April 17, 2017. Happy Easter! The Eastern Orthodox churches use the Julian calendar; the Western Churches – the Gregorian that we all are accustomed to. Both use arcane methods (phases of the moon come into play) to derive the dates of Easter Sundays. Once in a while these obscure calculations end up with the same date, as it happened this year (we won’t have another one till 2025). In addition, Passover this year started on Monday, April 10th and runs through April 18th, making for an unusually rich holiday period.
The Western tradition of writing music for Easter goes back to the Middle Ages and became especially strong during the Renaissance. In 1585, the great Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria published a set of 18 motets called Tenebrae responsories sung during the Latin services on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of the Holy week.
Here’s one of these motets, O vos omnes (All you who walk by on the road), sung on Saturday. It’s performed by the ensemble Tallis Scholars. About 25 years later, Carlo Gesualdo wrote his own setting of Tenebrae responsories. It’s an amazing vocal piece whose tonal modulations sound startling even today. Here’s Omnes amici mei dereliquerunt me (All my friends have deserted me) for Good Friday. The Taverner Consort is conducted by Andrew Parrott. Both settings above were created for a Catholic service. When Thomas Tallis composed his Lamentations of Jeremiah sometime in the 1570s, England’s Anglican Church had already separated from Rome, although it’s not clear whether Lamentations were composed for the Catholic or Anglican service. In England of the late 16th century the settings of the Lamentations were traditionally performed at the Tenebrae service of the Holy week. Many settings were written – William Byrd for example, created one. Tallis’s is probably the most profound. Here’s the first part, performed by the ensemble Magnificat, Philip Cave conducting.
Johann Sebastian Bach composed some of the greatest music for Easter: two sets of Passions, one, set to the chapters of the Gospel according to St. John, another – St. Matthew. Bach’s obituary mentions five Passions but these two the only ones extant. Bach also wrote Easter Oratorio, the first version of which was completed the same year as the St. Matthew Passion, 1725. Here’s the first part of St. John Passion. Concentus Musicus Wien and Arnold Schoenberg Choir are conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
The Eastern orthodox church historically lacked the tradition of “composed” music. Different chants, the so-called Znamenny chant being the major one, were used for centuries. These chants go back to the Byzantine service and are written not in notes but special signs . Only at the end of the 19th century did Russian composers turn to the liturgical music, Alexander Gretchaninov and especially Sergei Rachmaninov among them. There are many recordings of the traditional services, but the one created by the choir of the Chevetogne Abbey is especially interesting. They Abbey is dedicated to Christian unity and though it is a Benedictine abbey, it has both Western rite and Eastern rite churches and made recordings of both Eastern and Latin services. Here’s the first part of the Service for Holy Saturday, performed by the Choir of the Abbey of Chevetogne.
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