Music for Easter

Tan Dun Credit:

Tan Dun

The festival of Easter — a holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ — is of central importance to the Christian faith. It is the culmination of the Passion of Christ, which commemorates the Last Supper, as well as the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Given its theological importance, it is hardly surprising that it has been numerously celebrated in music as well. Joseph Haydn was commissioned by the bishop of the Spanish city of Cadiz to provide a series of seven musical mediations to be used at a special ceremony. The bishop would recite the first word, and elucidate the meaning in a brief sermon, which in turn would be further interpreted by Haydn’s music. The same pattern repeated for the remaining words, and Haydn supplied seven introspective movements entitled Seven last Words of Christ on the Cross. Originally scored for orchestra, Haydn fashioned a version for string quartet and eventually for vocal soloist and chorus as well. Felix Mendelssohn described this exceptional composition as “scandalously gay.”

Giovanni Gabrieli Credit:

Giovanni Gabrieli

Joseph Haydn: The Seven last Words of Christ, Op. 51

Music for the Passion frequently alternates between sorrowful reflections on the death of Jesus and exultant recognition of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. For Giovanni Gabrieli, organist at St. Mark Basilica in Venice, the joyous aspect of Resurrection amply surfaces in this seventeen-part motet Exultet iam angelica turba (May the host of angels exult). Scored for four choirs, the composition accompanies the lighting of the Easter candle. Gabrieli skillfully made use of the spatial effects possible in the great basilica by contrasting different groups of singers and instrumentalist. Gabrieli’s work as a composer represents the height of musical achievement in Renaissance Venice.

Giovanni Gabrieli: Exultet, iam angelica turba (May the host of angels exult)

In 2000 the Internationale Bachakademie commissioned four modern composers to compose passions on the four Gospels, with the gospel of Matthew allocated to the Chinese composer and conductor Tan Dun. Drawing on the words of the gospel, with brief poetic reflections written by the composer, the Water Passion after St. Matthew begins with Christ’s baptism and ends with an evocation of the resurrection. The amplified sound of water is central to the work, and it also serves as a central visual image. Seventeen transparent water bowls are lit from below and form of a large cross. Tan Dun draws on a remarkably wide range of vocal styles, cultural influences, and instruments that evolved along the ancient Silk Road.

Tan Dun: Water Passion after St. Matthew

Pietro Mascagni Credit:

Pietro Mascagni

What do you get when you mix religiosity with sexual passion? You get Pietro Mascagni’s one-act melodrama Cavalleria Rusticana. The religious celebration of Easter provides the backdrop for Turiddu’s declaration of love for Lola, who is married to Alfio. To soothe his pain, Turiddu seduces the young Santuzza. However, when Lola decides to become Turiddu’s mistress, Santuzza not only curses her seducer but also discloses Lola’s infidelity to Alfio. The Easter hymn sounds when the village choir inside the church is heard singing the Regina Coeli. Santuzza cannot enter the church — because of her recent sexual fall from grace — and has to sing from her place outside.

Pietro Mascagni: Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana

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