From Palm Sunday to Good Friday: The music of Holy Week
The liturgical drama which unfolds this week is familiar and haunting. We move from cheering crowds to speechless shock and silence. The music of Holy Week heightens this drama in many ways.
The prelude on Palm Sunday begins with bold trumpet music, announcing in regal pomp the arrival of a new king. The choir sings Weelke’s “Hosanna to the Son of David” outdoors amidst the noisy crowd. You could imagine this Renaissance choral work accompanied by sackbuts and cornets, a raucous parade of English Tudor music at its most heraldic.
As the service progresses and the Passion story unfolds, the extroverted musical language retreats into the austere, controlled music of the English Reformation: Tallis and Byrd. These important composers of the late Renaissance embraced the aesthetics of the Reformation: the words are clear and the tone is reverent. The notes move in smooth, stepwise fashion with strict (controlled) counterpoint between the voices, where no one leads and no one follows. It is a loss of self, an abnegation of flashiness, introspective and worshipful.
On Maundy Thursday the William Byrd mass for four voices is woven into the liturgy. Byrd was both Catholic and Anglican, writing in the reverent style of Palestrina, and setting a new height for musical refinement in England. Again, the purpose of the music is not to entertain, but to carry the liturgy forward. We hear the Kyrie, the Agnus Dei, and become lost in the plaintive, unadorned, and unaccompanied music.
The organ, by the way, is traditionally avoided during Holy Week; we look inward and still our minds to the drama at hand. During the foot washing and the Mandatum, when Jesus gives the new commandment, the music turns to the rich and loving harmonies of Maurice Durufle’s Ubi caritas (“Where there is love, God is there.”)
The warmth and tenderness of these French chord progressions provide a powerful bridge to the music of Good Friday. On Good Friday the music stops. We try to sing the powerful hymns “Were you there?” and “O Sacred Head”; but ultimately even these efforts fail. We sing plainchant. We leave in silence. “When Christ died, even the birds stopped singing.”
By worshipping together this week we join in the drama as spectators and participants, letting the music reach those deep recesses of the heart.
Lyn Loewi, Associate Organist
Links to the appointed readings and prayer for today: