Exploring music

"After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." (Aldous Huxley)

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Opening heaven’s door

Most Passion dramas, in their final scenes, carefully avoid hints of the events to follow on the third day: the only joy they sometimes convey comes from the dawning realization by the centurion at the crucifixion, that Jesus truly was the Son of God. The libretto published by Barthold Heinrich Brockes (see Thursday’s post) ends […]

Corporeal and ethereal

The liturgy of Tenebrae, in the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, was until 1955 celebrated at Matins and Lauds over three days, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In addition to psalms and prayers, it included nine readings on each day, and each reading was followed by an appointed Latin text to be […]

Crucified

Christians the world over recall the crucifixion of Jesus Christ often, not only on Good Friday. They affirm their beliefs about it, every time Mass or Holy Communion is celebrated, through a particular sentence in the Nicene Creed (the Credo portion of the Mass) that can seem all too brief and matter-of-fact: He was crucified […]

The Passion reimagined

This post, for Maundy Thursday, is in a series for Lent to Easter, 2021 Passion dramas in the Lutheran tradition, designed for performance in church during Holy Week, generally adhere to the Biblical text of one of the four Gospels, much of it sung by a narrator: in this method, actual persons (Judas, Caiphas, Pilate, […]

These sacred hands

One of the seventeenth century’s most remarkable artistic creations concerning the Passion is the cycle of seven cantatas called Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima (‘The most holy limbs of our suffering Jesus’), composed in Lübeck by Dietrich Buxtehude (c1637-1707). Buxtehude’s manuscript of the work is dated 1680 and dedicated to his friend Gustaf Düben, director […]

Bathed in tears

On Palm Sunday, the Church remembers Christ’s entry into Jerusalem to loud cheers of ‘Hosanna to the son of David!’ as the start of the rapidly unfolding sequence of events leading to his crucifixion and burial within a week. But there was another event that also prefigured the Passion, one that occurred just the day […]

The sorrowful mother

This Thursday, 25 March, is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Christian Church remembers how the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would bear a son, as recounted in Luke 1:26-38 and previously foretold in Isaiah 7:14. Unlike the dates of Lent and Easter, which shift according to the lunar calendar, […]

The Agnus Dei for Passiontide

This Sunday, the fifth in Lent, is sometimes called ‘Passion Sunday’, marking the start of the two weeks of Passiontide (the second being Holy Week). One of the most loved Passiontide songs is O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig (O Lamb of God, innocent), with a 500-year-old text and an even older tune. Both its words, from […]

A beautiful conformity

Psalm 143, the seventh Penitential Psalm, is a lament seeking protection from oppression and persecution (the full text is here). In the opening verses, sung in this superb anthem by William Byrd, the penitent acknowledges God’s righteousness and begs not to be judged, knowing that the salvation granted to anyone is a gift, not something […]

Out of the depths

Psalm 130, the sixth Penitential Psalm, concludes positively with reassurances of God’s ‘plentiful redemption’ but begins as a gloomy lament in which the penitent cries out for mercy ‘de profundis’, ‘from the depths’—presumably the depths of despair where the light of hope is extinguished. While there is nothing in its text that marks it as […]

One person’s cry, amplified and multiplied

Psalm 102, the fifth Penitential Psalm, is a lengthy lament (see its 28 verses here). The first part, verses 1-11, is the prayer of an individual who, weak and tearful, worn down in a time of great trouble, pours out his own desperate pleas to God: ‘… Do not hide your face from me … […]

Framed in passion

Psalm 51, the Miserere, occupies the central position of the seven Penitential Psalms and probably remains the one most frequently read or sung today. Being a deeply personal text for self-examination—it uses the first person throughout: have mercy on me … cleanse me … deliver me … open my lips—it does not easily adapt for […]

Songs of deliverance

The first and third of the Penitential Psalms are auguished laments, crying out for relief and salvation from the consequences of sinfulness (both begin with ‘Lord, do not punish me in your anger’). Lying between them, the second Pentitential Psalm, Psalm 32 (31 in the Latin Vulgate), contrastingly seems like an oasis of reassurance, with […]

Grand concertos, grand venues

The fashion for concertos in the Corellian tradition, reaching its height with the publications of Geminiani in the 1730s, was not something that Handel could ignore, for it challenged the prospects in London of his own public performances. It led to the publication, in April 1740, of his twelve ‘Grand Concertos’ (an anglicized form of […]

How long?

