Lenten music

March 9, 2007

The season of Lent has a distinctive character: solemn, austere, and quiet. It is a season not merely of waiting, but of inward preparation. This preparation has devotional and intellectual aspects, of course, but I find that I enter most fully into the Lenten spirit when I also cultivate the aesthetic qualities of the season. Since I am a music lover, this means locking up the operas and the flashy or opulent recordings and taking instead a steady diet of quieter, simpler fare. In this post, I thought I would share some of the special pieces which I have taken as my companions for these forty desert days.

Arvo Part: Sarah was Ninety Years Old. Someone, I forget who, once observed that many barrels of ink had been spilled to write about musical compositions, but wondered why so little music had been written to comment on texts. In part this is no doubt because music cannot usually convey meaning with any great precision. The most that music can hope to do is penetrate the spirit of a text and give it musical expression. Even this is difficult to do well; Arvo Part’s Sarah was Ninety Years Old is perhaps the most successful such effort that I know. It is a commentary, of course, on the story of Abraham and Sarah as found in Genesis. With a minimum of means – a drum and un-texted voices – Part nevertheless manages to create a moving meditation on fortitude, faith, and glory. To my knowledge, this piece has been recorded just once, but the performance is so good that we hardly need another. Arvo Part: Miserere: The Hilliard Ensemble (ECM New Series).

J.S. Bach: Suites for Solo Cello. These are not explicitly religious works, of course, but that hardly matters. The music, pervaded throughout by the warm austerity of the solo instrument, is a rare marriage of beauty and solemnity. My favourite recording of the works is a marvel: the cellist is somehow able to find and hold the fine point at which the music dances easily without ever losing its inward concentration. Bach: Suites for Solo Cello: Pieter Wispelwey (Channel Classics).

Alfred Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance. Schnittke believed that in the process of creation, a composer “should be a medium or a sensor” who interprets and translates into music something that is of divine origin. This mystical turn of mind led him, a Russian Jew by birth, to convert to Catholicism in his early 50s. Late in life, Schnittke suffered a number of debilitating strokes, and was even declared clinically dead on more than one occasion. Nevertheless, some of his best music dates from these last years, including the Psalms of Repentance, which was finished in 1988. This is a large-scale work for unaccompanied choir, in 12 sections. The texts are not actually psalms; rather, Schnittke chose to set a selection of penitential writings of Russian desert monks. ‘O my soul, why art thou unafraid of the dead in their graves…’. This music is dissonant and turbulent, but serves the intentions of the texts admirably. Alfred Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance: Swedish Radio Choir; Kaljuste (ECM New Series).

George Frederic Handel: Messiah. Many people are unaware that Messiah was written for Lent, not Christmas. In England at the time the opera houses were required to close their doors during Lent, and, in a fine example of observing the letter but not the spirit of the law, concert halls scheduled oratorios instead; Messiah was written for just such an occasion. If I find, therefore, that the austerities of Lent are becoming too much for me, I feel I can justly turn to this joyful work for refreshment. Handel: Messiah: Monteverdi Choir; John Eliot Gardiner (Philips).

Arvo Part - Miserere - The Hilliard EnsembleBach - Cello Suites - Wispelweyschnittke-psalms.jpghandel-messiah.jpg

If you have music that you particularly associate with Lent, let me know in the comments.

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