Editor’s note: we have embedded several videos of the sacred music performances discussed in the following text, but space prevents us from including them all. We encourage you to follow the links as well so you don’t miss out on any of these beautiful pieces of music.
Throughout the desert of Lent, souls seek conversion along the Way of the Cross through abstaining from certain foods, images, and noise so that they may grow closer to their Creator and hear His voice in the silence. Such disciplines engage all five of the human senses. Guido d’Arezzo, an 11th century monk and musician, wrote that sounds, sights, tastes, and smells influence the wellbeing of both heart and body because “through the windows of the body… things enter wondrously into the recesses of the heart.” How, then, can the medium of sound, which enters “the recesses of the heart,” foster interior silence? Does this mean that we should abstain from listening to music during Lent, and replace it with spiritual reading and silent prayer? But even the Church herself does not abstain from music altogether in her Lenten liturgy, only certain kinds of music, such as the organ. On Good Friday, when the altars are stripped, the flowers closeted away, and the statues veiled, there is still deeply poignant music. For “silence is not an absence,” writes Cardinal Sarah, “On the contrary, it is a manifestation of a presence, the most intense of all presences… For silence is where God dwells. He drapes Himself in silence.” In what way, then, can we draw closer to God by using the gift of music in our personal Lenten devotions in the home?
As the Church adapts the aesthetic to fit the liturgical season, so can we adjust our Lenten listening habits so that our path along the Via Crucis need not veer off from the Via Pulchritudinis. Benedict XVI wrote elegantly of this paradoxical convergence of these paths in some of his Wednesday audiences. He pointed out that knowledge obtained through books is a second-hand kind of knowledge. “True knowledge,” explains Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “is being struck by the arrow of Beauty that wounds man, moved by reality.”
Beauty, which is wordless, puts us in direct contact with the truth, who is Christ. Contemplating great masterpieces of classical sacred music is a path that “leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves.” Benedict insists: “We must learn to see Him. If we know Him, not only in words, but if we are struck by the arrow of his paradoxical beauty, then we will truly know him, and know him not only because we have heard others speak about him. Then we will have found the beauty of Truth, of the Truth that redeems.” Listening to judiciously selected musical compositions brings us into close contact, indeed direct contact, with the beauty of Christ himself.
If there is one musical “arrow of Beauty” to experience during Lent, it is the heart-wrenchingly gorgeous Membra Jesu Nostri Patientis Sanctissima (“The Most Holy Limbs of Our Suffering Jesus”) by the 17th century German composer, Dietrich Buxtehude.
In Membra Jesu Nostri, Buxtehude built an innovative cycle of seven cantatas sung by a small ensemble of singers (SSATB) accompanied by stringed instruments and continuo. From the devotional medieval poem, Salve Mundi Salutare, Buxtehude selected stanzas which address wounds of Christ’s body, organized them into seven sections, and artfully framed each with texts from Sacred Scripture. The listener is thus placed at the foot of the Cross, contemplating each of the seven wounds in ascending order beginning with His feet and ending with His face. Buxtehude packs dense emotive power into the musical dialogues between instruments and voices, adhering to the Baroque Doctrine of Affections, while also using the fascinating compositional technique of word painting. For example, in the third Concerto addressing the hands of Christ, two musical ideas are starkly juxtaposed yet contain the same text: “What are those wounds in the midst of your hands?” The first time this arresting question is sung, it is strung in slow, dissonant suspensions which cut straight to the heart. The second time this question is sung, there are three notes articulated like three hammer blows, musically alluding to the nails hammered into Christ’s hands. In the sixth Concerto addressing the heart of Christ, the text “you have wounded my heart, my sister, my bride,” is accompanied by a repeated pattern in the strings, swelling in dynamics like that of a heart throbbing with passion. At the conclusion of the concerto, however, the repeated “heartbeat” pattern is broken up, shattered by rests, and placed on the offbeats. Ending thus so abruptly, Buxtehude movingly illustrates here that Christ’s wounded heart has ceased beating.
In addition to Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri, the collection of Lenten classical music to choose from is vast, deep, and rich. The Roman Catholic composer Joseph Haydn composed the very moving Seven Last Words from the Cross:
Originally notating The Seven Last Words from the Cross for narrator and orchestra, Haydn also set it for narrator and string quartet, which is a version I highly recommend. Memorable moments include the dry timbre of cello pizzicato for the “I thirst” portion, a musical “earthquake” following the crucifixion, barren and mournful melodies depicting grief at the cross, and a pervading sense of hope foreshadowing the Resurrection.
