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Choral Lent: A Retreat Into the Desert—5 & 1 Classical Music Series



[Editor's Note: This post resumes Mark Meynell's 5&1 series on classical music which ran in 2020-2021. The idea is to share five shorter classical pieces followed by one more substantial piece that all fit inside a given theme. With over 600 years of music to draw from, the hope is that you find a few old favorites combined with one or two new discoveries in each post.]


 



The pilgrims who trudged to the Passover in Jerusalem often had to pass through barren, inhospitable terrain. Then, on top of the dangers inherent to being out in the wild, they faced the frequent threat of bandits or hostile inhabitants. It is no wonder that such dangers feature in the poems purposely written for these journeys (the Songs of Ascent: Psalms 120-134). No wonder they put their trust in the God who neither slumbered nor slept, nor who let feet slip (Ps 121:3-4). For they had to endure the scorn and mockery of the worldly (Ps 123:4), hostility from oppressors (Ps 129:2-3), not to mention raging waters and enemy’s snares (Ps 124:5, 7).


But such pilgrimages invariably provoked an introspective turn as well, forcing the individual to face not just the terrors of the world but the darkness of the heart. They saw both their brokenness and defiance of God. So, as the pilgrims walk through the desert, they sing Psalm 130, expressive of their spiritual danger. Jesus went into the desert before his ministry went public, facing the demon and the deep cost of his mission. And the church calendar uses his 40 days to remind us of our own need to face inward and upward. We see our sin and our need. It can be intensely painful. But it can also be profoundly cathartic and liberating. This is why music has proved to be integral to the experience of Lent for so many.


Over the course of the 5&1 series, we have already had three choral lists for seasons in the church year: for Advent, Christmas and Easter. It is no surprise that the season of Lent has inspired composers to craft some of the most poignant and affecting choral music in the repertoire. So it is to this theme we now turn.


One word of warning at the start though. These pieces are definitely not wallpaper music. To get the most out of them, I suggest you take time out to listen carefully (perhaps with the texts printed out to focus reflection) and use as part of your devotions (how about each day?).


 

 

Hear my prayer, O Lord (for 8 voices, 1682)

Henry Purcell (1659-1695, English)

The Cambridge Singers, John Rutter (cond.)



Henry Purcell is widely regarded as the greatest English composer in three centuries, leaving an astonishing musical legacy before his premature death in his mid-30s. He wrote for all kinds of settings, from the rarefied world of opera to bawdy pub musicians, from the royal court to church choirs. 


This anthem lasts less than 3 minutes but packs a punch. It is likely that Purcell intended it for a longer work, but never completed it. All we have is one line from the Psalms, but in Purcell’s hands, it becomes one of the most concise and intense cries to God I know in music. Think of it as wave upon wave of heartfelt appeals to God to listen to us.

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my crying come unto thee. (Psalm 102:1)


St Matthew Passion: (BWV 244, 1727) 'Erbame Dich' (part 2 #39)

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750, German)

Andreas Scholl (counter tenor), Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe (cond.)




If the Purcell anthem is a precious gemstone, Bach’s epic musical account of the final days of Jesus’s life in Matthew is one of music’s crown jewels. It is monumental, coming in at roughly 2¾ hours, written for two choirs and orchestra, plus several soloists (including Evangelist, a tenor, and The Voice of Christ, a bass). The way it works through the biblical text forces one to slow down and meditate on each step of the action. No wonder many people make it central to their annual Holy Week devotions.


We must make do with just one tiny extract, one that picks up on the theme of pleading to God. In context, the alto (or in this recording’s case, counter-tenor) sings one of the most achingly beautiful arias in all music, pleading for mercy in response to the agony of Peter’s denial.


Have mercy, my God,

for the sake of my tears!

Look here, heart and eyes

weep bitterly before you.

Have mercy, have mercy!


De Profundis: Psalm 129/130 (1981)

Arvo Pärt (1935- , Estonian)

Theatre of Voices, Dan Kennedy, Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, Paul Hillier (cond.)



We are in a very different sound world now, a piece composed in the months after Arvo Pärt left the Soviet Union for the West in 1980. It is a setting of Psalm 130 (Ps 129 in the Vulgate/Latin translation), in a style for which Pärt has become famous. It is slow, methodical, even plodding, perhaps. But this is deliberate, to force us to think about each word. The theme and harmonies move in incremental steps, with a beat per syllable and no great leaps or jumps. It uses only men’s voices, accompanied by organ and percussion. It starts right in the musical depths (taking the text literally) but gradually works its way up the scale until the 4 voices come together in unison. The percussion players are instructed to play ad lib, responding to the musical textures with sounds that somehow give a sense of timelessness and vast spaces.



Timor et Tremor from Quatre Motets pour un temps de pénitence (FP 97, 1938-39)

François Poulenc (1899-1963, French)

The Sixteen, Harry Christophers (cond.)



