A Musical Journey: Holy Week and Easter

by Jesse Ratcliffe, Choirmaster

for a schedule of worship services in Holy Week, click here

The days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday are laden with emotion—the catch-breath of joy as we celebrate the triumphant entry to Jerusalem; the sorrow and heaviness of the crucifixion; and ending with the bliss of Easter Day. As a church musician, conveying these emotions through music can often prove to be challenging. The task is governed by the balance of musical language and text with listener approachability. At Saint James’, each service will be filled with some of the most poignant pieces of choral literature.

Felix Mendelssohn has become one the choir’s top five favorite composers. His skillful craftsmanship of text, dynamics (loudness or softness), and harmonic language transports singers and listeners to higher plane. For Palm Sunday, the choir will render his 1831 setting of one of Martin Luther’s hymn text, Verlieh uns Frieden (Grant Us Thy Peace). The anthem is built upon a lush and soaring melody first presented by the tenors and basses in unison; in a second repetition, the altos and sopranos in unison reiterate the tune with the basses and tenors serving as “back-up singers” with an equally beautiful counter-melody. A grand interlude ushers in the final repetition of the theme in 4-part harmony. Truly, this is a beautiful musical sermon for Palm and Social Justice Sunday.

Maundy Thursday is ruled by the juxtaposition of Christ’s new commandment to love one another and last supper with the preparation of his death. Maurice Durufle‘s 1960 setting of the Ubi Caritas text (the English translation is found on page 606 in the Hymnal 1982) will serve as the evening anthem. Durufle is regarded as the last Impressionistic composer, and his death in 1986 marked the end of that compositional school. His compositional techniques compare to those of Debussy and Ravel which were dominated by non-musical ideas; a direct parallel to the Impressionistic painters such as Monet and Rodin. In the Maundy Thursday anthem, Durufle’s use of gentle and colorful harmonies accompany the ancient Ubi Caritas chant which has been utilized for centuries on Maundy Thursday. The combination of “modern” harmonies and medieval chant is a match to the mix of emotions of love and death the service affords.

The emotional pinnacle of Good Friday is the procession of the large wooden cross into the church which is followed by the choir’s response of The Anthems. The musical setting by Russell Schulz-Widmar, a contemporary American composer, is sung in a chant-like manner punctuated with mournful interludes played by a skilled cellist.

Eleanor Daley, a contemporary Canadian composer, penned a magnificent musical setting to Gordon Young‘s poem, My Master from A Garden Rose in 1983 as a commissioned piece for Trinity United Church in Ontario. This gem is not new to the SJEC choir, but the timeless text and harmonies are fresh each time it is sung. Daley’s composition is not bombastic, but contains humbled wonder that is expressed in a relaxed fashion. This anthem is wonderfully suited for this evening service which contains the story of salvation, the renewal of baptism vows and the robust fully-vested altar.

The choir began work on these pieces in early January and have commanded ownership of each phrase and musical nuance. Their practice has been focused so that their “musical sermon” for each Holy Week and Easter service is full of compassion, depth, and beauty.