Guest ColumnistLenten musical themes

Lent is tough -- not so much because of the voluntary deprivations one may undertake, but because of what it leads up to: the Cross. Take a look. Of course, there is the Resurrection on the other side of it. Without that, it would be hard to make it through the day (and I have a pretty easy day) -- because I want to see my parents and my brother again, and my other friends and family members, and because I have no wish for personal extinction. If the Cross were the end, how could we cope? As St. Paul said, if He be not risen, our faith is in vain.

But the Cross is what we are now hurtling toward. Each Holy Week, my children and I (except for the youngest, who is still too young for it) watch "The Passion" together. Last year, with tears in my eyes, I exclaimed, "How could anyone love us that much?" Of course, no one could . . . except God. And that's why He came. So we have to take a look at what we have done and His response to it. This is very hard to do. We could not handle this burden, but He could.

What does this mean in music? This supreme challenge has been addressed by the greatest artists of Christendom from the time of medieval chant (our first notated music) to the present day. The answer that is most familiar to many comes from some of the greatest works, such as Bach's St. Matthew and St. John Passions, to say nothing of his Easter oratorio or Lenten cantatas. The Stabat Maters written by Pergolesi and Scarlatti also immediately come to mind, as does the incomparable musical contemplation on the Seven Last Words posed by Haydn for use on Good Friday. In last year's April column, "Music for the Via Dolorosa," I listed some of the great classical and contemporary treatments of Lenten themes. Here, I will add to them.

In response to his commission to write "The Seven Last Words" for Lenten services at the cathedral in Cadiz, Haydn said, "It was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners." He succeeded incomparably. The seven movements were meant to be interspersed with readings but, even without them, the music is entirely gripping. The original orchestral composition was so popular that Haydn added separate versions for choir, string quartet, and piano solo.

A new recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, under conductor Vladimir Jurowski (LPO-0051), gives us a hybrid version that "juxtaposes Haydn's original instrumental movement with the later choral version." As much as I enjoyed this novel arrangement and the quite beautiful performance, I never felt myself at Golgotha. For that experience, I returned to the string quartet version offered by the Cherubini Quartet in its 1989 EMI recording (still available at This slow-motion meditation (77 minutes long) is completely riveting in its level of concentration and commitment. You know exactly where you are and what is happening. You will be on your knees at the foot of the Cross. If you have never heard a string quartet weep, listen to this. Art does not exceed what has been achieved here.

I am stunned by Franz Liszt's oratorio "Christus." I generally do not care for Liszt's music, and so I was prepared to dislike this work. Instead, this nearly three-hour piece left me in awe. First of all, the orchestral writing is sublime. In a blind listening session, I would guess I was hearing a lost work by Berlioz of the sort he composed in his endearing "L'Enfance du Christ". Then I remembered how close Liszt was to Berlioz and how generous Liszt was in trying to help him. Am I hearing Berlioz's influence on the elder Liszt, or is this evidence of how much Liszt influenced Berlioz? I don't know, but I love the music, especially as so beautifully performed by Krakow Chamber Choir and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Helmuth Rilling. The soloist and choral writing is radiant. I think Liszt caught some angels singing. The third part contains a half-hour version of the Stabat Mater. The magnificent Resurrexit makes for a nearly overwhelming finale. "Christus" was apparently very well received when it was performed in the Vatican in the late 1860s. If you wish to find out why, do not hesitate (Hanssler Classics set 3-CD 98.121).

Of course, this year is the bicentenary of Liszt's birth (1811-1886), and there have been multiple releases to celebrate. Gloria Dei Cantores has made a substantial contribution with its new CD of Liszt's Choral Mass and other choral works. Of his Mass, Liszt wrote:

You may be sure, dear friend, that I did not compose my work as one might put on a church vestment instead of an overcoat, but that it has sprung from the truly fervent faith of my heart, such as I have felt it since my childhood. Gentium, non factum -- and therefore I can truly say that my Mass has been more prayed than composed.

This is a fervent performance of a clearly devotional work -- one composed as Liszt prepared to take minor holy orders. Much of the Mass is homophonic. Liszt intended it for liturgical use, not as a concert work -- thus its simplicity. Liszt did not need to be extravagant to be expressive, and this beautiful Mass is quite moving (Gloria Dei Cantores GCCD 049). The performers are, I might say, unusually ardent. I think I detected the reason why when I looked at the list of choir members: Half of them have taken holy orders. When someone believes in what they are singing, you can hear the difference. Gloria, indeed.