There are similarities between this piece and the Pärt: both take texts from the Vulgate, both draw on the Psalms (in this case, from Psalms 54 and 30); both appeal for God’s mercy as a result of facing up to our sinfulness. But there the similarities end. 


While Pärt’s is a lilting meditation, Poulenc stops us in our tracks. It is a piece of impassioned urgency that manages to include several sudden mood changes within a total length of under 3 minutes. He uses sinuous melodies and shifting harmonies that mean we never quite know where he is going with it. But it is superb word-setting that warrants careful relistening. I first sang it 35 years ago, and I still hear new things in it!

 

Timor et tremor venerunt super me,et caligo cecidit super me:miserere mei, Domine, miserere mei,quoniam in te confidit anima mea.Exaudi, Deus, deprecationem meam,quia refugium meum es tu et adjutor fortis.Domine, invocavi te, non confundar.

Fear and trembling have come upon me

and darkness has fallen upon me:

Have mercy on me, Lord, have mercy,

for my soul trusts in Thee.

 

God hear my prayer, 

for Thou art my refuge and my strong help.

Lord, I have called upon Thee, that I may not perish.

 

 

I Thirst and It is Finished. #5&6 from 7 Last Words from the Cross (1993)

Sir James Macmillan (1959-, Scottish)

The Dmitri Ensemble, Graham Ross (cond.)





Regulars may have spotted that James Macmillan has already featured on two of the previous choral lists. And here he is again! So, yes, he is one of my favorites, without a doubt. 


Here are two movements from a larger work, his setting of the seven words of Christ as he was dying on the cross. Unusually, it was commissioned by BBC TV with movements to be performed on consecutive evenings during Holy Week. It was not designed to be acted out as such, but Macmillan composes something that seems entirely fitting for visual broadcast. He does not simply capture the drama of the crucifixion, but its agonies and even violence. This is no serene, rosy-tinted impression that you might associate with an old master painting. It is visceral and deeply unsettling.


I thirst conjures up the utter desolation of the cross. The music is spare and bleak. Beyond the simple declarations of his physical need, the rest of the choir intones words taken from the old Catholic liturgy, the Good Friday Reproaches. They drive home the gruesome irony of the moment.


It is Finished then shatters this desolate atmosphere, with violent, aggressive hammer-blows in the orchestra. It is shocking but evocative. As with the previous movement, the choir weaves around the title text with a more traditional Good Friday liturgy. But we are unable to forget the horror of the scene for long, because the hammer blows return before the movement ends.


I would certainly recommend giving the whole work your time (it lasts roughly 45 minutes)

 

Ego te potavi aqua salutis de petra: et tu me potasti felle et aceto.

I thirst.

I gave you to drink of life­giving water from the rock: and you gave me to drink of gall and vinegar. (Good Friday Reproaches)

 

 

It is finished.

My eyes were blind with weeping, for he that consoled me is far from me:Consider all you people, is there any sorrow like my sorrow?All you who pass along this way take heedand consider if there is any sorrow like mine. 

(Good Friday Responsories)

 

 

Miserere mei Psalm 51 (1630s)

Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652, Italian)

Tenebrae, Nigel Short (cond.)



We’re now on much safer ground at last (for many, at least), back in the chapels of late Renaissance Italy. It is another psalm, this time King David’s great song of repentance after his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. It was written for two unaccompanied choirs (one on each side of the chapel, one in five parts, one in four) which take turns responding to the plainsong settings of the even verse before finally coming together at the end. 


Allegri composed the piece exclusively for the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican and it quickly gained a mythology all of its own, not least because only three copies w``````````ere apparently permitted beyond the Vatican confines. The story was put about (by his father!) that after hearing it only once, the teenage Mozart was able to write the whole piece down from memory. That’s unlikely to be true, not because it would have been beyond his abilities, but because the piece had leaked far and wide and was sung in many places by the time Mozart was alive.


One particular feature that makes the piece so affecting and admired is the soaring soprano/treble line that keeps leaping high above the choir (right up to a ‘top C’ in some arrangements). In contrast to many of the composers shaped by the Reformation, the point of this kind of writing is not so much to focus attention on individual words as to sweep us up in whichever posture before God is appropriate. Here, we come before him in deep sorrow and heartfelt yearning.


 

Mark Meynell is Director (Europe and Caribbean) of Langham Preaching. He was ordained in the Church of England in 1997 serving in several places including 9 years at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, (during which he also served as a part-time government chaplain). Prior to that, he taught at a small seminary in Kampala, Uganda, for four years. Since 2019, he has helped to bring the Hutchmoot Arts conference to the UK and in 2022 completed a Doctor of Ministry (at Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis) researching the place of the arts in cultural apologetics. Mark and his wife, Rachel, have two grown-up children, and they live in Maidenhead, Berkshire.


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