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21 May 2019 3:21
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  •   Home > News > International

    From medieval chants to Handel's Messiah, here are four choral works to listen to this Easter

    There is so much Easter music, but here are the stories behind four important pieces you might hear this weekend — from medieval chants to Handel's Messiah.

    It's hardly surprising there is so much Easter music.

    The holiday is the central festival of the Christian religion; the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ the defining events of the entire faith.

    And for centuries, these themes have captivated composers and listeners alike.

    Here are the stories behind four important pieces you might hear this weekend.

    1. Victimae paschali laudes

    If you had visited Notre Dame during Easter 750 years ago, you might have heard Victimae paschali laudes being sung.

    The 11th century "sequence", a kind of chanted hymn, is one of the oldest musical works in continued use.

    Its subject was Christ as the sacrificial Easter lamb — Agnus Dei, the lamb of God — whose death saves the flock.

    It is poignant, this week, to imagine how it might have sounded in the mid-1200s, in what was then Paris's gleaming new cathedral.

    In various elaborations, including brash organ accompaniments, the chant has been sung there ever since.

    Alas, not this Easter.

    2. St John Passion

    Probably the two most famous pieces of Easter music are the Passions according to St John and St Matthew, composed by J S Bach in Leipzig in 1724 and 1727 respectively.

    The St John Passion is a rather dramatic work, reflecting, perhaps, the eyewitness quality of the gospel itself.

    Indeed, it's so dramatic that it has become controversial.

    In the United States, campus performances of the St John Passion have led to protests at the work's supposed anti-Semitism — Bach, it seems, depicts the Jews as a bit too keen on the Crucifixion for some modern American tastes.

    3. St Matthew Passion

    The St Matthew Passion is a different matter.

    It is a longer, grander and much more elaborate work than the St John.

    Although not without its drama, it takes a more metaphysical approach to the story of the crucifixion, examining just two chapters of St Matthew's gospel in minute detail over nearly three hours.

    A typical aria, Erbarme dich ("Have mercy"), has an alto voice singing of Peter's anguish after his denial of Christ.

    Even though it's written in the first person, it isn't meant to be Peter singing — this isn't an opera, after all — but a sort of universal Peter.

    In fact, it might be any one of us pushed by circumstance to disloyalty and now bitterly regretting our actions.

    Another feature of both of Bach's Passions is the inclusion of Lutheran chorales or hymns.

    To the congregations at St Thomas's Church in Leipzig who first heard these works, the chorales would have been familiar, and it's possible they might even have sung along.

    Even if they didn't join in, the presence of these well-known hymns served to anchor Bach's music to its times and to the people for whom it was written.

    Bach could hardly have imagined that more than 250 years after his death, choirs would be singing his passions in concert halls. For one thing, he wouldn't have known what a concert hall was.

    But there have been performances of both works throughout Australia this week, including a Melbourne performance of the St Matthew Passion conducted by Rick Prakhoff.

    4. Handel's Messiah

    George Frideric Handel was an exact contemporary of Bach — they were born in Germany in 1685 — but a very different sort of composer.

    He made his career in England where his Italian-language operas were the toast of 18th century London.

    When they went out of fashion, Handel was enough of a businessman to start again as a composer of religious oratorios. Messiah is the most famous of these, and most people think of it as a Christmas piece.

    In fact, the work takes a rather philosophical look at the life of Christ, beginning with Old Testament prophecies, and ending with a jubilant "Amen" chorus.

    Its most vivid moments may be the six minutes of music that deal with the Nativity, but there's another two hours of music that doesn't.

    The piece isn't tied to any religious festival, but it was at Easter that Messiah had its first performance, in Dublin in 1741.

    It went on to become the firmest of favourites with the big choral societies that sprang up in 19th century England and America — off-shoots of the industrial revolution — and with that popularity came an almost reverent attitude to the music, helped along by popular myths.

    One such was that on hearing the "Hallelujah" chorus, George III was moved to stand up, so everyone else stood too.

    Sometimes audiences still stand today for "Hallelujah", though there seems to be little substance to the story of King George.


    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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