On the largest scale of any Stabat Mater, at one-and-a-half hours length, Antonin Dvorak's massive, Romantic, full-blooded, deeply felt treatment is every bit as compelling as his great Requiem. He finished the Stabat Mater in 1877, after three of his children had died in their infancy over the course of three preceding years. The sense of desolation and loss he must have felt infuses this ineffably touching, fervent score, but so does the moving consolation that his deep Catholic faith gave him. The compositional style is a heterodox combination of tone poem, German oratorio, and Italian opera, but it works magnificently. In fact, the Stabat Mater established Dvorak's worldwide reputation. (Try to find the 1982 Wolfgang Sawallisch Czech Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra recording on the Supraphon label, made at a performance commemorating the Nazi massacre at Lidice. They believed. You can hear the difference.)

Charles Villiers Stanford's Stabat Mater, from 1907, is subtitled "A Symphonic Cantata" and begins with an unusual nine-minute orchestral prelude that leaves the mellow world of his Requiem far behind. This is a full-blooded, tumultuous work. It is quite an impressive and tightly constructed piece. One could hardly imagine a better performance than the one on Chandos (CHAN 95-48), which also features Stanford's Te Deum and Bible Songs. I think Stanford's choral works eclipse his more famous symphonies.

From the first part of the 20th century comes Karol Szymanowski's hypnotic, Slavic version of the Stabat Mater, composed from 1924 to 1926. Szymanowski translated the Latin text into Polish (this is the only treatment in the vernacular that I know of). This substantially changes the character of the work. No suggestion of the liturgical is left, though Szymanowski does employ intriguing hints of the Dies Irae and of the sound of church bells. Otherwise, this is very much a Polish national and personal work, expressing his nation's and Szymanowski's special relationship to Mary. The musical idiom is also somewhat exotic and Eastern in its references. The work calls for soprano, contralto, and baritone soloists; chorus; and orchestra. It is exquisitely beautiful, both tender and powerful. Naxos offers a stunning, deeply felt performance on CD 8.553687, with the Polish State Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra, directed by Karol Stryja.

Le Miroir de Jesus, by French composer Andre Caplet (1878-1925), is a jeweled setting of poems by Henri Gheon that offer meditations on each of the Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries of the rosary. This work for mezzo-soprano, female chorus, harp, and string quartet reminds me of the finest medieval miniature ivory carvings sculpted for private devotion. Plainchant and French impressionism meld seamlessly together in this exquisite creation, delivered on another Naxos bargain, with conductor Mark Foster, mezzo-soprano Brigitte Desnoues, and the Orchestre des Pays de Savoie (Naxos 8.225043).

In his liturgical music, Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) proved that the great English choral tradition has not been exhausted in our time. A Chandos CD features his substantial Lenten work, Crucifixus pro Nobis, Op. 38, for tenor and chorus; his Mass, Op. 44; and other works. The Crucifixus is a truly harrowing piece that does not make for easy listening. Its beauties are subordinate to the wrenching grimness of its subject, which is powerfully and starkly conveyed (CHAN 9485). This is the via dolorosa in sound.

Devotion shines forth in the work of Christian Orthodox convert John Tavener (b. 1944). His compositions, contained on a Virgin Classics CD titled "Thunder Entered Her," are very striking, especially the title piece whose short text, by St. Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306-73), begins, "Thunder entered her/ And made no sound." More appropriate to Lent is Tavener's "The Lament of the Mother of God." The ritualized grief of this haunting work is expressed by a soprano voice, representing Mary, and an unaccompanied choir. The beautiful soprano voice floats over the wordless drone of the chorus, and ascends step-wise over the span of an octave with the beginning of each stanza, which each time repeats the opening line, "Woe is me, my child." The text of the second stanza reads, "I wish to take my son down from the wood and to hold him in my arms, as once I held him when he was a little child. But alas there is none to give him to me." This is a very affecting work -- the Pieta in sound.

If you want to see what we have done, look at the Cross. If you want to hear what we what done, listen to this music.

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