The following article appeared in The Times of London on the 9th April, as part of a series of articles dedicated to Holy Week. To see it in its original form visit www.timesonline.co.uk and type in my name. It appears under the title quoted above.
The best sacred music is inherently dramatic. The drama may not be of the stagey kind, with tearful lovers and murderous villains. It is more likely to deal in joyfulness (at Christmas and Easter) or penitence (in Lent) or just in a contemplative mood. These may not sound as if they offer much scope for up-to-date drama, yet there is little in opera to rival the atmosphere that a great composer can generate during, for example, a setting of the Requiem Mass. From the light eternal that will shine on us after death, to the day of wrath when the Earth will dissolve into ashes, to the trumpet that will raise the dead from their tombs, to being led into Paradise by angels (maybe), the run of excitements can be irresistible. Verdi himself didn’t miss a trick when it came to this, though my favourite is the wonderful balance which a polyphonic composer such as Victoria can strike between contemplation and sheer terror.
Within the Christian year there is no more promising period for composers than Holy Week. There is something for everyone in the sheer range of emotions inherent in this story, the outlines of which are as famous as any ever told. This is shared knowledge that artists can tap into without preamble. Looked at one way it would be difficult not to make something effective out of a man hanging on a cross, his mother weeping at his feet. And the Church, especially the Orthodox, has not failed to underline the wonder of the first light of Easter Day. So compelling is this vigil that hard-working people are prepared to stay up all night just to experience it.
Holy Week has generated some of the greatest sacred music ever written, not least because composers often find it easier to express themselves in penitential texts than in joyful ones. We all like a bit of tragedy, not least because it comes replete with a complex of easily accessible emotions. Unadulterated joy is a much blander business. For this reason I find myself conducting settings of the Lamentations, or the Responsories for Tenebrae (the service of darkness before Easter breaks), more readily than I do music for Easter Day. It takes a composer of unusual depth to make something really moving of the joyful texts of Easter. Palestrina had this ability, as did Bach; but go down one notch from them and even the best can sound as if they are writing music to adorn the pronouncements of a party political broadcast.
In concert we can choose whatever music we like, though it is remarkable how often, whatever the time of year, music from the tortured end of Holy Week is what people request. For example, we have standardly sung the Allegri Miserere, a psalm proper to Lent and Holy Week, in Christmas programmes just because it is so loved and guarantees an audience.
Unfortunately the new choral foundation I oversee at Merton College, Oxford, is not in session during Holy Week. If ever there were a building designed to dramatise the first rays of Easter light, Merton Chapel is it. And by then all one really needs for music is Gregorian chant.