“Spring drew on…and a greenness grew over those brown beds, which, freshening daily, suggested the thought that hope traversed them at night and left each morning brighter traces of her steps.”Charlotte Brontë. What a fantastic picture she paints.
The Spring dawn chorus is particularly magical this year. It brings to mind Ottorino Respighi’s ’The Birds’ suite for small orchestra based on music from 17th and 18th centuries though thought to have been written in 1928. Respighi brings to life that special energy created by birds at this time of year. This recording is performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy.
Another work that has all the energy of Spring to pass on to us all is British virtuoso pianist and composer, Henry Litolff’ Scherzo from Concerto Symphonique No. 4 in D minor, Op. 102 . This really will get your Spring cleaning chores off to a good start.
Thank goodness for Easter! In many cultures and religions throughout the world, eggs have long symbolised rebirth, fertility and continuing life, and represent the emergence of Spring from the dark Winter months. The Greeks, Romans, Persians and Chinese exchanged coloured eggs at their Spring festivals, and the early Christians used them to embody Christ’s Resurrection and adopted them as gifts at Easter when they were brought to church to be blessed. They were a forbidden food in Lent, of course.
The chocolate Easter Egg is now the norm for Easter. This manifestation is hardly more than a hundred years old and displaced the widespread tradition of giving a hard-boiled version of the real thing which had been decorated in bright colours. These eggs would appear on breakfast tables or be concealed about the house and garden for children to find…hidden by the Easter hare or rabbit.
“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song”. Pope John Paul II. Profound indeed.
By the time you read this, the gory bit will all be over and we move on to a new way of living and this too could not be more appropriate for taking our gentle steps out of the lockdown.
There are of course the glorious passion-tide oratorios written by JS Bach which we all know and love but looking for something just a little different, I have fallen for J.S. Bach’s ‘Christ lag in Todes Banden’ (Christ lay in Death’s Bonds) a most beautiful chorale cantata written around 1707/8. It is based on Martin Luther’s hymn of 1524. Sir John Eliot Gardiner has recorded a fascinating 5-minute chat about this incredible work – one of Bach’s earliest. During Sir John’s talk he refers to Piero della Francesca’s ’The Resurrection’. For added interest, it is pasted below.
Spare just 18.56 minutes of awe in this recording of J.S. Bach’s ‘Christ lag in Todes Banden . For those who like to follow the words, they are written below when you click the link.
By contrast and to bring us up to date, here is the Sanctus-Agnus Dei from Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Mass’ . This work, commissioned in 1971 by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to inaugurate the John F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington DC is absolutely fascinating. A controversial work indeed that came with an FBI warning to the White House and President Nixon on account of Bernstein’s ‘leftist views’. The FBI warned that the latin text might contain anti-war messages which could cause embarrassment were Nixon to attend and applaud at the end. Nixon decided not to attend the evening following a warning from John Dean that the work was “definitely anti-war and anti-establishment….” This decision was allegedly described in the press as an act of courtesy to Jacqui Kennedy Onassis as he felt that the opening evening “should really be her night”. The work is composed to be ‘theatrically performed’ but can also be sung in more conventional choral settings.
Synopsis: The full work begins with a darting flute solo signifying the Holy Spirit. Its ending note is picked up by a solo choir boy. As it begins all of the performers are in harmony and agreement. During the course of the Mass, however, the street choir begins expressing doubts about the necessity of God in their lives and the role of the mass. The street chorus sings with the Latin lyrics until they hit a line which they twist into a complaint or a self-serving boast; i.e. Latin:”dona nobis pacem” English:”grant us peace” street chorus “Give us peace NOW!” In this way, Bernstein interweaves and contrasts social commentary and prayer. The street chorus’s bitterness and anger continues to grow and makes each of the subsequent meditations more harsh. At the play’s emotional climax, the growing cacophony of the chorus’ complaining finally interrupts the elevation of the Body and Blood. The celebrant, in a furious rage, hurls the sacred bread, housed in an ornate cross-like monstrance, and the chalice of wine, smashing them on the floor. At this sacrilege the other cast members collapse to the ground as if dead while the Celebrant sings a solo. This solo blends the chorus’s disbelief with his own crisis of faith. He feels worn out and wonders where the strength of his original faith has gone. At the end of his song, he too collapses. A bird-like (Holy Spirit) flute solo begins again, darting here and there from different speakers in the hall, finally “alighting” in a single clear note. An altar server, who was absent during the conflict, then sings a hymn of praise to God, “Sing God a Simple Song”. This restores the faith of the three choirs, who join the altar server, one by one, in his hymn of praise. They tell the Celebrant “Pax tecum” (Peace be with you), and end with a hymn asking for God’s blessing. The last words of the work are: “The Mass is ended; go in peace.” Every sort of human condition is examined in this work; greed, lust, pride, self-doubt, etc. It demonstrates how little our humanity has changed and, therefore, how necessary the relationship with God still is.
And now to something calming to be cherished when in a contemplative mood, perhaps at the end of the day as the sun sets?
Mozart’s Laudate Dominum Here it is sung by boy treble Cai Thomas accompanied by the London Mozart Players and the Pagassus Chamber Choir conducted by Robert Lewis. Many of you will know that it is based on Psalm 117 “O praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people. For his merciful kindness is great toward us: and the truth of the Lord endureth for ever” Just beautiful.
AND FINALLY, something completely crazy and very clever! Beethoven’s 5th Symphony with a difference!!
Wishing you all a very happy Easter.