Music for the Via Dolorosa

A friend in a nursing home left me this phone message at the beginning of Holy Week: “God came to us and we murdered Him, tortured Him to death, spat on Him. And now, all He asks of us is that we let Him forgive us. Some people won’t even do that. Isn’t that amazing? Human pride.”
Yes, now we see the results of human pride, among which is hatred, splayed on a cross. It is so hard to look at what we have done and believe we could be forgiven for it. Judas couldn’t. Yet Christ is saying: Take Me, offer Me up to the Father for what you have done. I am enough to repair the damage you have caused.
The crucifixion, then, is an invitation. But to what? According to an ancient Cornish carol, Good Friday is Christ’s invitation to us to join the dance. He wants us to dance with Him.

I have often wondered what sort of music one would dare to play at the foot of the cross or at the empty tomb. Gustav Holst gave his answer in his ineffably moving part song, “
This have I done for my true love.“To understand what is meant by the dance, I quote a substantial part of the carol.
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day.
I would my true love did so chance.
To see the legend of my play
To call my true love to the dance.
Refrain: Sing oh my love, oh my love, my love;
This have I done for my true love.
. . .
For thirty pence Judas me sold,
His covetousness for to advance;
Mark whom I kiss, the same do hold,
The same is he shall lead the dance. (Refrain)
Before Pilate the Jews me brought,
When Barabbas had deliverance.
They scourged me and set me at naught.
Judged me to die to lead the dance. (Refrain)
When on the cross hanged I was,
When a spear to my heart did glance,
There issued forth both water and blood,
To call my true love to the dance. (Refrain)
Then down to hell, I took my way,
For my true love’s deliverance,
And rose again on the third day,
Up to my true love and the dance. (Refrain)
Then up to heaven, I did ascend.
Where now I dwell in sure substance,
On the right hand of God, that man
May come into the general dance.
Sing oh my love, oh my love, my love;
This have I done for my true love.
As moving as these words are, the setting Holst provided magnifies their impact and will crack your heart open. (You can listen on Hyperion CDA 66705, with the Holst Singers.)
So there we have it. The gift has been given; the gift is the Giver. The music is playing; the dance has begun. As my friend suggested, we can decline the dance; we can join Judas. Or will we allow Him to dance with us in the general dance He has composed for all creation?
There is other music I turn to during Lent and on Good Friday. I hardly need mention classics like Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, the Saint John Passion, and the Easter Oratorio, or Haydn’s exquisite Seven Last Words, but I will briefly touch upon some other compositions that are less well known, but just as edifying in their own way.
On Golgotha, there stands His Mother, Stabat Mater dolorosa. This medieval text has been set innumerable times by such luminaries as Palestrina, Pergolesi, Scarlatti (both Alessandro and Domenico), Haydn, Schubert, Rossini, Dvorak, and Verdi. As popular as settings of the Stabat Mater were from the Renaissance through the 19th century, few modern masters have succeeded with this text, or even tried to. Notable exceptions are Francis Poulenc and Arvo Part, who both succeeded magnificently.
In 1950, in the extraordinarily short time of two months, Poulenc, mourning over the recent death of a friend, completed his half-hour Stabat Mater for solo soprano, mixed chorus, and orchestra. This sign of inspiration is also an indication of the music’s sense of immediacy, its power to startle and to put the listener in the Passion, directly reacting to the events and to Mary’s sufferings. As have few others, Poulenc captures the passion, suffering, sorrow, supplication, and, finally, glorious hope of the Stabat Mater. (There is a beautiful performance on a Harmonia Mundi CD 905149; also, a good budget version on Naxos 8.553176.)
Part’s Stabat Mater, written in 1985, brings us back to the piercing purity of the 13th-century roots of the text. Composed for a trio of voices and a trio of violin, viola, and cello, this 24-minute opus, employing Medieval and Renaissance techniques, is startlingly simple, intensely concentrated, and devotional. Like all of Part’s work, it grows out of a respect for silence — in this case, the silence at the foot of the cross. What sort of music would one make from the foot of the cross? His answer is both harrowing and profoundly moving. This is not an exercise in musical archaism but a living testament to faith. As I have written before, it is music to listen to on your knees. (A sublime performance is available with the Hilliard Ensemble on a CD titled Arbos, ECM 1325/831959-2.)
