Listening to Holy Week

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A painting by American artist William Herbert shows the fifth Station of the Cross, Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry the cross. Photo: Creative Commons/Public Domain
By on March 31, 2022

HeadshotFor me, it’s all about the music. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, given my training as a classical composer. After two years of near-silence from professional and amateur musicians alike, save for pre-recorded virtual performances, what I am most looking forward to this spring is the return of live choral and congregational singing—especially during Holy Week.

I love the soundtrack of Holy Week. Starting with the hymn “Ride On, Ride On in Majesty” (Common Praise 182) and ending with the majestic “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” (CP 203), it’s a time to pull out all the stops, literally. How exhilarating to sing the bass line of these stirring hymns in tune with the organ pedals!

After I moved to Toronto in my mid-20s, I came to appreciate the music of Holy Week in more depth. For two years, I was a bass choral scholar in the evensong choir at Trinity College, under the inspired direction of John Tuttle. Singing Ubi caritas et amor by Maurice Duruflé during the moment in the Maundy Thursday liturgy when Jesus washes his disciples’ feet is profoundly humbling. For a contemporary setting, the Ubi caritas by living Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo is also lovely. Later, as Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane, the alternating plainchant verses and soaring soprano refrain of Miserere mei, Deus by Gregorio Allegri leave us devastated.

Good Friday has its own musical score. The Passion Chorale from the magnificent St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach (CP 198) provides an emotional backdrop for the day with its changing harmonizations. For several years my personal Good Friday ritual was to listen to Passio (St. John Passion) by living Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. It provided a quiet, reflective retelling of the Passion narrative that complemented the overt sorrow of pieces like “Were You There” (CP 192) and The Reproaches by John Sanders.

As for Holy Saturday, I remember the first time I heard the ancient Exsultet intoned. Chills went up and down my spine with every repeated “This is the night, when….”—thinking about this deep mystery of the resurrection “when Christ broke the bonds of death.”

Singing at Trinity College was where I first encountered Tenebrae. It’s an ancient liturgy, made of the first two services of the Divine Office, namely matins and lauds, that took place on the three days leading up to Easter (the Paschal Triduum). Since the Middle Ages, it has been common practice to anticipate these two offices and sing them together on the evening before each holy day, after vespers. They were given the name “Tenebrae,” which comes from the Latin word for darkness or shadow, because that’s when darkness was descending.

Tenebrae is LONG. Matins for each day contained: nine psalms, nine antiphons (short, sung refrains for psalms), nine readings, nine responsories (sung texts that reflect on the readings), three Our Fathers, and a partridge in a pear tree! (Lauds was blessedly shorter with just five more psalms with antiphons, an Old Testament canticle, the Benedictus, an Our Father, etc.)

But for me, again, it’s all about the music! Because these Holy Week services were so special, a huge musical tradition developed around them. The first parts of Tenebrae that would have been sung were the psalms, antiphons, and responsories. In the Renaissance, we also start to see musical settings of the readings themselves, specifically the first set of three readings for each day that come from the book of Lamentations (nine readings in total, spread over the three days). Music for Tenebrae reached a high point during the Baroque era and continued into the 20th century. I discovered this goldmine of musical settings recently when I was preparing to teach a Christian education session on Lamentations and sacred music. I want to highlight a few stellar examples that have become part of my soundtrack for Holy Week.

Thomas Tallis, one of the greatest English Renaissance composers, set the texts of the first and second readings for Maundy Thursday, which correspond to Lamentations 1:1–9, as his five-voice Lamentations of Jeremiah in the 1560s. The acrostic structure of the text comes through, with Tallis setting the name of each successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, beth, gimel, daleth, etc., into the musical texture. Most of the well-known Renaissance composers set portions of the Lamentations readings, though complete settings of all nine texts were rare.

When we move into the Baroque era, these purely vocal settings grew to incorporate orchestral instruments. There is a complete choral and orchestral setting of all nine readings in the exuberant Baroque style by Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka: Lamentationes Jermiae prophetae pro hebdomada sancta, composed in the 1720s.

Music for Tenebrae flourished into its own peculiar style in France during this period. There was a genre of solo chamber music called Leçons de ténèbres, which featured virtuosic solo vocal parts (usually one or two singers) plus accompaniment. The most famous of these settings come from the French Baroque composers Marc-Antoine Charpentier (many complete settings survive, from the late 17th century) and François Couperin (only three Leçons de ténèbres for Wednesday survive, composed in 1714).

Composers didn’t limit themselves to the readings. They also wrote magnificent settings of the other liturgical texts—and the responsories were especially fertile ground for their creative imagination. Through their music, they commented on the readings while also reflecting on the events Jesus experienced during Holy Week. English-Canadian composer Healey Willan, no stranger to the Anglican church, composed a beautiful set of responsories for the nine Lamentations readings, which has been recorded by the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto.

All the pieces I have listed here can easily be found online on the usual platforms, including Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube. One of the benefits of this digital age is that we have access to music that in earlier times might have been heard only once in a lifetime. We have the luxury of compiling our own soundtracks for Holy Week, whether it be hymns, spirituals, choral music or orchestral works. May we have ears to hear in a new way this year.

Scott Brubacher is executive director of the Anglican Foundation of Canada and a member of Exultate Chamber Singers, Toronto. An award-winning composer, he holds a doctorate in composition from the University of Toronto.

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