There are hundreds of thousands of musical works, from a range of genres, inspired by Christ’s passion, especially his death on the cross, which, along with the resurrection, is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. I’ve curated just a sampling of these on Spotify, from across time periods and countries, to serve as an aural guide through the final week of Jesus’s life. The drama begins with Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, where he’s hailed with hosannas, and then continues with a last supper shared with his disciples, an agonized prayer in Gethsemane followed by betrayal and arrest, then, all in one day, multiple trials (religious and civil), conviction by mob, a public execution, and burial. Many of the playlist selections are narrative in character, while some have a more theological bent. My hope is that these pieces aid you in observing this most holy of weeks, walking with Christ through the shadows, taking in how “he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds [we] have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).
To add the playlist to your account, open the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist link, then click on the More (…) icon and select “Save to Library.”
[Playlist cover art: Odilon Redon, Christ, ca. 1895, charcoal, chalk, pastel, and pencil on paper, Museum of Modern Art, New York]
The playlist is a mixture of classical and popular (indie-folk, gospel) music. In this post I want to provide a little context for some of the pieces, by which I mainly mean translations of all the non-English lyrics. Because of what you see here, you might get the wrong impression that the list is almost entirely classical; actually, it’s only about half.
The opening track, “Herr, unser Herrscher” (Lord, Our Ruler), is a unique arrangement of the opening chorus from Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion, a Good Friday oratorio in German.
Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm In allen Landen herrlich ist! Zeig uns durch deine Passion, Daß du, der wahre Gottessohn, Zu aller Zeit, Auch in der größten Niedrigkeit, Verherrlicht worden bist!
Lord, our ruler, whose fame In every land is glorious! Show us, through your passion, That you, the true Son of God, Through all time, Even in the greatest humiliation, Have become transfigured! [source]
Unique, because the Baroque choir and orchestra are accompanied by an ensemble of Gabonese musicians who contribute their own rhythmic profile, along with solo percussionists Sami Ateba from Cameroon and Naná Vasconcelos from Brazil. The recording, rereleased on the compilation album Babel (2008), is originally from Lambarena: Bach to Africa (1995), a collaboration between French composer and producer Hughes de Courson and Gabonese composer and guitarist Pierre Akendengué, synthesizing two disparate sound worlds. (“Bombé / Ruht wohl, ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine” is another highlight from the album. For weeks I debated whether to include it on this playlist—adding it, taking it off, adding it back again—ultimately deciding to leave it off, the reason being that it overlays Bach’s choral rondo with music and invocations to the dead from a Bwiti religious ritual. Though sonically compelling and worth listening to, I felt that it might impede some Christians’ ability to engage this list in a devotional way; so I opted for a traditional Western classical recording instead.)
Other selections from Bach’s St. John Passion are:
>> “Christus, der uns selig macht”
Christus, der uns selig macht, Kein Bös’ hat begangen, Der ward für uns in der Nacht Als ein Dieb gefangen, Geführt für gottlose Leut Und fälschlich verklaget, Verlacht, verhöhnt und verspeit, Wie denn die Schrift saget.
Christ, who makes us blessed, committed no evil deed, for us he was taken in the night like a thief, led before godless people and falsely accused, scorned, shamed, and spat upon, as the scripture says. [source]
>> “Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück”
Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück, Seinen Gott verneinet, Der doch auf ein' ernsten Blick Bitterlichen weinet. Jesu, blicke mich auch an, Wenn ich nicht will büßen; Wenn ich Böses hab getan, Rühre mein Gewissen!
Peter, who did not recollect, denied his God, who yet after a serious glance wept bitterly. Jesus, look upon me also, when I will not repent; when I have done evil, stir my conscience! [source]
>> “O große Lieb”
O große Lieb, O Lieb ohn alle Maße, Die dich gebracht auf diese Marterstraße! Ich lebte mit der Welt in Lust und Freuden, Und du mußt leiden.
