The idea of a playlist for Lent may seem counterintuitive on the surface. Wouldn’t Lent be more of a time to consider giving up Spotify or Apple Music for a season?

However, the goal of Lent is to focus our hearts and minds on the death and resurrection of Jesus, and music can help us do that. In fact, there has been music written expressly for the Lenten season throughout the history of the Church.

One of the best-known examples is Handel’s Messiah. Although it has come to be identified with Advent and Christmas, the piece was originally intended for Easter and performed during Lent in Dublin, Ireland, in 1742.

In the spirit of the season, even for those who may not observe it, here are a few selections that can help us prepare to celebrate our Lord’s Passion at Eastertime, along with recommended listening and viewing options for each.

St. Matthew Passion – Bach

What Handel’s Messiah has become to Christmas, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is to Easter. It’s a masterpiece of sacred music performed around the world during the Easter season. The Passion is a dramatic setting of chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew, beginning with Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and ending with the Lord’s death and burial. Like the Messiah, it’s scored for chorus, soloists and orchestra, and runs two-and-a-half to three hours in length. The St. Matthew Passion is a powerful, emotive work dominated by a tone of sober lament that sets the stage for the joy of Easter. Written in 1727 for Lutheran worship during Lent, the work is usually sung in German. However, there are performances in English or with English subtitles, and the translated text is also available online.

St. John Passion – Bach

For those who may find Bach’s St. Matthew Passion too long at three hours, his St. John Passion clocks in at closer to two. Written in 1724, a few years before the longer work, the St. John Passion is rougher and less developed in structure, but also more intense and dynamic in its emotional range. The piece is a dramatization of chapters 18 and 19 of John’s Gospel, covering the arrest, death and burial of Jesus. True to its source material, the St. John Passion focuses more on the divine nature of Christ and on his fulfillment of prophecy than on his sufferings. Like the St. Matthew Passion, the work is scored for chorus, soloists and orchestra and sung in German, but the translated text is also available, as well as versions performed in English or with subtitles.

The Seven Last Words of Christ – Haydn

Not all great Lenten music needs words – even when it’s called The Seven Last Words of Christ. Haydn wrote the piece in 1786 as an orchestral work for a Good Friday service held in a grotto in Cádiz, Spain. As the title indicates, the work contains seven movements offering musical impressions of the seven final utterances of Jesus from the cross, as recorded in the four Gospels. Originally written to be interspersed with meditations on the corresponding scriptural passages, the music stands on its own – graceful and evocative of Jesus’ final hours before his death. Haydn later arranged it for string quartet as well as for soloists and chorus, and even approved an arrangement for piano. There’s a version for every taste, although the more intimate string quartet arrangement has proven to be the most popular.

Troparion for Holy Wednesday – Kassia

Listening to an ancient voice from a distant culture reminds us that the Gospel draws men and women from all times and all places. Kassia was a Greek-Byzantine poet and composer who lived during the 9th century. She’s one of the earliest composers, male or female, whose works survive and can be read by modern musicians. Her Troparion for Holy Wednesday is a penitent, allegorical hymn in which she casts herself as the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. The music, chanted by a soloist with choral backing, may sound alien to modern Western ears but is also serene and powerful. The words, in Byzantine Greek or English, offer a cosmic parallel between the works of God in nature and the sorrowful human heart. Kassia’s Troparion is still performed during Holy Week in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

O Sacred Head Now Wounded – Hassler, arr. Bach

For Christians from various church traditions, O Sacred Head Now Wounded is likely the most familiar hymn sung during the Lenten and Easter seasons. The famous, mournful melody was written by Hans Leo Hassler around 1600 for a secular love song, and the words, originally in Latin, have been attributed to various medieval poets, including the 11th-century theologian Bernard of Clairvaux. It was Bach who brought the music and words together in an arrangement for use in his St. Matthew Passion. There have been several translations into German by Lutherans and into English, mostly by Anglicans. The hymn’s heartbreaking grief at the sufferings of Christ and expressions of love for him justify its enduring popularity among the people of God for Lenten worship.

Messiah – Handel

No Lenten playlist would be complete without Handel’s Messiah. As noted above, the work was originally commissioned for Easter and performed during Lent, even though it is most often heard during the Christmas season these days. While the first part of the work is about the birth of Jesus, the final two-thirds are about the Lord’s death, resurrection and glorification. Messiah is a masterful arrangement of Scripture spanning the Old and New Testaments, from the Prophets and Psalms to the Gospels, Epistles and Revelation. The piece is epic in scope, tracing the messianic narrative from the first prophecies of his coming to his final exaltation in the New Heavens and the New Earth. It’s also the most accessible and dramatic music on this list, ideal for both the Christmas and Easter seasons.

Recommended listening and viewing

The links to the following selections contain both video and audio from YouTube, but most of them are also available as audio only from popular streaming platforms, or through the artists’ websites.

Bach: St. Matthew Passion – Jos van Veldhoven, Netherlands Bach Society, Kampen Boys Choir

Bach: St. Matthew Passion – Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent (English subtitles)

Bach: St. John Passion – Jos van Veldhoven, Netherlands Bach Society

Bach: St. John Passion – John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir (English subtitles)

Haydn: The Seven Last Words of Christ (orchestral version) – Jordi Savall, Le Concert des Nations (performed in the original grotto in Cádiz, Spain)

Haydn: The Seven Last Words of Christ (string quartet version) – Chiara String Quartet

Kassia: Troparion for Holy Wednesday – Cappella Romana (Greek and English subtitles)

Kassia: Troparion for Holy Wednesday – Paul Halley, University of King’s College Chapel Choir (English subtitles)

Hansler, arr. Bach: O Sacred Head Now Wounded – Owain Park, The Gesualdo Six

Hansler, arr. Bach: O Sacred Head Now Wounded (instrumental) – Phil Keaggy

Handel: Messiah – Václav Luks, Collegium and Collegium Vocale 1704

Handel: Messiah – Christopher Hogwood, Academy of Ancient Music, Choir of Westminster Abbey

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2022 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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