Music for Lent: A Playlist

Compiling a survey—however inadequate—of Lenten compositions confirms the fact that we should show more gratitude than we routinely do for YouTube’s very existence. Before YouTube arrived, providing musical illustrations to a magazine’s editor needed to take the form of either furnishing printed musical examples (good luck for those who simply cannot read staff-notated music in any form) or else supplying cumbersome sound files (often, when appended as attachments, too big to fit into the average email recipient’s inbox). Now, on the other hand, an author can simply raid YouTube’s aural treasure-house for apposite links.

Apologies if readers’ individual favorites have been omitted, but such omissions are inescapable. A playlist truly illustrative of Lenten music down the ages would be Wagnerian in its length, even if YouTube retains some surprising gaps (it is weak above all in 19th-century and early 20th-century Lenten repertoire). Order could be imposed upon “embarrassment of riches” chaos solely by adopting these stringent yardsticks for musical selection:

  • To include only music that, whatever its composers’ own religious allegiance, could be performed in the context of a penitential Catholic liturgy. So nothing from Handel’s Messiah—even though that is much better attuned to Easter than to the Nativity—and no Passion settings by Bach or Heinrich Schütz either. Alas.
  • To eschew pure plainchant (as distinct from composed music with a plainchant basis).
  • To prefer—when a work has attracted several renditions displaying a broadly equal standard—YouTube recordings which show the relevant printed score, over YouTube recordings which do not.
  • To choose nothing, however praiseworthy, over 15 minutes long (which, sadly, rules out Thomas Tallis’ complete Lamentations).
  • To bypass the examples that have acquired lives of their own in secular fora. This necessitated omitting, for instance, such concert-hall staples as Pergolesi’s extremely famous Stabat Mater, the scarcely less celebrated Palestrina version, and Rossini’s disconcertingly operatic treatment of the same words. Gregorio Allegri’s thrice-familiar Miserere has likewise been avoided.

Once those criteria were put in place, the process of selecting works became not easy by any means, but less difficult. With what upshots, others must judge.

Lent in general

Where to begin? Why not with the Vienna-based Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1744)? Prominent chiefly for his theoretical acumen (his neo-Palestrinian treatise Gradus ad Parnassum, well known to Haydn and Beethoven among numerous other giants, continues to be used in training students to produce counterpoint), Fux retained far more of a gift for straightforwardness—when he wanted to reveal it—than would be predicted from his reputation as a punitive pedagogue. Hence the appeal of his Angelis suis Deus mandavit de te (“God shall give his angels charge over thee”), designed for the first Sunday of Lent. A cataloguing quirk: the “K.” which appears in front of each Fux piece—this one is K.143—refers to none other than Ludwig Köchel, the same Austrian benefactor (a botanist in his day-job, oddly enough) much more renowned for having classified Mozart’s output. Matthias Liebich conducts the Dresden Boys’ Choir.

Henri Du Mont, born two generations earlier than Fux, spent his youth in the Low Countries (principally the cities of Maastricht and Liège) before moving, in 1639, to France. There he occupied various exalted posts in the House of Bourbon’s service. His Lenten meditation on mortality, Media Vita in Morte Sumus, dates from 1668 and—as this account of it from Paris’ own Schola Sainte-Cécile indicates—is marked by a self-effacing, no-nonsense chordal approach, better fitted to the words than any obviously histrionic idiom would have been.

From Du Mont we cross the Channel and move back more than half a century to William Byrd, the one outstanding Elizabethan composer who remained Catholic while living in England throughout Elizabeth’s reign. (John Bull, John Dowland, and Peter Philips all spent as much time abroad as possible. Tallis and Christopher Tye—unlike Byrd, both old enough to have adult memories of the Henrician terrorism—stayed discreet about their ultimate religious allegiances.) Originally appearing in the 1589 collection Cantiones Sacrae, Byrd’s Lenten motet Ne Irascaris, Domine is among his most powerful and most openly recusant works; no hearer at the time can possibly have misconstrued the stress he places on the word “desolata.” The Durham Cathedral Choir has a surprising and agreeable Continental harshness of sound, with a merciful absence of that Oxonian-Cantabridgian gentility which is so alien to English music’s greatest dissident.

Holy Week

François Couperin’s surviving 1714 Leçons de Ténèbres—three of them are now lost—have, unlike most baroque compositions, a recording history that dates back to the 1940s. Almost any singer with the slightest interest in performing pre-1750 chamber-scaled material has undertaken at least some of them on record: even those not habitually associated with such material, including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Over recent decades, of course, the Leçons have become the province of early-music specialists, ranging from the admirably intense to the tiresomely bland. Nonetheless, faced with even the most distinguished of these specialists (the version by Maria Cristina Kiehr and the irreplaceable Montserrat Figueras must come near the top of any adequate list), some of us find ourselves recurrently drawn back to the performances from which we first learned this music: namely, those by Alfred Deller.

Not that Deller had a noticeably beautiful voice. Frankly, he had an often nightmarish voice, and he would belong in any league table of the world’s worst ensemble singers, since that inimitable sound of his had not a hope of blending with the output of any more conventional larynxes. Although he was no eunuch (at times he duetted with his own son Mark Deller), his discographic legacy at times calls to mind those blood-curdling old 1902-1904 discs by the Vatican’s last castrato Alessandro Moreschi: discs marked by a mixture of considerable tonal heft—Moreschi would have been pretty hard for even an orchestra to overwhelm—and what sounds like persistent supplication.