O great love, O love beyond measure, that brought you to this path of martyrdom! I lived with the world in delight and joy, and you had to suffer. [source]
>> “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine”
Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine, Die ich nun weiter nicht beweine, Ruht wohl und bringt auch mich zur Ruh! Das Grab, so euch bestimmet ist Und ferner keine Not umschließt, Macht mir den Himmel auf und schließt die Hölle zu.
Rest well, you blessed limbs; now I will no longer mourn you. Rest well and bring me also to peace! The grave that is allotted to you and encloses no further suffering opens heaven for me and closes off hell. [source]
For Bach’s St. Matthew Passion—one of the most celebrated works of classical sacred music ever written, right up there with Handel’s Messiah—I’ve drawn from the abridged English version (rather than the original German), translated by the Rev. Dr. John Troutbeck and performed in 1962 by the New York Philharmonic and Collegiate Chorale under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. I chose just a few pieces from it, not wishing to replicate the whole thing; as you can see, I tend to favor chorales over arias.
- Part I, no. 15: “Lord, is it I?”
- Part I, no. 16: “’Tis I who should be sharing”
- Part II, no. 73: “Truly, this was the Son of God”
Throughout the playlist you’ll find excerpts not only from oratorios, cantatas, and quartet cycles but also from concept albums, like Last Days by the Brothers of Abriem Harp (which I reviewed here), Golgotha by Poor Bishop Hooper (the album is just one aspect of a full experience the duo has created for Holy Week), and Paul Clark’s cinematic Approaching Jerusalem. I’ve pulled some of my favorites, but I encourage you to explore the pieces in their full, original context as you feel drawn. I just want to give a little taste.
Christus factus est (Christ became obedient), a Latin translation of Philippians 2:8–9, is used in the Catholic mass as a gradual on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. Anton Bruckner’s 1884 setting, WAB 11, is the most esteemed. “From its quiet, mysterious opening to its dramatic triple forte climax, it leads the listener on a symphonic journey, full of pathos and gravitas,” says choral conductor Esther Jones. “It is nothing short of a miniature masterpiece, encompassing some extraordinary modulations and sinewy, chromatic lines.”
Christus factus est pro nobis obediens usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis. Propter quod et Deus exaltavit illum et dedit illi nomen, quod est super omne nomen.
Christ became obedient for us unto death, even to the death, death on the cross. Therefore God exalted him and gave him a name which is above all names. [source]
Ubi caritas (Where charity and love are) [previously] is another Latin text that’s typically sung on Maundy Thursday, inspired by Jesus’s words to his disciples at the Last Supper in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” It’s been set to music by numerous people, but my favorite is by the contemporary Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor. Exsultemus, et in ipso jucundemur. Timeamus, et amemus Deum vivum. Et ex corde diligamus nos sincero. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Simul ergo cum in unum congregamur: Ne nos mente dividamur, caveamus. Cessent iurgia maligna, cessent lites. Et in medio nostri sit Christus Deus. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Simul quoque cum beatis videamus, Glorianter vultum tuum, Christe Deus: Gaudium quod est immensum, atque probum, Saecula per infinita saeculorum. Amen.
Where charity and love are, there God is. The love of Christ has gathered us into one. Let us exult, and in him be joyful. Let us fear and let us love the living God. And from a sincere heart let us love each other. Where charity and love are, there God is. Therefore, whensoever we are gathered as one: Lest we in mind be divided, let us beware. Let cease malicious quarrels, let strife give way. And in the midst of us be Christ our God. Where charity and love are, there God is. Together also with the blessed may we see, Gloriously, thy countenance, O Christ our God: A joy which is immense, and also approved: Through infinite ages of ages. Amen. [source]
For another take on this passage, there’s a Byzantine chant performed by the Orthodox Christian “boy band” *Ncense.
