Music for a Quiet Lent: Sunday, April 5 – Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday

OK, get ready for a big sing today, because one of the churches I sing at calls this Palm Sunday and the other one calls it Passion Sunday, and, reflecting my habit of racing around madly between services on the Sunday before Easter, we are going to do BOTH right here on this blog today.

Let’s start with some Palm Sunday music.

You want something fairly simple for the Palm procession, I think, and this bit of chant is a nice choice. One of the nice things about Palm Sunday in Australia is that we do indeed get to carry both palms and olive branches, generally culled from local gardens, so we might as well enjoy the fact that, just this once, we have the correct seasonal and botanical markers for the event.

You can’t have Palm Sunday without some Hosannas, and if you imagined I was going to pass up a chance to sneak another Orlando Gibbons anthem into this musical calendar, then you really haven’t been paying attention. This is gloriously joyful and just a little bit chaotic, like a happy and excited crowd.

We shall round off our Palm Sunday observances with a congregational hymn or two, and my friends, be grateful that nobody has seen fit to put ‘Trotting, trotting through Jerusalem’ on YouTube, because I loved it when I was nine, and I still have a perverse affection for it, but I suspect nobody reading this blog would appreciate it in quite the same way.

My all-time favourite Palm Sunday hymn is Ride on, Ride on in Majesty. It always makes me want to cry when I sing it – the words are so evocative. This version even has a descant, so I shall be sure to badger my favourite music director about it once we are back in action…

But if you want something a bit more cheerful, it’s hard to go past The King of Glory Comes. There are many somewhat alarming renditions of this online; I’m not saying the one below isn’t alarming, but I do quite like the enthusiastic use of folk instruments.

With Palm Sunday duly celebrated, it’s time to move on to Passion Sunday. Traditionally, this is celebrated by a communal reading of the entire Passion story from whichever gospel we are reading, with the minister and readers reading the parts of the narrator and the individual characters, and the congregation being the disciples and later the crowds.

This year, that Gospel is John, and if you have a couple of hours to spare and want to do this really thoroughly, the clear choice is J.S. Bach’s Johannespassion. For those of you not familiar with Bach’s Passions, they were written to be performed in church on Good Friday, and they are a musical version of the communal reading I talked about above, but a bit more complex. There are four kinds of music going on here:

  • The Passion narrative. This is sung by soloists in the roles of the Evangelist / narrator, Jesus, Judas, and other key players in the story. The narrative is sung in recitative, which means that they are more like spoken word than song, with many words on the same note and no clear rhythm.
  • The crowd scenes. This is a part of the Passion narrative, but unlike the recitative, these sections are sung by the choir in a series of rapid-fire, complicated choruses intended to sound like many, often overlapping, voices.
  • The arias. These are sung by soloists, and they do not represent the words of any of the people in the gospels, but are rather an emotional response to the text.
  • The chorales. These would originally have been sung by the congregation, as they were newly harmonised versions of hymns that the congregation would have known. These are, again, not part of the gospel texts, but rather a collective and theological response to the events that have just been sung.

Basically, I’m almost as in love with the idea of these Passion oratorios as I am with the oratorios themselves. The Johannespassion starts at the beginning of John, Chapter 18, and runs to the end of chapter 19. It’s very dramatic, starting right in the action of Jesus’s arrest (and very tricky to sing, if you are in the chorus, because the choruses all start very suddenly and quickly), and ending with Joseph of Arimathea taking Jesus’s body away for burial, with the choir singing a chorus that is almost a lullaby, followed by a final chorale.

The best version I’ve found so far is in German and sadly doesn’t have English subtitles, however you there is a full translation here, which you can follow as you listen.

If you don’t have a spare two hours on your hands this weekend, here is some CPE Bach to get you in the right mood. This one is called Jesus in Gethsemane, and I’ve provided a translation of the lyrics below. It’s very beautiful and emotionally wrenching, and takes you through from Gethsemane to the crucifixion, and I’d like to hear it sung more often.

Look there – there in Gethsemane, the Holiest One weeps, mourns and ?, and trembles in deathly fear. O, see him weeping, praying, kneeling; the cup is bitter, yet he drinks it.

Look there – there he goes into Pilate’s court, blood flowing down his face as he lies in the dust before the great men. Still the grief-stricken one pleads: not my will, O God, but thine be done.

Look there – if ever the the grave frightens you, and cold sweat covers your forehead: let his grief, his agony, his supplication, his struggle with death sweeten your final sufferings.

Wishing you a peaceful Sunday.

Go to the Music for a Quiet Lent index page.

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