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Easter Oratorios: Music by Schütz, Handel, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, and Pärt

Holy Week is almost over and Easter Sunday is soon upon us. For centuries, this holiday celebrating the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ has been commemorated in classical music. Here are a few samples of some classical Easter music to savor this Easter season.

Most of these works are in the form of an oratorio. The oratorio is like an opera without theatre. The oratorio tells a story using a combination of choruses and aria (for introspective musing) and recitative (for advancing the narrative). However, due to the religious content of the oratorio, no costumes or staging are used. The oratorio usually requires a larger force of instrumentalists and singers than the more intimate cantata.

The Passion According to St. John by Henrich Schütz: This German composer actually wrote three passions (based on the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, respectively). None of the passions are accompanied by an orchestra and are set in various modes, evoking an older style of composition.

The Messiah by G. F. Handel: Yes, everyone listens to Handel’s magnum opus during the Christmas season, but after the familiar “For unto us a child is born” comes the rest of the story: “He was despised and rejected” to the magnificent “Hallelujah” chorus to “I know that my Redeemer lives.” Besides, a work this good should be enjoyed at least twice a year.

The Passion According to St. Matthew by J.S. Bach: Like many of Bach’s church compositions, this oratorio relies heavily on Lutheran chorales, a particular melody or chorus reappearing as a refrain throughout the work. Also appropriate for the Easter season is Bach’s Passion According to St. John.

The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross by F. J. Hadyn: The text is based on the seven utterances (rather than seven literal words) that Christ pronounced while he hung on the cross. Haydn, too, references an older style of church music by incorporating monophonic chant into the recitative portions.

Christ on the Mount of Olives by Ludwig van Beethoven: Moving away from the specifically liturgical function of passion oratorios, Beethoven offers a more dramatic portrayal of Christ’s sufferings. This work focuses less on the salvific aspects of the passion and more on the psychological torment that Christ must have undergone.

The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to St. John by Arvo Pärt: This twentieth century work blends plainsong-inspired chant with a minimalist asceticism to create a compelling and somewhat mystical depiction of Christ.

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