After supper, after Judas has left the room, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going away. Peter asks where, and ardently wishes to follow. “I will lay down my life for you!” he avows (John 13:37). In Matthew’s Gospel, Peter says with inflated self-confidence, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will. . . . Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (26:33–35). This exchange is captured in “Revolutionary Heart” by the Brothers of Abriem Harp. And although Taylor Armstrong’s “Come What May” wasn’t written in reference to this episode in particular (at least not that I know of), I hear in it Peter’s promises to never forsake his Lord, no matter what; its gentle tone reminds me that even though Peter was impulsive and given to grand gestures, he was also sincere. “Gallicantu” by Aly Aleigha [previously] is also sung in the voice of Peter, over time—first professing loyalty, then, after a triple denial, repenting in sorrow, humbled; the title is Latin for “Cock’s Crow” and is the name of the site outside the Old City of Jerusalem where supposedly the denial occurred, on which a Church of Saint Peter has been erected.
“Wa Habibi” (My Beloved), aka “Mother’s Lament,” is a Good Friday hymn in Arabic famously recorded in 1967 by the Lebanese singer Fairuz [see score]. There is considerable variety in the translations I’ve found; if you’re an Arabic and English speaker and would be willing to submit an English translation, I’d appreciate it!
وا حبيبي وا حبيبي أي حال أنت فيه من رآك فشجاك أنت أنت المفتدي يا حبيبي أي ذنب حمل العدل بنيه فأزادوك جراحاً ليس فيها من شفاء حين في البستان ليلاً سجد الفادي الإلة كانت الدنيا تصلي للذي أغنى الصلاة شجر الزيتون يبكي و تناديه الشفاء يا حبيبي كيف تمضي أترى ضاع الوفاء
Wa habibi wa habibi ayyu halen anta fih Man ra’aka fa shajaka anta anta-al muftadi Ya habibi ayya zanben hammala-al aadlu banih Fa athabuka jirahan laysa fiha min shifa Hina fil bustani laylan sajada-al fadi-el ilah Kanati-el duniya tusalli lillazi aghna-al salah Shajaru-al zaytuni yabki wa tunadihi el-shifah Ya habibi kayfa tamdi atura daâa-al wafa
Oh my love, my love, what a sad state you are in! Anyone who sees you will cry in grief. You gave your life for us. My love, what guilt you carry! What wounds they put on you, no cure has been found for. When in the orchard at night you, our God, kneel praying, The earth was praying with you, for you made prayer a great thing. The olive trees wept, calling your name. My love, how will you leave like this? No fidelity is left in the world. [source, adapt.]
Because the song talks about Jesus praying in the garden and the olives lamenting, I’ve placed it in the Gethsemane part of the narrative. The same pathetic fallacy (a literary term for the attribution of human emotion and conduct to things found in nature that are not human) appears also in the nineteenth-century hymn “Into the Woods My Master Went” by Sidney Lanier, retuned here by the Gentle Wolves [previously].
On the playlist are three selections from La pasión según San Marcos (St. Mark Passion), an oratorio in Spanish by contemporary Argentinian Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov. First, “En el Monte de los Olivos” (On the Mount of Olives):
MARCOS Después de cantar los salmos fueron al monte de los olivos, y dijo Jesús: JESÚS Todos ustedes van a perder la fe en mí. Así está escrito: mataré al pastor y se descarriarán las ovejas. Pero yo resucitaré y a la Galilea los guiaré.
MARK And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus saith unto them: JESUS All ye shall be offended because of me this night for it is written: I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered. But after that I am risen, I will go before you into Galilee. [source]
Then, “Ante Caifás” (Before Caiaphas):
CAIFÁS (CORO 1) ¿Es verdad que eres el Cristo, el hijo de Dios Bendito? MARCOS (SOLO 1–3) Lo trajeron a Jesús a la casa de Caifás. Allí se hallaban reunidos los ancianos y los escribas. Pedro le iba siguiendo hasta que al patio llegó. Se sentó con los criados junto al fuego se quedó. Toda la junta buscaba prueba para la condena: TESTIGOS (CORO 2) Yo el templo destruiré y en tres días otro haré. MARCOS (SOLO 1–4) Buscaban y no encontraban aunque cien testificaban. Declararon y mintieron. Así es como lo acusaron al decir que lo escucharon. Caifás se levantó y a Jesús le preguntó: CAIFÁS (CORO) ¿Es verdad que eres el Cristo el hijo de Dios Bendito?
