This Week's Music Notes:
Music Notes for March 26, 2023
Fourth Sunday of Lent
We are almost to the triumph of Easter Sunday but, just as the night is darkest just before dawn, so too Handel’s music for the Passion of Christ gets ever more dramatic. Our anthem is the wonderful, difficult “All we like sheep.” What makes it difficult? One word: melismas. A melisma is a long stream of running fast notes all on one syllable of text – you’ll hear it on the words “All we like sheep have TURNED.” It’s common in Baroque music, an era given to flamboyant shows of virtuosity, but here, it has a secondary meaning. The chorus’s text expresses how we, like sheep, have turned away from Christ – and to illustrate that, he sets “turned” on a long melisma that moves up three notes and returns, then down three and returns, and repeats. The effect is music that constantly “turns” back on itself – a brilliant expressive touch. Note, too, how the text “have gone astray” is always set with two of the four choral parts, one moving up, one moving down, as they quickly go “astray” from one another. The chorus ends, however, in a surprising fashion, as the busy melismas suddenly stop, replaced by long notes and grinding dissonances. Why? The text, of course – “and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Never has Christian theology been so simply, wonderfully set to music.
The offertory slot, “Why do the nations” is also theologically pedagogical, depicting the war-torn earth and comparing it to the peace of Heaven. The early eighteenth century was a time of almost constant warfare in Europe, so the image of battle – especially the idea of Christ-as-soldier – is often found in the music of the time. The whole aria is cast as “battle music,” with active, fanfare-like passages in the voice above a busy, relentless, and violent bassline. Note the wonderful “teaching moments” when the organ and soloist sing the same music on the line “so furiously rage together,” the soloist’s high note on “the kings of the earth rise UP,” and the decorative melismas on “anointed.”