To finish our short series on music relating to the celebration of Easter, we will listen to Pie Jesu from the Requiem by the great French composer Gabriel Faure. It is performed by the singers of the ensemble Voces8.
Faure’s Requiem was written as a prayerful tribute to his father. It is somewhat strange that he would have written a Requiem, an inherently religious work, given that he was not religious and described himself as a “sceptic.” Yet Faure’s Requiem is unique among religious compositions in that it avoids the somber, often heavy nature of those works and instead creates a light, serene atmosphere.
The Pie Jesu is the most well-known portion of the Reqiuem. Most requiems are based on an opening movement titled dies irae, which introduces the thematic material for the entire work and presents the text of the Latin mass. Pie Jesu is simply the last verse of the dies irae.
A few bars from J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion are always good for the soul, but they are particularly appropriate during the Lenten season and the Easter celebration. This week’s music, “O Haupt Voll Blut Und Wunden” (O Sacred Head Now Wounded), is perhaps the most well-known portion of St. Matthew’s Passion.
The St. Matthew Passion is a sacred oratorio written by Bach in 1727. It is one of his greatest achievements and one of the best compositions to come out of the Baroque era. The Passion is scored for solo voices, double choir, and double orchestra, and it sets the 26th and 27th chapters of the Gospel of Matthew to music. “O Haupt Voll Blut Und Wunden” is based on a Latin poem, Salve mundi salutare, which addresses the crucifixion of Jesus Christ from a position of remembrance and lament.
This week’s music, in the spirit of the upcoming celebration of Easter, is the fifth and final movement of Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, titled “Resurrection.” (The video only shows the last part of the movement, but you can find the whole thing on Spotify 🙂
Gustav Mahler, arguably the greatest symphonist of all time, took seven years to write his second symphony. The first four movements came quickly, but inspiration for the finale did not arrive until he attended the funeral of conductor Hans von Bulow and heard the words of Friedrich Klopstock’s poem “Resurrection” sung from the organ loft. Three months later, he had written the largest orchestral finale the world had ever seen.
The poetic inspiration for the finale concerns the gift of eternal life given through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Mahler wrote that the undercurrent of the movement was the “still small voice” that announces the day of judgment and described the movement as a longing for connection with God in the afterlife. His choice of thematic material is particularly interesting given that he converted to Catholicism three years after the second symphony was completed, which suggests he was wrestling with his beliefs during the time of its composition.
The movement begins with a terrifying trumpet fanfare that evokes the opening of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Mahler then introduces the main theme, which gives way to the vocalists’ exploration of the “Dies Irae,” the traditional opening melody of a choral composition. The middle section of the movement is dissonant and complex, weaving the initial “Dies Irae” theme through a march motif and a quotation of the poem’s “Crux fidelis” section in the vocalists. After an alto solo leads the chorale from the text “Believe, my heart” into the pivotal text of “I am from God, I want to return to God,” the full orchestra—led by the horns—tumbles through a set of falling fifths into a resounding finish.