In 1982, Part wrote a Passio, according to the Gospel of St. John, with a simplicity that is even starker than that of the Stabat Mater. It is a meditation on the Passion rather than a dramatization of it (ECM Records: ECM 1370). Naxos has released a Part choral CD with the Elora Festival Singers, under Noel Edison (8.570239), which contains many moving works with which I was unfamiliar — especially the very touching Triodion (1998), the first part of which is based upon the text: “Jesus the Son of God, Have Mercy upon Us.” The second part, an invocation to Mary, “O Most Holy Birth-giver of God, Save Us,” is a moving prayer. This is another testament of living faith in our secular times. This music is a product of grace; it is grace made audible.
In 1945, Swiss composer Frank Martin was impelled to undertake his setting of the Passion by an encounter with Rembrandt’s famous etching The Three Crosses. Like Rembrandt, Martin said he wished to depict “the hour, in the history of the world, when the basic incompatibility between our material world and the world of the spirit was so vividly revealed.” He declared his “intention was to make the sacred tragedy come to life again before our very eyes, and above all to portray the divine figure of Christ.” Martin took his narrative from all four Gospels and interspersed among the scenes from the Passion excerpts from St. Augustine’s Meditations. The choral setting of the Hosannas that greet Christ in Jerusalem is a sublime and ravishing revelation of Christ’s true identity. The setting of Saint Augustine’s Meditation No. 7 that follows is an exquisite musical meditation of the utmost delicacy and spiritual refinement. The actual scene of Calvary, taken from St. John’s Gospel, is gently rendered as a quiet, grief-stricken prayer, subdued and reverential. The concluding section, “The Resurrection,” is a hymn from St. Augustine that both seraphically and powerfully proclaims victory over death in the majesty of the risen Christ. Martin created a work of sublimity, a Passion setting that rises over our own times and that can only be compared to the works of his great master, Bach, in its achievement (Cascavelle VEL 3004, 2-CD set with libretto).
In 1993, the BBC broadcast on each night of Holy Week a section of the seven-movement work it had commissioned for this purpose: Seven Last Words, by James MacMillan (b. 1959). Naxos has issued a new recording of this very moving composition for mixed choir and strings by the Dimitri Ensemble, conducted by Graham Ross (8.570719). It is stunning in every respect. It has taken some time for me to be won over by this Scottish Catholic composer, but this work has done it. MacMillan is neither as minimalist as Part, though in places he gets very close, nor as aggressively avant-garde as Penderecki (in his Saint Luke’s Passion), though parts of it are almost as harrowing.
In the third movement, which inserts texts from the Good Friday service, two tenors intone “Ecce lignum crucem” (behold the wood of the cross) three times. The response by the choir in “venite adoremus,” accompanied by a violin solo, is so exquisitely beautiful that it could have come from Gounod or Faure. The harsh, stabbing, staccato string chords in the last several movements are musical lacerations or poundings, hardly out of place with this subject matter. They make the string serenade to Christ as He expires in the last movement, “Father, into Thy hands . . . ,” all the more heartbreaking. MacMillan must be in love to write music like this. Diminuendo, more and more haltingly, the strings finally exhale His spirit to the Father. This is Christ dying in sound.
For one of the most extraordinary representations of the Resurrection, I turn back to the 19th century. Anton Bruckner’s Mass in F Minor is a volcanic eruption of faith, truly heaven-storming, an undisputed masterpiece, and rightly known as the greatest Mass since Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. (You must hear Eugen Jochum’s recording on Deutsche Grammophon.) I know of no other Credo that depicts the Resurrection more powerfully. I am reminded of the huge crucifix over the main altar at Les Invalides in Paris. The depiction of Christ is one of power. The extraordinarily strong figure on the cross could only be there by His own will, because He could clearly tear Himself off at any moment and snap the cross in two. The tension in the portrayal is that He might do just that. It is the return of this Christ that I hear in Bruckner. The Et ressurexit is Christ rising in sound. It is overwhelming, awe-struck. The same motif returns at the Et expecto, making it musically as clear as can be that it is in Christ’s resurrection that we are to share.
All we have to do is fill out our dance cards and get out on the floor. Our Partner is waiting; He wants to dance.


Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.