A Guide to: Passiontide choral music

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Foreheads etched with ashes, a week and a day ago many Christians thusly mark Ash Wednesday, the start of the most pensive and penitent season of the Church calendar — Lent. 

To give a little background: seen as a season of sombre reflection and repentance, Lent also serves as a period of preparation before the jubilant celebrations of Eastertide – thought to be the holiest time of the year within the Church calendar. The concluding week of the Lenten season is known as ‘Holy Week’, a week outlining what is known as the Easter Story, beginning with Palm Sunday (the palmy fronds that are used as part of this celebration are then reused as the ashes for Ash Wednesday) and culminating in Easter Sunday when Christ is believed to have been resurrected. 

Music, being the cross-denominational instrument of worship it is, is central to the commemoration of the Lenten season. Countless composers have taken inspiration from the vivid events of the Easter Story, creating choral compositions that have filled structures of wood, stone and brick with the melodious worship from generations of musicians. 

Combing through the hundreds, if not thousands, of choral compositions written to befit the occasion would be the pet project of a lifetime. So, instead of devoting your whole essence (not that I don’t recommend it!) to filtering out your favourites until your metaphorical gramophone winds down for the last time, I have selected three resplendent works suitable for Holy Week, hauntingly beautiful and sonorously enriching, each and every one.

Anton Bruckner – Christus factus est, WAB 11 (Christ Became Obedient) 

The text traditionally being set as a gradual in the Catholic Liturgy (meaning it is sung after the Epistle reading), details how Christ sacrificed himself for humanity resulting in the exaltation of His name by God. Thus, it is particularly appropriate for use during a week dedicated to the remembrance of the Easter story.

Written as Bruckner’s (1824-1896) third setting of this text, it is immensely expressive where references to the style of the influential yet problematic Wagner are explicitly clear – hark at the allusion to the ‘Grail’ motif from Wagner’s Parsifal at the words ‘Deus exaltavit illum’ (God exalted Him). Unaccompanied, the strength of the SATB choir is fully exercised, using different techniques to truly animate the words. Bruckner expertly employs different textures such as that of homophony (basically understood to mean singing in chords across the parts) to highlight the solemnity of the subject, to undulating waves of intensifying polyphony. 

My personal favourite recording is that of the choir of King’s College, Cambridge conducted by the late, great Stephen Cleobury. The rich timbrel contrast between the voices of the bright trebles and rumbling basses, in particular, represent, at least to me, the conflicting thoughts that must have crossed Christ’s mind, especially when in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is, ultimately, a determined choice that results in the elegant amalgamation of voices that assuredly declaim the prose.

Sarah MacDonald – Crux Fidelis (Faithful Cross)

Written as an anthem especially for the Passiontide, the Latin phrase ‘Crux Fidelis’ is repeated in an almost mantra-like manner thereby lulling the listener into a state of gentle contemplation. In and amongst this brown study, Sarah MacDonald (b. 1968), in a bid to represent the thoughts of the observer, interweaves the evocative narratives of Emily Dickinson and Emilia Lanier.

Relying mostly upon the aforementioned Latin motif, MacDonald still manages to give adequate onus to the words of Dickinson and Lanier, a highlight of the piece especially linking in with mentions of Paradise – the choir sound almost like a heavenly chorus as they soar towards the climax of the piece. 

Olivier Messiaen – O Sacrum Convivum (O Blessed Sacrament)

Whilst not actually explicitly written for use during Holy Week itself, the prose text used within celebrates and glorifies the sacrament of Communion (the breaking of bread and wine) which originated at the Last Supper between Christ and his Apostles, thereby making it appropriate for both uses in the Catholic Liturgy as well as for this list!

Both a joy to listen to and sing, this unaccompanied motet for an 8-part mixed chorus is an early work of French composer, Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), composed in 1937. Heavily inspired by Gregorian Chant, the oldest living Western musical tradition, and of which Messiaen was known to be a fervent admirer, the flowing melodic lines pay tribute well to this inspiration. 

The harmonic colours of this motet’s radiant and well-rounded sound world paint perfectly the reverence in which the words are spoken, honouring the subject matter. Revelling in slow-moving harmonic changes, the crunch of chromaticism does not prove jarring, instead of melting and melding into an irresistible torrent of sound offered up fully in the act of worship.

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