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The 4 Greatest Easter Works

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

The cover photo is of the St. Thomas Kirche, in Leipzig, Germany.

The Easter celebration is of course one of the most important dates in the calendar year, for all Christian denominations. 

For those of you with a proficient knowledge of music history, you will note that the Catholic Church in particular has played a pivotal role in the evolution of Western Art Music and culture throughout the ages.

Indeed, medieval music served as an aid for monks and nuns to memorize difficult biblical passages, as well as an important means to engage the congregants; and so it was not uncommon for the church to dictate which scriptures could be set to which type of modes (pre-baroque scalar patterns), or even which intervals were forbidden in melodious incantations, such as the tritone -  (known as the Diabolos in Musicae - The Devil in Music).

In the 13th century, the church of Notre Dame in Paris saw the emergence of a new type of choral music, that being the birth of polyphony. Several hundred years later, this would lead to a grand flowering of polyphony in the six part masses of Giovani Perluigi da Palestrina (known as the Catholic composer) and later still into the Baroque, with the epic choral masterpieces of Bach.  

In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg Germany, giving birth to the Protestant Reformation.  Even with this fractious splintering between the Vatican and the various subsequent offshoots of Protestantism, music continued to play a central role in the programming of weekly services of all denominations, and in turn, developments within the complexity and scale of sacred vocal and choral music continued to flourish.  

Four of the greatest choral works ever written were composed within 21 years of each other, and each was written to commemorate the Easter celebration.  Three of these are written by Bach; The Saint John Passion (1724), The Saint Matthew Passion (1727), and the Mass in B minor (fully completed in 1749). The fourth work is The Messiah by George Frederick Handel, composed in 1741.  

Choral music, for those of you new to the genre, is music written primarily for four part choir, concert soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, bass, or SATB) and orchestra. It is an exciting spectacle to behold on the stage. Oratorios, aptly considered the apex genre of choral music, are large scale works which oscillate between arias (solo songs), recitatives (reflective and loosely melodious narration), choruses (full SATB choir), smaller vocal ensembles (duets, trios etc.) and orchestral Sinfonias. 

In many ways this resembles the structure of contemporary Baroque opera; however it is important to note here that the subject matter (unlike Baroque opera which often deals with mythological subjects and is acted out onstage) within these Easter oratorios focus upon the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. There is no acting, and as such, the solemnity of the music serves purely as the medium for the gravitas of the deeper teaching to be conveyed.

And so, let’s have a closer look at each one of these masterworks. 

We start with the Passions of Bach…. or more correctly put, Bach's musical representations of the Passion of Christ, according to the gospels of St. Matthew and St. John from the New Testament. 

The Saint John Passion

Composed in 1724 during Bach’s first year in Leipzig, the St John Passion is a work of tremendous complexity and beauty. Bach conducted its premiere during Good Friday Vespers, at the Church of Saint Nicholas in Leipzig. The text of the tenor Evangelist comes directly from the Lutheran Bible in John chapters 18 and 19, the remainder being drawn primarily from an anonymous librettist.  

From the very opening phrases in which the chorus erupts “Hilf...Hilf!” (Help...Help!), the listener's attention is immediately captured. Some two hours and 30 minutes in length, it should be on the bucket list of every serious musical connoisseur under “pieces to experience live”.

The Saint Matthew Passion

Composed in 1727, this is my favourite of the two Passions. Right from the opening textural crescendo in the orchestra, to the resplendent emergence of the chorus and the children’s choir – angels singing from the heavens - this opening chorus sends shivers up and down my spine every time I hear it.  

Bach was a devout Lutheran, and would often sign off his self published compilations “for the glory of God and recreation of the mind“.  Upon listening to this majestic work, surely one would be hard-pressed to find a more magnificent offering of praise.

Here as well, the text is drawn from the Gospel of Saint Matthew in the Lutheran Bible, chapters 26 and 27, and is interspersed with a libretto by Picander. It was premiered for Good Friday services at the Church of Saint Thomas in Leipzig, with Bach at the helm.  

Remarkably, many of Bach’s works fell out of favour after his death in 1750, and it was not until the Bach revival led by Mendelssohn in 1829 (79 years after his death) that the Saint Matthew Passion would be heard again.

Handel’s Messiah

For those of you who have entertained, or who are entertaining the RCM History 1 course, then pay attention because this one will be one of your featured study works!  

Composed in 1747, this masterpiece, drawn from verses in the King James Bible, as well as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, was arranged by Charles Jennens. Ironically, this work, which has become one of the most recognizable choral masterworks in the world to this day, was not overly well received within the initial years of its premiere.  

Handel, in his earlier career, was one of the greatest composers of opera during the Baroque era. This was until his opera company went bankrupt, and he had to turn to less expensive means of production. The results (and the Messiah is the crowning achievement of his oratorio output), rank among the greatest masterworks in the genre.  

As with the early Passions, the Messiah is set in two large halves: the second of which deals with the Passion Testaments.  

Some interesting factoids about The Messiah include the fact that this work is nowadays performed at Christmas, as opposed to Easter. Taking some three hours to perform in its original version, the oratorio was later revised and shortened  by Mozart. If you heard the version of the Messiah this year (2019) with the Toronto Symphony, it was the Mozart revision that you heard. Finally, one of the most recognizable choruses from the Messiah is the famous Hallelujah chorus. The tradition is to stand during the singing of the performance, and when in attendance, the Queen and Royal Family of England also stand in homage to the deity during its performance.

The B minor Mass

After several years working in Leipzig, Bach looked to the court in Dresden, with its Catholic monarch Augustus the III, for a new posting. Essentially an audition work, Bach, who was of course a devout Lutheran, composed the work in Latin while working within the Kyrie and Gloria sections congruent to both Lutheran and Roman Catholic mass settings. He was awarded favours from the court in Dresden, but elected thereafter to stay in Leipzig. 

Towards the end of his life, and to commemorate a new cathedral in Dresden, Bach made several additions to the pre-existing movements to lengthen the mass to well over two hours. Unfortunately however, the cathedral was not finished until after Bach’s death in 1750, and he never heard a complete performance of the mass as a whole. Incredibly, it was not until 1859 that the work was performed in its entirety.   This despite many musicologist deeming it to be the greatest choral work ever written!

With all this incredible vocal music, the Easter bunny has never had it so good!

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