A picture may be worth 1000 words, but in my view a good piece of music can be worth a dozen pictures. Amusingly-named musicologist Chris Dingle goes further and posits that music is the language of God (and argues from there that no music can itself be evil, which I’m not sure about).
Now I don’t wish to run down contemporary worship music or the wider rock scene, both of which I like. But at times like Good Friday I reach for greater emotional depth available within the classical tradition.
I mentioned a couple of pieces last time which I tangentially associate with Good Friday. Here are a few more which I personally find helpful in reflecting on the cross – complete with handy YouTube links…
Contemporary Scottish Catholic composer MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross is a string-accompanied choral setting of Jesus’ dying words (interwoven with liturgical texts) to haunting, haunted music. It is by turns (and sometimes simultaneously) beautiful, dissonant, disturbing, eerie, and full both of majesty and agony.
At times the melodies and harmonies are heart-stoppingly lovely (albeit tinged with poignancy and sorrow), as when Jesus says to the penitent thief ‘today you will be with me in paradise’. At other times they are brutal, harsh and frightening as a horror score.
For me Seven Last Words is a must for Good Friday. And unlike the Rodrigo and Gorecki pieces, while there is beauty there is little hint of the coming hope of Easter. It focuses unrelentingly on the cross, the agony and horror, as well as the compassion and self-giving of Jesus. It is Good Friday made meaningful, even at times beautiful, but without airbrushing out the brutality.
Strictly this is meant as a Christmas piece, forming part of Messaien’s organ cycle La Nativité du Seigneur. The title translates as ‘Jesus accepts suffering’, which in the context of nativity could refer to the divine (or infant) Jesus accepting the suffering and indignity inherent in becoming human.
More deeply though it’s a foreshadowing of the ultimate suffering of his death, and the harsh discords and eerie atonalities certainly make this feel like a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday piece. It resolves in a majestic upward flight of simple chords which imply that Jesus has indeed accepted – and even transcended – his suffering.
Barber’s Adagio for Strings is one of the best-known instrumental expressions of lament of modern times, and of course it was used memorably as the closing music for the harrowing film Platoon. Perhaps less well-known is Barber’s choral version of the piece, using the music as a setting for the words of the Agnus Dei fromthe Eucharist. In English the words are: ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us; Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us your peace’.
As such it isn’t specifically a Good Friday piece, but it is a reflection on one aspect of the cross – focusing on Jesus as the sacrificial lamb who takes away our sins. (Which does not necessarily mean that the atonement can best be understood as penal substitution… but that’s another post.)
J.S. Bach: St Matthew Passion and St John Passion
I can appreciate the quality of workmanship in baroque music, but I have to admit it rarely moves me deeply. Nonetheless, these settings by Bach of the gospel ‘passion’ narratives are undeniably masterworks. But for those like me who prefer something more contemporary you could always try…
Penderecki’s music is, to most ears, weird and not a little disturbing. To give you an idea, some of his work was used to chilling effect in the score of Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining. His St Luke Passion mixes (to great and unsettling effect) odd sounds, spoken words, strange sliding dissonances and huge sonic blares as a fitting soundscape to the drama of Christ’s trial and death. I can’t say I love it, and you won’t be humming any of the tunes, but it’s certainly powerful.
Arvo Pärt’s St John Passion sits at the absolute opposite end of the musical spectrum from Penderecki. It’s 70 minutes of simple, repetitive, almost medieval-sounding choral chanting all based around a single minor key. Depending on your taste and mood it may either transport you to some heavenly dimension or just send you to sleep.
The Protecting Veil is a musical journey through the stages of the life of Mary, mother of Jesus, from Annunciation through to her final rest. In this movement the solo cello effectively expresses Mary’s painful lament at the cross – a subject also picked up in a dozen Stabat Maters (e.g. by Dvorak and Pergolesi), not to mention Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. And the next section is Christ is Risen… but that’s getting ahead of ourselves…