CAIAPHAS (CHORUS 1) Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? MARK (SOLO 1–3) And they led Jesus to the high priest And with him were assembled the chief priests and the scribes. And Peter followed him afar off, even into the court of the palace. And he sat with the servants, and warmed himself at the fire. And all the council sought to test the statement: WITNESSES (CHORUS 2) I will destroy this temple, and in three days I will build another. MARK (SOLO 1–4) They searched and found none, even among one hundred witnesses. They declared, and bore false witness. For many accused him by repeating what they had heard. And Caiaphas stood up in the midst, and asked Jesus: CAIAPHAS (CHORUS) Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? [source]
Third, “Silencio,” an instrumental number consisting of flamenco foot-stamping and beating of the cajón. This track conveys Jesus’s silence in response to Pilate’s questioning (Matt. 27:11–14), building the tension before the sentence is given.
The Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) is a traditional liturgical prayer in Latin, the fifth section of the Mass. I’ve included a setting by Samuel Barber and one by Isaac Wardell of Bifrost Arts. The latter recording features Timbre Cierpke on harp and vocals and slightly rearranges the words of the prayer as follows:
Miserere, miserere, miserere nobis Miserere, miserere, miserere nobis Agnus Dei, Agnus Dei Qui tolis peccata mundi Dona, dona, dona nobis pacem Dona, dona, dona nobis pacem Agnus Dei, Agnus Dei Qui tolis peccata mundi
Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy on us Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy on us Lamb of God, Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world Grant us, grant us, grant us peace Grant us, grant us, grant us peace Lamb of God, Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world
Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere” motet, a setting of Psalm 51 composed for Holy Week matins, opens with the same phrase. You can read the lyrics here.
And I’ve included five different settings of Psalm 22 (which Jesus quotes from the cross), including one just released this month by Francesca LaRosa:
Ave verum corpus is a Eucharistic chant from the fourteenth century. The English Renaissance composer William Byrd is one of many who have set it to music:
Ave verum corpus Natum de Maria Virgine Vere passum, immolatum In cruce pro homine Cuius latus perforatum Fluxit aqua et sanguine Esto nobis praegustatum In mortis examine O dulcis, O pie, O Iesu, fili Mariae. Miserere mei. Amen.
Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary, having truly suffered, sacrificed on the cross for mankind, from whose pierced side water and blood flowed: be for us a foretaste [of the heavenly banquet] in the trial of death! O sweet, O holy, O Jesus, son of Mary, have mercy on me. Amen. [source]
Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus [previously] sets a portion of the Nicene Creed for eight voices: Crucifixus etiam pro nobis; sub Pontio Pilato passus et sepultus est (“He was crucified also for us; under Pontius Pilate he suffered and was buried”).
Originating in the thirteenth century, the Stabat Mater is a twenty-stanza poem in Latin that portrays the suffering of Jesus’s mother, Mary, during his crucifixion. It was traditionally sung in religious processions, liturgies, and passion plays and has been an immensely popular text for composers over the centuries. This playlist features Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s setting of the first stanza. In the Victorian era Edward Caswall created a nonliteral English translation that preserves the trochaic tetrameter, rhyme scheme, and sense of the original text, which is widely used, and which is what I replicate here:
Stabat mater dolorósa juxta Crucem lacrimósa, dum pendébat Fílius.
At the cross her station keeping, stood the mournful Mother weeping, close to her Son to the last. [source]
“Suffering Mother Stood Near the Cross,” sung by Drevo, is a Ukrainian folk lament in the same vein (I’m unable to find the lyrics). And there are a few keening songs from Ireland, including the traditional “Caoineadh na dTrí Muire” (The Lament of the Three Marys). Óchón is an untranslatable expression of sorrow, a lamentation for the dead uttered in a loud wailing voice—that is, a keen.
