Jesus’s sacrifice still has power to move us in Easter music, says Geoffrey Smith
Geoffrey Smith explains why Easter music still has the power to move
In our secular age, it may come as a surprise that the most significant date in the Christian calendar is not Christmas, but Easter. The miracle of the nativity, of God becoming Man, would seem to be Christianity’s central message, an affirmation of love inspiring the yuletide jubilation of goodwill, good feelings and an orgy of consumption.
Compared to that outpouring of joy, as the light from Bethlehem illuminates the midwinter gloom, Easter offers a much darker prospect. The incarnation of God into Man comes at the human cost of suffering and death so starkly presented in the Gospels and, although leading to the triumph of Christ’s resurrection and Man’s redemption, it’s still a harrowing journey.
Despite taking place amid the burgeoning of spring, the tragic events still cast their shadow, making Easter, in popular terms, a relatively muted celebration, with eggs and bunnies lacking the full-on abandon of Christmas revels.
However, the very depth and intensity of the Easter story make it an incomparably rich source for artistic representation, nowhere more so than in music. Although Christmas offers the tuneful, sing-along appeal of carols, Easter is synonymous with some of the greatest choral masterpieces ever composed, worthy responses to the immense emotions and issues its narrative evokes.
Indeed, the Christmas season regularly borrow works originally intended for Easter, so that, over time, they have become associated with both festivals. Most familiarly, Handel’s Messiah has become a Yuletide staple, although it was premiered in April 1742 and intended for Easter performance, with Christ’s passion at the centre of its dramatic enactment of ‘the greatest story ever told’. Indeed, drama is what makes Easter music so magnificent and compelling, whatever one’s theological beliefs.
This is the essence of the appeal of Bach’s two great masterworks, the St John Passion and St Matthew Passion, setting the respective new Testament accounts of the Easter story.
‘This is music of belief in God and Man, the dramatic heart of Easter’
Both are derived from the ancient practice of dramatising Christ’s suffering in plainchant as part of the Good Friday service, a process that became increasingly more and more elaborate, employing solo singers, chorus and orchestra.
Bach’s Passions combine four elements—the gospel narrative sung by the Evangelist with solo comments from other characters, plus interjections by the chorus, representing the crowd, and creating some striking coups
de théâtres. Reflection on the events of the story is provided by solo arias. In addition, a communal point of reference comes from well-known hymns and grand choruses begin and end the works. First performed in 1724, the
St John Passion is the leaner, shorter of the two. Although formerly regarded as inferior to the more highly wrought St
Matthew Passion, the earlier piece has come into its own in recent years, because of its sharply focused dramatic pace. Nonetheless, the St Matthew
Passion, first heard in 1727, has always occupied a special place in Bach’s oeuvre, even to the point of being called ‘his supreme achievement’ and compared to Wagner’s ‘Ring’.
Massive in its forces—with double orchestras and choruses —and some three hours in length, it combines poignant humanity with grandeur, the most moving musical details with incomparable structural mastery.
Its essential element, however, is the deep emotion that colours every phrase. This is music of belief in God and Man, getting to the dramatic heart of the Easter story. It’s no surprise that, more than 20 years ago, Jonathan Miller could reveal a new perspective in Bach’s masterwork, staging it as a piece of theatre, enhancing the interaction between the characters and making their humanity all the more vivid.
That conjunction of human and divine, death and life gives the Bach Passions their force, as it carries the redemptive promise of Easter itself. As in every year, Bach’s masterworks will crown Holy Week observances up and down the country. In Scotland, the Dunedin Con- sort, under fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, will play the St
Matthew Passion in Glasgow on April 12 (0141–353 8000; www.glasgowconcerthalls.com), followed by performances in Perth on the 13th and Edinburgh on the 14th.
In Cardiff, the Dunedin’s director, John Butt, will conduct the National Orchestra of Wales in the St John Passion on April 12 (029–2087 8444; www. stdavidshallcardiff.co.uk).
The St John Passion is a particular speciality of tenor Mark Padmore and he’ll be presenting it with the Britten Sinfonia, interspersed with readings by Simon Russell Beale, in Norwich on the 13th and London’s Barbican on the 14th, culminating on the 15th in Cambridge (www.brittensinfonia.com; 01223 300795).
Similarly esteemed is Stephen Layton’s St John, performed with Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at St John’s Smith Square on the 14th, with soloists including counter-tenor Iestyn Davies (020– 7222 1061; www.sjss.org.uk).
The Handel Festival’s annual performance of the St Matthew
Passion also takes place on the 14th, at St George’s Hanover Square, conducted by Laurence Cummings (01460 54660; www. london-handel-festival.com).
Handel’s Easter classic, Messiah, will be presented by the Royal Choral Society at the Royal Albert Hall, on Good Friday, the 13th, in a tradition stretching back to 1876 (020–7589 8212; www.royalalberthall.com). Richard Cooke conducts and soprano Mary Bevan leads the soloists in a performance that, like all Easter music, renews the spirit in the everlasting promise of spring.
Although Handel’s Messiah is generally performed at Christmas, it’s actually intended for Easter
Above: Mark Padmore is renowned for his moving performances of the St John Passion. Below: Jazz composer James Newton’s St Matthew Passion