10. Arvo Pärt: Passio
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s 1989 contribution to the Passion repertoire sets text from the Gospel of John in what is regarded as the supreme expression of his Tintinnabuli (from the Latin word for bell) style. Censured by the head of the Soviet Composers Union in 1962, Pärt immersed himself in the study of plainchant and early polyphony, which comes through in the austere harmonies of his Passio – though with a more modern approach to dissonance. In Pärt’s Passion, Christ is cast as a baritone, his lines given extra weight by Pärt reserving for him the lowest and longest notes. The composer was particularly concerned with mirroring the rhythms and stresses of the spoken text in his music.
9. Carlo Gesualdo: Tenebrae Responsoria
Carlo Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsoria consists of three sets of nine short pieces for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday respectively, in addition to a psalm and a hymn, drawing on text from the Passion readings. Described by New Yorker critic Alex Ross as “one of the most complexly imaginative composers of the late Renaissance, indeed of all musical history,” the composer Prince Gesualdo – whose life was overshadowed by his grisly murder of his wife and her lover – published six books of madrigals and three books of sacred music, including the Tenebrae Responsoria. With biting harmonies used to evoke the suffering Christ and the guilt of Peter’s betrayal, the work was way ahead of its time. “The works of his mature period,” writes Ross, “bent the rules of harmony to a degree that remained unmatched until the advent of Wagner.”
8. Richard Wagner: Good Friday Music from Parsifal
Act III of Wagner’s Sacred Music Drama (he called it “Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel”, or A Festival Drama for the Consecration of the Stage) takes place on Good Friday. The “pure fool” Parsifal, his eyes opened by Kundry’s kiss, has wandered for years, finally returning to the kingdom of the Holy Grail. The elderly Gurnemanz informs him that it is the day of their former leader Titurel’s funeral and that Parsifal has a duty to heal their current leader Amfortas of his wound and restore the knightly brotherhood. Kundry washes Parsifal’s feet while Gurnemanz anoints him with water from the Holy Spring. As Parsifal admires the beauty of the meadow, Gurnemanz explains that it is Good Friday – the day when all the world is renewed. The radiant music for this scene is frequently heard as a standalone concert staple.
7. Georg Philipp Telemann: Brockes Passion
Think the St John or St Matthew Passions are a little too chirpy? Try a setting of the The Brockes Passion. Der für die Sünde der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus (or The Story of Jesus, Suffering and Dying for the Sins of the World) was written by the Hamburg jurist and senator Barthold Heinrich Brockes in 1712 and went through around 30 editions in the next 15 years. A blunt, often violent account of Jesus’s Passion, Brockes focuses with almost ghoulish delight of the piercing thorns, torn flesh and streaming blood of the unfortunate Christ. Grim and grisly, it was a must for the operatically-minded baroque composer, being notably set by Keiser (1712), Handel (1716), Mattheson (1718), Fasch (1723) and Stölzel (1725) among others. Telemann’s 1716 setting is among the most gruesome.
6. Aulis Sallinen: The Barabbas Dialogues
If you want an Easter-themed piece that comes at it from a different angle, try this quirky song cycle from senior Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935), written for five singers, narrator and a chamber ensemble of seven instruments (including a prominent part for accordion). In the traditional Passion story, Barabbas (or Jesus bar Abbas) was the ‘bandit, murderer or freedom fighter’ imprisoned for attempting to overthrow the Roman government and released in place of Jesus as Pilate’s Passover gift to the Jews. The Finnish poet Lassi Nummi comes up with seven dialogues on issues of right and wrong, guilt, blame and redemption. “We can always imagine what [Barabbas] might have been like,” says Sallinen. “The same might apply to Judas. The fact that he was designated a traitor by prophecy could make him one of the most tragic martyrs of world history. In the end is he nothing more than a religio-political jigsaw piece, like Barabbas, who makes space for the more important sacrifice on the cross.”
5. Gioacchino Rossini: Stabat Mater
The Stabat Mater, generally ascribed to the Franciscan Friar Jacopone da Todi (c. 1230-1306), is a Catholic hymn to the Virgin Mary, which imagines her sufferings as she witnesses her son’s crucifixion. The 20-verse hymn, which opens with “Stabat mater dolorosa” (or The sorrowful mother standing weeping) has been set to music by hundreds of composers from Palestrina (1590), Vivaldi (1712) and Pergolesi (1736) to Dvořák (1876), Verdi (1896), Szymanowski (1925), Poulenc (1950), Pärt (1985), and, only this year, James MacMillan. Rossini’s setting, one of the few works written after his premature retirement from the operatic stage, was composed between 1831 and 1842 and in grandeur of setting is clearly the precursor of Verdi’s mighty Requiem. Set for orchestra, chorus and four soloists, it pulls no punches, capturing the full pathos and drama of Mary’s unique situation.
4. Pietro Mascagni: Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana
Mascagni’s early one-act verismo masterpiece (1890) is set in a Sicilian village on Easter Sunday sometime in the 19th century. Santuzza has been abandoned by the fickle Turridu, who has gone off in pursuit of another man’s wife. Unmarried and likely pregnant, she has been excommunicated by the church. As the choir sing the Regina Coeli, the pious villagers file in for the service to the strains of the famous Easter Hymn (“Inneggiamo, il Signor non è morto”, or “Let us sing hymns, the Lord is not dead”). Santuzza, meanwhile, is left outside to add her powerful and moving descant. By far his most famous work, by the time Mascagni died in 1945, Cavalleria Rusticana had been performed over 14,000 times in Italy alone.
3. Bohuslav Martinů: The Greek Passion
Martinů’s opera was originally written in English for Covent Garden in 1957. Set at Easter time, the local priest casts the villagers as characters in the annual Passion Play and as the opera proceeds, each one begins to take on the personality of his or her Biblical character. The shepherd Manolios is chosen to play Jesus, Katerina, a young widow, is chosen to play Mary Magdalene and Panait, her lover, is cast against his will as Judas. When a group of starving refugees arrives from a neighbouring village, the priest selfishly pretends that they must have cholera as an excuse to refuse them help. Katerina and Manolios (with whom she has now fallen in love) help them find food and water nearby. When Manolios begins to preach charity, the elders incites the villagers against him and he is killed by Panait on the church steps. Hardly a happy tale, then, but one with much glorious music.
2. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Overture
In his Russian Easter Overture, Rimsky-Korsakov sought to convey, in his words, “a general picture of the Easter service with its ‘pagan merry-making.’” Drawing on themes from the obikhod – canticles of the Orthodox Church – Rimsky-Korsakov was recreating one of the most vivid memories from his childhood: celebrating the return of spring by attending the Russian Easter service in Tikhvin. “This legendary and heathen side of the holiday,” he wrote, “this transition from the gloomy and mysterious evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious merry making of Easter Sunday, is what I was eager to reproduce in my overture.”
1. Johann Sebastian Bach: Easter Oratorio
From the bright brass fanfare of the opening Sinfonia and the haunting oboe solo of the Adagio to the beautiful flute and soprano lines of Seele, Deine Spezerien, Bach’s Easter Oratorio can hold its own against the Passions on any Easter playlist. The musical material began life as a pastoral cantata or dramma per musica with four shepherds and shepherdesses transformed into disciples when Bach reworked it for the church as an Easter Cantata and later the Easter Oratorio. In his Bach biography Music in the Castle of Heaven, Sir John Eliot Gardiner writes that the Easter Oratorio “catches the sense of loss at Christ’s death and the feeling that the use of spices and embalming ointments could now be superseded by the power of musical prayer.”