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Musical Musings: Lent
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Lenten Music

by Eric M. Johnson

This article first appeared in the Arlington Catholic Herald on February 20, 1997.

Few people today would think of Lent as a season for liturgical music, because Christmas has almost cornered the market. Unsatisfied with its own ample store of tunes, Christmas absorbs other seasonal compositions. Handel's Messiah, no matter what you have heard, is an Easter oratorio, and the "Hallelujah Chorus" celebrates the Resurrection not the Nativity.

Lenten music has its own particular beauty, which may be lost on modern man. Father Robert A. Skeris, chairman of the theology department at Christendom College in Front Royal, attributes this partly to the general degradation of religion and partly on the trivialization of religious expression. "If the liturgy is on the decline, it follows that music will be less of a blessing," he says.

"The idea of penance is not so popular today," Father Skeris remarks dryly. "The tendency is toward horizontal worship. People don't want to be reminded of the suffering Savior, who is of less interest to us."

This is regrettable because "when you look back at musical history, Lent has been an enormous source of inspiration for composers," the birthplace of gems like the hymn "O Sacred Head Now Wounded," and the chanting of the Lord's Passion on Palm Sunday.

Another little-noticed indicator of the times is the censorship of traditional music. In Catholic and Protestant hymnbooks, any words that might upset suburban sensibilities is carefully expunged. The lyrics of "Amazing Grace" used to read, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me." Now it's "that saved and set me free," lest anyone think that sinners are wretched.

"The Battle Hymn of the Republic," originally sung by Civil War soldiers, may have endured the worst fate. The final line of the last verse, "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free," inspired men to risk death in battle rather than let the Union perish. In the Catholic missalette used in most parishes, the line reads, "As He died to make all holy, let us live to make all free," thus achieving a perfect combination of political correctness and religious happy-talk.

To call this flight from humility "pagan" is tempting, but incorrect. The ancient pagans were often acutely aware of man's frailty and unworthiness.

In a way, Lenten music began before the Church did. Jesus and the apostles sang Passover hymns on the first Holy Thursday, as testified by the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. The earliest Christians often sang of the passion and death of Christ, although their music is mostly lost.

The High Middle Ages was a rich seedbed of penitential music. The Dies irae ("Day of Wrath"), attributed to the 13th-century musician Thomas of Celano, was eventually incorporated into the Requiem Mass in the 16th century. To this day, composers take great delight in using this apocalyptic text as a starting point for magnificent (and very loud) orchestrations.

Stabat Mater, another popular medieval hymn written c. 1300, is a meditation on the Virgin Mary watching her Son on the cross. "Who is the man who would not weep, seeing the mother of Christ in such torment?" asks the anonymous author.

Like many similar hymns, Stabat Mater began as plainchant, but enjoys new life in each successive musical era. At the dawn of polyphonic music, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina composed a heartbreakingly beautiful setting of the Stabat Mater for eight voices, one of his finest works.

As historian Paul Henry Lang writes, "In the eyes of many, church music ended with Palestrina and became history." While he is not a household name, like Beethoven or Mozart, Palestrina played a very significant role in the history of music. Largely because of the deep piety of his works, the Church began to incorporate polyphony in the liturgy. It is impossible not to be enraptured by God's majesty while listening to Palestrina.

Bach's name is inseparable from Lenten music, due to his four oratorios based on the Gospel accounts of the Passion. Two of them are lost, but the Saint John Passion and Saint Matthew Passion are high-water marks for depth and complexity. From the opening notes of the Saint John Passion, we are invited to contemplate a world thrown out of balance by sin and the innocence of the Lamb to be slain; in Bach's own understated way, the trial sequence of the Saint John Passion chillingly reminds us of the world's darkness.

A final word must be reserved for the composer Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). Until recently, Tallis was regarded as an obedient English musician who adapted his religious views according to the ruler of the time. When Henry VIII wrenched control of the Church in England from the pope, Tallis became Anglican. When the throne reverted to Catholicism under Queen Mary, only to lurch back to Anglicanism under Elizabeth, Tallis unswervingly served whomever was on the throne.

However, recent scholarship has revealed that Tallis, though he was employed by the Chapel Royal, never swerved in his devotion to Catholicism. He remained in contact with prominent English Catholic families, like his pupil and colleague William Byrd. At a time when one could be imprisoned for attending Mass, and priests could be executed for celebrating one, retaining this loyalty was quite courageous.

His Lamentations of Jeremiah is considered his finest work, and is certainly appropriate for Lent. But it is Tallis' Spem in Alium, a 40-part motet, that fully captures the sorrowful nature of the season. Eight five-voice choirs weave a thick tapestry of otherworldly grace and pulsating energy, culminating in the final plea, "Be mindful of our lowliness." The piece is an extraordinarily personal statement of faith by an elderly man who witnessed decades of Christians warring against each other, and the eventual defeat of the Church he held dear.


Thomas Tallis

Spem in alium nunquam habui
praeter in te, Deus Israel,
qui irasceris et propitius eris,
et omnia peccata hominum
in tribulatione dimittis.
Domine Deus,
creator coeli et terrae
respice humilitatem nostram.

I have never founded my hope
on any other than thee. O God of Israel,
who shalt be angry, and yet be gracious,
and who absolvest all the sins of mankind
in tribulation.
Lord God,
creator of heaven and earth,
be mindful of our lowliness.

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