Written by Andrew Koch. Andrew is a DMA organ student at the UW and organist for St. Alphonsus Parish.
A number of years ago, I began a listening regimen for myself during Holy Week. For church musicians, and I daresay for any church staff, Holy Week can easily become the busiest, most stressful, and least worshipful time of the year. I found that I was finishing my duties in Holy Week and Easter simply exhausted and without heart engagement in what each liturgy was celebrating (and thus what worship my work was supposed to be facilitating). This disturbed me, and one of the ways I found to mitigate repeating the same thing year after year was to take some time during Holy Week to listen through significant works of sacred music relating to Lent and Christ’s Passion.
While it would seem counterintuitive to saturate myself with even more music, I found that by listening to works I selected for myself (as opposed to what was required of me or chosen for the liturgies themselves) and by listening actively I was able to quiet my heart amidst the busy schedule and demands of ‘pulling off’ Holy Week for church. I could spend some time worshiping since I was not the one being asked to make the music.
If you want to join in this, I’ll offer the pillars of my listening regimen here:
Dieterich Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri
(I’m listening to the recording by The Sixteen these days, available on Spotify. Translation is here.)
(2nd section during the week and 3rd section on Easter Sunday)
J.S. Bach: St. John & St. Matthew Passion
I alternate these every other year, this year is a St. John year for me (it is the easier gateway if you haven’t listened to a full passion). I particularly like this performance and the website has text to follow along right there. Traditionally, these would have been presented on Good Friday.
These represent but the tiniest fraction of my full listening list, which includes various settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah and many other fantastic musical reflections on the passion and resurrection of Christ dating from the Renaissance through the 20th century. The full list is too long to include here, but I’m happy to share more details and pieces if anyone is interested. I’m always looking for fresh material, so if you have favorites of your own, I’d love to know.
I’ve also included a few recordings I made this week on a whim. First is a piece that I often include in my listening: Bach’s BWV 622, O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde Groß,, one of his most beautiful lyric organ works. The hymn traces, in 23 stanzas, the entire Passion of Christ. The first verse is as follows:
O man, lament your great sin,
for the sake of which Christ left his Father’s bosom,
and came to earth.
Of a pure, gentle virgin Jesus was born for us;
He wanted to become the Mediator.
He gave life to the dead and put aside all sickness,
until the time arrived that He should be sacrificed for us.
He bore the heavy burden of our sins
stretched out on the cross
It contains one of the most famous chords in organ literature near the end: a C-flat major chord in a piece in E-Flat. E-Flat is a special and unusual key for Bach, full of Trinitarian implications, and reserved for but a few seminal works. I’ll spare further geeking out here, but in short, the interjection of C-Flat into this tonality creates one of the most fantastically excruciating moments in organ repertoire just as the text describes Christ being stretched out on the cross for us.