For Orthodox Easter, Music That Faces East

Listen to the Story:

[7 min 16 sec]

Do you think Easter has already passed this year? Not quite. For about 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians around the globe, Easter is actually today, April 15th. From Jerusalem to Athens, Ethiopia to Moscow and Portland, Maine to Portland, Ore., believers ushered in their holiest day of the year at services held just at the cusp of midnight.
As a new exhibition and a recent concert at New York’s Metropolitan Museum make clear, much of the history and arts of these Christian communities is very firmly rooted in Eastern soil.
The liturgical music that was heard around the Byzantine Empire centuries ago isn’t all that far from what you still hear in Greek Orthodox churches around the world today. Cappella Romana, a choral group based in Portland, Ore. specializes in singing medieval Byzantine music. The ensemble was founded in 1991 to explore the musical traditions of both Eastern and Western Christianity. Its founding artistic director, Dr. Alexander Lingas, says his group tries to reflect early Christianity’s geographical sweep.
“The thing is,” Lingas says, “you start on the basis of a single Roman Empire that had as its borders Scotland on the one hand — the emperor Constantine was born way up in the British Isles — and you had essentially a Mediterranean tradition.”
Back then, both the Byzantines and their neighbors called this empire the Roman Empire. We’re talking the seventh to ninth centuries; there were thriving Jewish communities, several Christian factions and a burgeoning Muslim presence. And what we today call the Byzantine Empire was the hub of the universe, says Helen Evans, the curator for Byzantine art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who organized a new exhibition called “Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition.”
“It’s this incredible economic power, these amazing trade routes, a controlling force — it’s not the eastern edge of Western Europe,” Evans says. “It was the center of the world for most of its history. The world was seen as being centered in Jerusalem, the Holy Land, and expanding out.”
Lingas concurs: “Christianity is an Eastern religion, which we tend to forget sometimes.”
The intersection of religions and cultures is at the heart of the Met exhibition. It includes a selection of small ceramic oil lamps, which scholars believe were all made in the 8th century in the same workshop in what’s now northern Jordan. But here’s the twist: Each of the lamps is decorated according to the different religious inclinations of their potential buyers. There are crosses for the Christians, Islamic blessings in Arabic for Muslim shoppers, and a simple floral design for maybe a more secular-minded consumer. One particularly intriguing lamp says in Greek on one side: “The light of Christ is the Resurrection.” But on the bottom of the same object, in Arabic, the lamp bears the common Muslim bismillah phrase: “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.”
“What we were trying to do in the exhibition,” Evans says, “was to show that you have this multiplicity of people. We tend to think that there was this kind of black/white, that there was Islam, everybody’s Muslim, that’s one group — and they never speak to the other side, which is Christian, or Jewish, and that those two groups don’t speak to each other either, and they all live in test tubes and they never have to go shopping at the same fruit market. It’s just not true!”
The museum invited Cappella Romana to make that point musically, and the ensemble released a new album, Mt. Sinai: Frontier of Byzantium, to coincide with the Met show. For half of their performance, the selections were culled from music that would have been heard on Holy Friday, the Friday before Easter, in Jerusalem in the early 10th century. The other half of the program is music that was sung at the St. Catherine of Alexandria monastery in the Sinai.
Lingas says it’s essential to remember this music is a living tradition that connects the far-flung roots of early Christian history to today.
“You have types of scales and ways of singing vocal ornaments that are not what Western classical singers are used to doing,” Lingas says. Instead of standard Western vocal technique, he and his singers use a different vocal placement, a more Eastern-sounding vocal timbre, and what he calls “the same notes but with a few added little twiddly bits in between.”
Facing east on this Easter Sunday, it’s important to remember the twiddly bits that bind cultures.

St John Passion – review

Polyphony’s Good Friday performance of Bach’s St John Passion has become an annual fixture, but there was no suggestion of routine about this Easter’s vital account under the choir’s founder-conductor Stephen Layton. Performed without an interval but with a couple of pauses – including a moment of meditative silence following Jesus’s death – the two-hour-long structure of choruses, chorales, arias and recitatives maintained consistent impetus and impact.
The forces used – 27 in the choir, with 24 members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment accompanying them – worked well both for the piece and the acoustic, though the orchestra’s strings were less neat in articulating Bach’s sometimes frantic figurations than the choir. The latter were on superb form, producing a bold and focused tone that gave their dramatic interventions as the Jewish crowd – a subject of fierce musicological debate in recent years, though originating in the Gospel text rather than an 18th-century addition to it – a terrifying vehemence.
The soloists formed an impressive team. Ian Bostridge’s plangent tenor brought keen intensity to the Evangelist’s intricately inflected narration, and made expressive highlights of such emotion-laden gestures as Simon Peter’s bitter weeping. Neal Davies’s substantial tone and constant engagement with the text conveyed a deeply human Christus. In her first aria, Katherine Watson’s limpid soprano was gracefully complemented by the gentle luminosity of the OAE’s flautists; the ensemble’s woodwind, indeed, were marvellous throughout.
Iestyn Davies’s mellifluous counter-tenor answered all the solo alto needs. Nicholas Mulroy made his way somewhat gingerly through his first aria, but managed the implacable requirements of the second – which would test any soloist’s breath control to the limit – with outstanding skill. Roderick Williams gave Pilate’s interrogation a steady reasonableness, while his solos were notable for their calm and resolute authority.

