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Music for Holy Week

We are in Holy Week right now, the final week in Lent, in which Christians the world over meditate on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the redemption from sin, and drawing closer to God.

This period leads up to the Easter celebration of renewal of life, and rebirth of the spirit, coinciding with the rebirth of life all around us after the long winter. During Lent, people fast, and it’s no accident that this period of fasting and quiet meditation happens during the hungriest period of the year. The early Christians knew what they were doing when they merged their own religious celebrations with the timing of pagan ones. This was the period when the winter stores of meat were running dangerously thin, and there wouldn’t be any fresh produce for another few months. Yes, life is springing up with baby animals all around, but those baby animals would need to be fattened up and slaughtered in the autumn, not now. So this time of year was both one of renewed life, and also a reminder of just how fragile life is, with the threat of starvation very real.

With that said, Holy Week is a period to draw closer to Scripture, and your own personal relationship with the Divine, however that looks to you. Fortunately, your meditations can have a wonderful soundtrack thanks to some of the divinely-inspired music from the period.

Album number one: Music for Holy Week from the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

The Lamentations of Jeremiah are a popular text to set music to, and this album gives us Tallis’ version. From Medieval.org: “The Lamentations are found in the Book of Lamentations in the Bible, immediately following the Book of Jeremiah. They are part of the liturgy of the Holy Week, and exemplify the important component of lament, atonement and repentance of the Paschal festivities.”

These are the texts of the Lamentations for Good Friday:

Lamentatio prima, secundi diei. Feria VI ad matutinum in nocturno I: Lectio I:
HETH: “The Lord has thought to destroy the wall”
TETH: “Her gates are sunk into the earth”
JOD: “They sat upon the ground, the elders of the daughter of Zion”

Lamentatio secunda, secundi diei. Feria VI ad matutinum in nocturno I: Lectio II:
MEM: “With whom shall I compare thee?”
NUN: “Your prophets have seen for you false and vain things”
SAMECH: “They clap their hands at thee all that pass by”

Lamentatio tertia, secundi diei. Feria VI ad matutinum in nocturno I: Lectio III:
ALEPH: “I, the man, see my poverty”
BETH: “He has made my skin and my flesh to be old”
GIMEL: He has built against me so that none may enter”

Tomas Victoria also has a setting of the Lamentations, available on this Album:

The next section of text I’d like to talk about is the Stabat Mater, which literally translates to the Sorrows of Mary, and depicts Mary’s anguish at watching her son being crucified.  The opening words, “Stabat Mater dolorosa” mean the sorrowful mother stood, and it goes on from there, meditating on the pain that Mary felt watching her son on the cross. Sometimes it seems morbid to me to think that most of the Western world (and much of the rest of the world) is based on a religion where the holiest week in the liturgical year starts with a mother watching her son die.

But truly, this was part of the everyday encouragement everyone received to meditate and prepare for their own death, which often came suddenly and unexpectedly. Mothers watched children die every day, so what better way to start to draw near to Divinity, and receive atonement, than remembering that the holiest mother of all had to watch her own son die. (On a personal note, when we lost our son in 2010, the first thing our priest – who had had miscarriages herself – said to us was that God also knew what it meant to lose a son – what a reminder of the Universe’s infinite understanding of our own human tragedies).

The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge,  has this album of many settings of the Stabat Mater text, both contemporary and ancient, and is a good one to start with.

There’s also the O Vos Omnes, which comes from Lamentations 1:12: 

O vos ómnes qui transítis per víam, atténdite et vidéte:

Si est dólor símilis sícut dólor méus.

V. Atténdite, univérsi pópuli, et vidéte dolórem méum.

Si est dólor símilis sícut dólor méus.


O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see:

if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.

V. Pay attention, all people, and look at my sorrow:

if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.

Gesualdo has an amazing setting of it, which is jarring yet finds resolution, on this album:

Whether you are celebrating this week or not, it’s never a bad thing to introduce more peaceful introspection into your life, and these albums can help provide a perfect soundtrack for that. 

I’ll be back next week with great Renaissance music for Eastertide, but in the meantime, you can check out even more on the Spotify playlist I put together on Music for Holy Week here: