece opens with Jesus’s baptism, and ends with his resurrection.
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi , Stabat Mater (1736)
The Stabat Mater, a 13th-century hymn to Mary depicting a mother’s grief at her son’s crucifixion, has been set to music by numerous classical composers. There is something striking about the grief-stricken opening of Pergolesi’s rendition, though, in which the composer sets two female voices in a dissonant counterpoint. It’s an anguish that was probably resonating in Pergolesi’s life, too. At the time he composed the piece, the 26-year old was suffering from tuberculosis and was only a few weeks away from death.
James MacMillan, Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993)
Commissioned by BBC Television and first performed in seven nightly episodes during Holy Week 1994, MacMillan’s cantata for choir and strings uses the traditional, Gospel-gathered text setting presenting the last sentences spoken by Christ from the cross. The music deftly illustrates the emotional range of Christ’s utterances; MacMillan’s score is at times lush, tonal and sweepingly cinematic. There are as many moments of frenzied discord, with musical gestures of despair and desolation. The piece ends with a long instrumental postlude, allowing space for personal reflection.
Gustav Mahler, Symphony No 2, “Resurrection” (1888-1894)
Described posthumously by his wife Alma Mahler as a “Christgläubiger Jude,” or a Jew who believed in Christ, Gustav Mahler hasn’t been an easy subject for historians to pin down in terms of personal religion. He also shied away from explaining any religious or programmatic meanings for his second symphony, which eventually garnered the subtitle “Resurrection.” He did, however, occasionally give narrative details to critics and confidants, painting the picture of a hero that must face his death, surrender his soul to God and experience ultimate redemption.
Jean l'Héritier, Surrexit Pastor Bonus (c.1480-after 1552)
It’s not certain when exactly l'Héritier composed this sacred motet, but many composers (including Orlando di Lasso and Felix Mendelssohn) subsequently set the Latin text, which celebrates Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. The text translated:
The good shepherd has arisen,
who laid down his life for his sheep,
and for his flock deigned to die, alleluia,
And for our Passover was sacrificed for us: Christ.
And stood in the midst of his disciples and said: Peace be with you.
The disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.
BONUS: Leonardo Da Vinci, The Last Supper (1495-1498)
Yes, this is a painting, but in 2007 computer technician Giovanni Maria Pala claimed to have cracked a real life Da Vinci code in the image depicting Jesus’s last meal with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. Pala said that by superimposing a musical staff over the painting, the placement of the loaves of bread on the table and the hands of Jesus and the Apostles can be read as musical notes. The result? A 40-second “hymn to God” which Pala described as a “soundtrack that emphasizes the Passion of Jesus.” Or, it could be a case of pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon in which the mind conjures familiar patterns where none exist: “There’s always a risk of seeing something that’s not there,” Pala admitted, “but it’s certain that the spaces [in the painting] are divided harmonically.”