Yes, yes, but…vocal beauty for vocal beauty’s sake is the last thing which any sincere religious believer should want in any setting of these texts; mesmeric strangeness of timbre constitutes an advantage, and there Deller came into his own. If a tormented ghost could sing, it would sound like Deller. In this recording of Couperin’s Première Leçon, the organist is Harry Gabb, and the viola da gamba player is Desmond Dupré. No listener should be deterred by the 1960 date, because sonic quality remains excellent more than half a century on.

Born near Prague in 1679, Jan Dismas Zelenka was 11 years Couperin’s junior. He spent most of his life as a Catholic court musician in Lutheran-dominated Saxony (Bach expressed great respect for his abilities), and he seems to have published nothing. Almost no one between the time of his death (1745) and the 1950s had heard a single piece he wrote. Only during the Cold War did it emerge that “Bomber” Harris’ Dresden incendiarism had not destroyed Zelenka’s manuscripts after all; that most of his output survived; and that repeatedly he came close to Bach in terms of genius. What could be more Bachian than the pulsating string chords which open Zelenka’s Lamentatio I? Than the relentlessly sepulchral fugue which concludes it (beginning at around the 11:34 mark in this recording)? Kurt Widmer is the bass soloist, with conductor René Jacobs and Switzerland’s Schola Cantorum Basiliensis.

For much-needed emotional balm on Maundy Thursday, there is always the Ubi Caritas setting for unaccompanied choir (part of a 1960 collection entitled Four Motets on Gregorian Themes) by eminent French organist-composer Maurice Duruflé, which usually accompanies the actual ceremony of foot-washing. Duruflé, so absurdly self-critical that his work-list only ever reached Opus 14—his natural hyper-caution having been exacerbated in 1975 by a near-fatal car crash that left him mostly housebound—died in 1986, aged 84. This time, the choir of St. John’s Church, Elora, Ontario:

Good Friday

One of Tomás Luis de Victoria’s very greatest motets, O Vos Omnes, comes from 1585. Whilst it used to be a cliché to call Victoria the El Greco of music, that correlation involves imputing to Victoria a theatricality, a taste for the grotesque, which he eludes. If any artist does in pictorial terms what Victoria did in musical terms, it is surely not El Greco but Zurbarán, who could instill more terror with the most austere likeness of the humblest monk than many a less talented brush-wielder could with the Last Judgment. Victoria’s art, like Zurbarán’s, is an art both solid and ascetic. The choral conductor Robert Shaw—of blessed memory—intuited this paradox, which is why he got to the heart of Victoria’s matter in the following performance.

Most readers will be aware of pre-1969 Catholicism’s demand that the solo organ be suppressed during Lent. (This demand was by no means uniformly obeyed. As far as a brief overview of the relevant musicological accounts can determine, Austria and the Italian peninsula mostly submitted to it; pre-modern Ireland invariably did; but many a French, Spanish, or Portuguese congregation deprived of its Lenten organ soloing would probably have threatened to rip the pews apart and to smash the stained-glass windows.) Whatever the theological and liturgical justifications for such an edict, it has had the regrettable effect of leaving several million Catholics clueless about Bach’s Passiontide contributions to the King of Instruments’ literature (since Lutheranism never demanded such silencing).

Some, if compelled to choose Bach’s greatest single Passiontide creation in the organ genre, would opt for the chorale-prelude Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund, to be found in the Orgelbüchlein. But this is to underrate the splendor of the longer, more complex, and still more excruciatingly poignant chorale-prelude O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross (customarily translated as “O man, bewail thy grievous sin”), BWV 622, the very next piece in the same book. The tonality of E flat major seems to have had a specific clandestine connotation for Bach—did he equate its three-flat key-signature with Trinitarianism?—given that he kept deploying it for several of his mightiest organ achievements: the First Trio Sonata, BWV 525; the mistitled Saint Anne Fugue, BWV 552 (so called because of its main theme’s totally coincidental resemblance to England’s Saint Anne hymn-tune, “O God our help in ages past,” which Bach never knew); Schmücke Dich, BWV 654; and the present work.

In narrowly technical terms, O Mensch (here played on a beautiful instrument in the Netherlands by America’s Michael Murray) poses fewer performance problems than much of Bach. This has had the unexpected consequence that some of the world’s most esteemed organists—Marcel Dupré, Karl Richter, Ton Koopman—have mishandled it, whether through too fast a speed, too slow a speed, or (most commonly) insufficient differentiation in tone-color between the manuals. Bach seldom specified two separate keyboards in his organ music, and when he did specify them, he meant the contrast in voicing to be unmissable. With O Mensch, the right hand proclaims the florid, anguished, abundantly ornamented melody, while the left hand and the pedal part usually move at a much slower pace, throwing the melody into the highest possible relief. The outcome cannot be described, it can only be experienced:


“Music,” Heinrich Heine sagaciously observed, “starts where words leave off.” A blessed Lenten season to all.

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About R.J. Stove 0 Articles
Australia’s R.J. Stove, organist and adult convert to Catholicism, is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2012).