Alexandra Coghlan chooses 10 works that explore the meaning of Lent
For a time of abstinence, Lent has a surprisingly rich musical life. Solo organ music might be discouraged in church, Alleluias silenced and Glorias omitted, but the season also has a rich seam of penitential works taking us from Ash Wednesday through to the spiritual climax of Holy Week.
No text is more synonymous with Lent than Psalm 51 – the Miserere. Allegri’s ubiquitous setting provides a structural model followed by James MacMillan’s reimagining, alternating chanted sections with elaborate polyphony. Josquin’s 24-part canon Qui habitat treats its more optimistic psalm text with extraordinary richness.
The image of the Virgin Mary contemplating the crucified Christ is a potent one, and settings of the Stabat mater are legion. Few, however, capture the tender delicacy of a mother’s love quite like Domenico Scarlatti’s. Another musical meditation on this same scene comes in the form of Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu nostri, while Cavalli’s Ave regina caelorum contemplates the Virgin with madrigalian vividness.
Lassus, Byrd and Leighton provide three contrasting Lenten motets: Byrd’s Civitas sancti tui, with its textual echoes of the Lamentations, grieves with polyphonic intensity, while Lassus’s Media vita contemplates death with exquisite acceptance. Leighton’s larger Crucifixus reaches its climax in the sudden angular simplicity of his ‘Hymn’.
Lenten music is not limited to church, as concert works by Lukaszewski and Caplet prove, each taking inspiration from the story of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection.
Andrew Mellor chooses 10 pieces by three celebrated sacred composers
This year marks 150 years since the birth of Charles Wood and 250 since that of Samuel Sebastian Wesley, father to Samuel, who was born in 1810. A century separated the elder two, as well as nationality (Wood was born in Armagh, now Northern Ireland; Wesley hailed from Bristol in England) and the hue of their Christianity (Wood a protestant; Wesley senior from a famously Methodist family but an early convert to Catholicism).
But the older men undoubtedly shared a distinct ability to set sacred texts with clarity and profundity, a skill Wesley junior inherited too. His anthems, grander in scale than his father’s, often updated the ‘verse-anthem’ tradition of previous decades in their alternation of declamatory solo episodes with grand choruses. Wood’s music is purposefully less demonstrative and more distilled in texture, method and feeling – structurally tight, thematically thrifty and delicate in its part writing. His Nunc dimittis makes a fascinating counterweight to the thickly scored setting by Holst, but the true miracle of Wood’s craft is the sense of purity he brings to a short, simple piece like Oculi omnium.