The group of seven ‘Penitential Psalms’ (psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 in the Hebrew numbering) have been recommended for devotions since as early as the time of St Augustine in the fifth century. They have often been prescribed by the Church for Ash Wednesday and for other times during Lent and […]

Corelli transformed

Arcangelo Corelli’s music was the first in European history to go viral. This was caused by the wide dissemination of his twelve violin sonatas—a collection first printed in 1700 and republished in more than forty editions in the eighteenth century alone—that built on the popularity of his earlier collections of trio sonatas. His concertos published […]

Consorts unchained!

These lyrics, from Come, ye sons of art, away, the birthday ode for Queen Mary of 1694, are an exhortation to use instruments overtly and powerfully — as Henry Purcell himself demonstrates in his setting. That prescient call would have struck home for its modernity, doubtless more than we can appreciate today. Strike the viol! […]

A precarious new dawn

Handel’s metaphysical sunrise, ‘Eternal source of light divine’, with its shimmering, breathtaking beauty, is my best choice of music for today, 20 January 2021, when the USA wakes to the new dawn of the beginning of the new presidential term. People of goodwill throughout the world are welcoming the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala […]

O joy, and joyful happy day!

Today, 6 January 2021 (the twelfth day of Christmas), those who have lived through and suffered from the tyranny and injustice propagated by Trump’s corrupt administration and its enablers in the Republican Party may breathe sighs of relief and new hope. After the cruel separation of infants from immigrant families, the racist voter suppression, the […]

Hope is arriving!

During Advent in 2020 we’ve experienced the stark contrast between increasing gloom — the worsening reach of the pandemic, severe political crises, economic dire straits, our separation from family and friends — and new-found hope now that vaccines are becoming available after the amazing scientific success that produced them. “Help is coming!” say our public-health […]

Unity rebranded

‘Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity’, the fourth movement of Gustav Holst’s The Planets, has remained one of the most popular orchestral pieces for the last hundred years and has often been performed by itself without the rest of the suite. That’s not surprising: it is dazzlingly bright, uplifting music, stuffed with big tunes — four […]

‘Just grief, heart’s tears, plaint worthy’

By this week the UK has the highest number of deaths from the COVID-19 virus — now more than 43,000 — and the highest mortality rate per capita of all our neighbour countries in Europe. How do we mourn for so many lives lost when such vast numbers become statistics that leave us numb, tone-deaf […]

The songs we remember are the sad songs

French songs of love have their own special character, determined not only by the linguistics of the language but also by France’s strong tradition of singer-songwriting with its penchant for intellectual introspection and the beauties of melancholy. ‘The songs we remember are the sad, romantic songs,’ says Françoise Hardy — and she should know, having […]

‘Sing to the life-giving Trinity’

After Pentecost, on Trinity Sunday the Christian Church globally celebrates the Holy Trinity: the belief in one God in three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is the central tenet that unites all the orthodox Christian denominations across both Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity: first adopted at the fourth-century councils of […]

Pentecost with Tallis

For Pentecost, when the Church remembers how the followers of Jesus Christ first received the Holy Spirit, some of the best music is by Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585), the most admired English composer of the sixteenth century. He managed to pursue his long career as an organist, singer, composer and Gentleman of the Chapel Royal through […]

Feel the tears

In modern popular culture, songs of love that dwell on the pain and tears of a failed relationship are a common type. Belonging to the broad category of pop with the oddly non-modern term ‘ballads’, they are frequently released not only because they address the heartbreak of breaking up and lost love that most people […]

Imagining war

Our series on big tunes, big sounds must include one of the most emphatic tunes and most massive sounds of any devised before the age of amplification and electronics: the first movement, ‘Mars: the Bringer of War’, of The Planets, the ‘Suite for Large Orchestra’ by Gustav Holst. In its awesome beauty, this music makes […]

One perfect harmony

Music sometimes addresses music itself: our love for it, our need of it, how it affects us, and how we respond to it — pertinent issues for each of us individually. One of the best examples of this is Hail! Bright Cecilia of 1692, an ode for St Cecilia’s Day (22 November), written by the […]

Music for an American disaster

The USA is in deep trouble, with, by 16 May, at least 90,000 deaths from COVID-19: the worst casualty-rate so far of any country in the world and already, in merely eight weeks, 50% greater than the number of US military personnel killed or missing in action over the eight years of the Vietnam War. […]

Music in the big picture

The second movement, Allegretto, of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Op. 92, is the choice for my third post in the big tune series. Today, it is probably the most widely loved example of Beethoven’s music because of its special place in modern popular culture, having been featured in at least nine movies, including, most recently, […]