Those interested in the monastic Office of Tenebrae may appreciate the many settings of the Responsories. Gesualdo’s setting of Tristes est Anima Mea musically illustrates Christ’s anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. The twentieth century French composer François Poulenc poignantly juxtaposes the sweetness and bitterness of the Vinea Mea Electa responsory in his Quatre Motets pour un temps de penitence. Twentieth century English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ O Vos Omnes revitalizes medieval compositional techniques. François Couperin’s theatrical yet intimate Troisieme Leçon de Tenebres for two sopranos over continuo is revered as one of the finest in Baroque vocal repertoire:
Epic settings of the Passion Narratives of the Gospels most notably include that of Johann Sebastian Bach, in his St. Matthew’s Passion. One of the pearls hidden within this gargantuan masterpiece is the soulful Erbarme Dich (a setting of Psalm 50), whose exquisite dialogue between violin and mezzo soprano drips with the very sorrows of St. Peter following his threefold denial of Christ. Baroque “sigh” motifs, pulsing pizzicato lines of the lower strings, long mourning lines of melody, the counterpoint of violin and voice, chromaticism, all of these pierce to the heart. Hundreds of years later, living composer Arvo Part set the Passion Narrative of St. John to music in his Passio:
Deeply contemplative and thus conducive to profound silence, this piece is best listened to in one sitting with the text close at hand as the drama of the Passion unfolds. The voicing is assigned and staged much like the Gospel chanted at the Liturgies of Passion Sunday and Good Friday. A small orchestra accompanies the drama in a quality of mystical stillness, sparse textures, and arrestingly simple countermelodies. In listening to this setting, one can sense Arvo Part’s depth of faith and his own closeness to the beloved disciple and Our Lord.
The Miserere, or Psalm 50, composed by Allegri embodies the gesture of the soul lifting its sighs upwards to God in the epic soprano ascent to a high C. By contrast, the very mystical Miserere setting by 21st century Polish composer Henryk Gorecki explores the depths of the human vocal range, embodying the gesture of the soul begging for mercy. Gorecki’s Miserere begins low and almost imperceptibly soft as it slowly unfolds, stretching only five words of Psalm 50 over an immense expanse of time. Louise Nicolas Clerambault’s setting of the Miserere is a jewel of the French Baroque with its expressively ornamented, sustained harmonies, and its delicate continuo accompanying the poignant vocal lines.
Yet another Passiontide genre beloved among composers is the Stabat Mater, which has been set to music over two hundred times. Pergolesi’s setting of the Stabat Mater is memorable for its descending bass line which slowly sinks in small increments, symbolic of impending death according to the Baroque Doctrine of Affections. Painfully revolving and morphing harmonies immerse the listener in the grief and desolation of the Via Crucis. With a nod to Pergolesi, Romantic era composer Antonin Dvorak opens his setting of the Stabat Mater with a descending, walking bass line. Written for large scale chorus and symphony, this cinematic and at times unrestrainedly sentimental portrayal of the Stabat Mater was Dvorak’s response to his own personal tragedy following the deaths of three of his beloved children. In Arvo Part’s Stabat Mater, strings in high registers pierce like the swords in the Sorrowful Mother’s heart. A stillness pervades this music, calling to mind the purity of the ancient medieval chant of the Church and leading the soul to silence at the foot of the Cross:
What does it mean to be struck by beauty during Lent, which is supposed to be a silent, barren desert? The wounds of Christ were bloody and bereft of beauty and neither were Jesus’ cries from the Cross aesthetically pleasing: “There is no beauty in him, nor comeliness… Despised, and the most abject of men, a man of sorrows…” (Isa 53:2-3). Yet because of Christ’s resurrection, pain and suffering no longer exclude beauty, but rather are directed toward a victorious finality: “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (I Cor 15:55). In the context of salvation history and the liturgy of the Church, Christ’s passion and death are inseparable from hope, mercy, and salvation. In the words of the Passionist priest Fr. Ignatius of the Side of Christ, Jesus’ very wounds, though ugly in physical appearance, are “as so many tongues, ever speaking in our favor,” efficacious for our salvation, and loud in mercy. “The Wounds of Jesus,” he writes, “cry out still more loudly for pity and mercy, and the voice of His Wounds drowns the voice of our sins.” The voice of Christ’s wounds echoes through centuries of sacred music compositions too numerous to list, placing us in a mystically direct experience within the Garden of Gethsemane, along the Via Crucis, and at the foot of the Cross. Because the “rhythms and harmonies” of music “find their way into the inward places of the soul,” let us search for the voice of Christ in substantive Lenten music so that it may pierce us with the transformative arrow of Beauty.
All Images taken from: Van der Weyden’s The Descent from the Cross (with detail shots)
 Guido d’Arezzo, Micrologus, Trans. Warren Babb, Ed. Claude V. Palisca (New Haven: Yale UP, 1978) 99.
 Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise (Ignatius Press, 2017).
 Pope Benedict XVI, “The Feeling of Things; The Contemplation of Beauty” (24 August 2002).
 The Holy Bible (New York: The Douay Bible House, 1941).
 Fr. Ignatius of the Side of Jesus, The School of Jesus Crucified: The Lessons of Calvary in Daily Catholic Life (Tan Books, 2002).
 Plato. The Republic, III, 401.D.
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