The liturgy of the Christian Holy Week has inspired centuries of music from diverse composers, and is rich with musical depictions and meditations reflecting on the death and suffering of Christ.
This hour, we’ll explore music for Holy Week including the Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services leading up to Easter. We’ll draw from a melting pot of time and geography, rites and liturgies of the Christian tradition including a brand new recording from Capella Romana of medieval Byzantine chant from Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Moving from shrine to shrine through ancient Jerusalem
In ancient Jerusalem, Holy Week services were “stational,” meaning that worshippers moved literally from shrine to shrine within the city to the actual places connected with Christ’s betrayal, trial, and crucifixion. Here’s a piece of music associated with the Mount of Olives; it’s an anonymous antiphon in the plagal mode.
Celebrated since ancient times, Palm Sunday marks the event of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem five days before his crucifixion. Riding into town on a donkey, Jesus was surrounded by crowds of people waving palm branches and hailing him as their long awaited Messiah, the “Son of David.” A processional antiphon for Palm Sunday recalls the crowd’s adulations from the biblical text Matthew 21:9.
Hosanna to the Son of David:
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, The King of Israel.
Hosanna in the highest.
Here’s another 6-part setting of that same text in English by renaissance composer Thomas Weelkes.
The Hosanna is just one of several antiphons that could have been sung for the celebration of the triumphant procession on Palm Sunday.
Following the antiphon, the service often continued with the hymn Gloria, laus et honor. Modern congregations know the hymn as “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” in its setting to a melody written in the 17th century by Melchior Tescher.
Let’s hear a 17-century setting of the hymn Gloria, laus et honor, followed by a less familiar 16th-century setting by Spanish composer Cristóbal de Morales, performed by Ensemble Plus Ultra from the Spanish Toledo manuscript 25.
For a complete playlist, please click the “music on this episode” tab at the top of this post’s image.
The Thursday before Easter is called Maundy Thursday (or sometimes Great Thursday or Sheer Thursday), and it’s often observed by Christians during Holy Week.
Services on this day commemorate the Last Supper when Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples the night before his crucifixion. The meal—the breaking of bread and sharing of wine—is recognized by many as the source of early Christian Eucharistic traditions.
João Lourenço Rebelo’s 7-voice motet Panis angelicus or “bread of Angels” was sung during communion on Maundy Thursday at the Portuguese chapel of the Dukes of Bragança at Vila Viçosa in the 17th century.
Tenebrae, meaning “darkness” or “shadows” in Latin, was a holy week service usually observed late in the evening or before dawn. It became customary to include a gradual extinguishing of candles during the course of the service, eventually finishing in total darkness.
Usually observed late in the evening or before dawn, it became customary for the service to include a gradual extinguishing of candles until it finished in total darkness.
Besides the singing or chanting of Psalms, texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah—verses of mourning from the Old Testament—were also a part of Tenebrae services. The Lamentations have been set to music by numerous composers. Here’s one by the Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka.
The Catholic Church of the Royal Court of Saxony in Dresden commissioned the work from Zelenka for their Holy Week services in 1722.
O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, “O sacred head sore wounded” has perhaps come to be one of the most familiar tunes associated with Holy Week, and specifically Good Friday. It’s often called the “Passion Chorale” because Bach used the hymn in his St Matthew Passion.
In Bach’s work, the chorale comes at the point of Jesus’ scourging, after his head has been bloodied by a crown made of thorns.
The St. Matthew Passion was first heard on Good Friday in 1727 in Leipzig.
“The holy limbs of our suffering Jesus”
Several years before Bach, another German Lutheran composer, Dieterich Buxtehude, penned a set of seven cantatas for the Passion season of 1680 unified under the title, Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima which translates “the holy limbs of our suffering Jesus.”
Each of the cycle’s seven cantatas are meditations on different parts of Jesus’ body: the feet, knees, hands, side, chest, heart and face of the crucified Christ. Membra Jesu Nostri incorporates texts from Old Testament verses, as well as excerpts from a medieval Latin poem.
Here’s a portion of the third cantata, Ad Manus—a vivid set of arias reflecting on Jesus’ nail-pierced hands.
The Seven Last Words of Christ
Over a century after Buxtehude’s cantata cycle, Joseph Haydn composed an orchestral work, The Seven Last Words of Christ for the Good Friday service at the church of Santa Cueva in Cádiz, Spain. In 1787, Haydn adapted the piece for string quartet.
The work, divided into seven movements or “sonatas” corresponds to the seven sayings Jesus spoke from the cross, beginning with “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” and ending with “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” The seven sonatas are framed by an opening introduction and concluding Terremoto or Earthquake as Jesus takes his last breath.
Let’s hear that introduction and Terremoto of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ in its version for string quartet—a period-instrument performance from Quatuor Mosaïques, recorded live on Good Friday in 1992 at the Abbey of Fontevraud.
Featured CD: Good Friday in Jerusalem
In the Byzantine rite, a psalm or canticle refrain sung responsorially is called a prokeimenon.
Capella Romana’s recording called Good Friday in Jerusalem includes the elaborate prokeimenon “May you, Lord, guard us,” drawn from two separate 12th– and 13th-century manuscripts.
In an actual service during Holy Week, this prokeimenon would fall near the end of the service before a final dismissal blessing from the patriarch. Appropriately, it is the final track on this, Capella Romana’s 20th recording since the ensemble’s founding in 1991.
Break and Theme music
:30, Christopher Tye: Consort Music – In Nomine, The Spirit of Gambo, Pavane Records 2014, Tr. 10 In nomine: Follow me (excerpt of 1:33)
:60, Orlando Gibbons: Consorts for Viols, Phantasm, Linn Records 2014, Anthems a6: Tr. 18 Hosanna to the Son of David (excerpt of 2:19)
:30, Orlando Gibbons: Consorts for Viols, Phantasm, Linn Records 2014, Anthems a6: Tr. 17 O Lord, in thy wrath rebuke me not (excerpt of 3:54)
Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal
The writer for this edition of Harmonia is Janelle Davis.
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