Mar 29, 2011
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.