A Pheadair, a aspaill, a bhfhaca tú mo ghrá bán? Óchón, is óchón ó. Chonaic mé ar ball é dá ruaigeadh ag an namhaid. Óchón, is óchón ó. Muise cé hé a fear breá atá ar Chrann na Páise? Óchón, is óchón ó. An é nach n-aithníonn tú do mhac, a Mháithrín? Óchón, is óchón ó. An é sin an maicín a d'iompar mé trí raithe? Óchón, is óchón ó. Nó an é sin an maicín a rugadh insan stábla? Óchón, is óchón ó. Nó an é sin an maicín a h-oileadh in ucht Mháire? Óchón, is óchón ó. A mhicín mhúirneach, tá do bhéal is do shrónín gearrtha. Óchón, is óchón ó. Is cuireadh táirní maola thrí throith a chosa is a lámha. Óchón, is óchón ó. Is cuireadh sleagha thrína bhrollach álainn. Óchón, is óchón ó.
Peter, apostle, did you see my loved one? (keen) I saw him a while ago, being attacked by the enemy. (keen) Who is that fine man on the Tree of Passion? (keen) Don’t you recognize your own son, Mother? (keen) Is that the little son I carried for three trimesters? (keen) Is that the little son who was born in the stable? (keen) Or is that the little son who was reared at Mary’s breast? (keen) O little darling son, your mouth and your nose are cut. (keen) And blunt nails were driven through his feet and hands. (keen) And a spear was driven through his beautiful chest. (keen) [source]
I can’t find the lyrics to “Ç’était nos souffrances qu’il portait” by the monks of Keur Moussa Abbey in Senegal [previously], but its French title, taken from Isaiah 53:4, translates to “It was our sufferings that he carried.” I’m guessing the rest of the song also derives from the “Suffering Servant” passage of Isaiah.
“O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” is the name of a ten-stanza German hymn by Paul Gerhardt, most famously translated into English hymnals as “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”; it’s paired with a tune by Hans Leo Hassler. Bach used this hymn, or sometimes the melody alone, in several of his cantatas and oratorios. In my playlist I’ve included an orchestral arrangement by Felix Mendelssohn of the sixth stanza, from his 1830 cantata O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. The hymn invites the singer to imagine themselves as present with Christ at his crucifixion.
Ich will hier bei dir stehen, Verachte mich doch nicht! Von dir will ich nicht gehen, Wenn dir dein Herze bricht; Wenn dein Haupt wird erblaßen Im letzten Todesstoß, Alsdann will ich dich faßen In meinen Arm und Schoß.
I will stand here with you; do not scorn me! I will not leave you when your heart is breaking. When your head turns pale in the last throes of death, then I will hold you fast in my arm and bosom. [source, adapt.]
The canon “When Jesus Wept” by William Billings, performed by the Concordia Choir, is in English, but the polyphony makes the words difficult to discern:
When Jesus wept, the falling tear
in mercy flowed beyond all bound.
When Jesus groaned, a trembling fear
seized all the guilty world around.
“The Communion Verse of Holy Saturday,” by Boris Ledkovsky, is sung in Church Slavonic.
I also want to draw your attention to a few modern instrumental pieces.
There’s the late Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s “Calvary Ostinato” from Lamentations: Black Folk Song Suite for solo cello, played pizzicato (plucked):
There are also two freewheeling piano compositions by Ethiopian nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, whose inspirations include Chopin, Bartók, Ethiopian folk tunes, and ancient modal chants of the Orthodox Church. “The Garden of Gethsemanie” oscillates between solemn and blithesome; the piece is mostly minor key, but with some bright chords. I hear Christ’s sadness, his pleas to heaven to let the cup pass, along with God’s gentle answer of “no,” and the comforting ministry of angels (Luke 22:43).
Guèbrou’s “Golgotha” has a similar meandering quality. It seems too light to convey the torment of the cross, so I’ve placed it later in the list, more at a distance from the “action”; as we reflect back on the significance of the cross, we can see a sweetness and a beauty that might not be seen by immersing oneself in the moment.
Lastly, I want to leave with you with “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass,” an African American spiritual sung by Liz McComb. It is an entreaty to behold the suffering of Jesus Christ our Savior at Calvary, and to reap the salvation planted there.
What particular songs or other pieces of music are meaningful to you especially during Holy Week? (There’s such an abundance that I have yet to encounter or fully explore!) If your church has a Tenebrae / Good Friday service, what does the musical element look like?