As Bach demonstrates, the great story is greater still when it’s sung

It is an amazing feeling, knowing that people have been singing their accounts of the Passion of Christ for at least 1,200 years.

On Tuesday night I sat in King’s College, Cambridge, listening to a powerful performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Presented by the Chapel Choir, other Cambridge choristers, the Academy of Ancient Music, a squad of first-rank soloists and conducted by Stephen Cleobury, we were once again confronted with one of the greatest artistic achievements in history.
Why do the Bach Passions still speak to modern man? And why was the death of Jesus – rather than His joyous resurrection – the prime motivation for these masterpieces? St Paul writes, “if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain”. With that in mind, what is it about his death that has so gripped our culture?
I have just received John Butt’s book Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity. Here he examines the Bach Passions in the context of modern man’s fascination with glories past. Such masterpieces provide a firm challenge to the contemporary conceit that the modern world is always improving. The growing popularity of hearing the Bach Passions leading up to the Easter season in our “post-religious” culture is an intriguing and exciting one.
The ritualistic recitation of Christ’s crucifixion probably began in the 4th century, and the singing of the Passion narrative has been going on from the 8th century. Singing has always been central to the Church. St Augustine said that those who sing pray twice. The “song” of the Church, Gregorian chant, can be traced back to the songs of the Temple and synagogue. It is an amazing feeling, knowing that people have been singing the Passion for at least 1,200 years.
It wasn’t until the 15th century that more complex versions of a sung Passion began to emerge, the earliest example of a so-called motet Passion being attributed to Obrecht. Later there were famous examples by Byrd, Lassus and Victoria. After the Reformation, Luther’s friend and collaborator Johann Walther wrote responsorial Passions which became models for the Lutheran church. Within this environment the development of the “oratorio” Passions of the 16th and 17th centuries paved the way for J S Bach.
Before I encountered any of the great Bach Passions, I was aware of the crucifixion narratives. I’d heard them recited every year as part of the Church’s liturgy. On Good Friday we would hear St John’s account. Sometimes there would be a participatory aspect to the recitation, with the words of Christ delivered by the priest while other characters would be read by deacons or lay readers.
I have taken part in chanted Passions since my undergraduate days. Nowadays I am well used to singing the Narrator’s part in an English plainsong setting of the St John every year with a couple of Dominican friars in Glasgow, where my little choir interjects with the angry responses of the chorus. I am always awestruck at the stark, relentless nature of this way of doing it, and at the dramatic impact it has on the assembly as they relive the last hours of Christ’s mortal life.
To be honest, it is the spiritual highlight of my year, and I have real difficulty singing the final section. In the Catholic liturgy, at the words, “It is accomplished; and bowing his head he gave up his spirit”, the congregation fall to their knees and remain there in prayer before hearing the final part of the narrative, where the legs of the two thieves are broken and Jesus is pierced in his side. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus then take the body away and place it in a tomb. Every year I wonder if my voice is going to crack at the final phrase, which, strangely, is the only one which blossoms into a little melisma: “Since it was the Jewish Day of Preparation and the tomb was near at hand, there they laid the body of Jesus.”
It is not just the Bach Passions that are in ongoing dialogue with modernity. The figure of Christ himself, in his death and resurrection, is in constant, uncontrollable interplay with the mind of modern man.
Last week in Cambridge, I was in conversation with academics, theologians and creative artists about the St Luke Passion, which I am now about to set to music. We all found it curious that the great historical settings of the Passion seem to fillet a portion of Christ’s life, separating it from his early ministry and the post-crucifixion story. There were liturgical reasons for this, of course – the resurrection would eventually have its own musical treatment a few days later. But Bach’s greatest music is about the destruction of Our Lord; his resurrection music is not so memorable. (This could perhaps be said about most composers.)
Modern man, now more detached from his liturgical obligations than ever before, may be able, paradoxically, to see the crucifixion in wider contexts. Can a modern composer, in setting the great tragedy of Jesus, include the resurrection, the risen Christ’s early appearance on the road to Emmaus, and even the ascension? If so, why begin the St Luke Passion at Chapter 22 when Satan entered Judas Iscariot?
These are not simple questions. The “greatest story ever told” began with a terrified Jewish girl saying yes to a heavenly manifestation which brought news of her pregnancy. Bach’s music proves that the Passion of Christ has deep beginnings and profound resonance, even for modern man: he opened up a window on the divine love affair with humanity. The greatest calling for an artist, in any age, is to do the same.
James MacMillan is a composer and conductor.