Lent, Day 25

LOOK: Crucifix No. 9 by William Congdon

Congdon, William_Crucifix No. 9
William Congdon (American, 1912–1998), Crocefisso No. 9 (Crucifix No. 9), 1961. Oil on Masonite, 19 11/16 × 23 5/8 in. (50 × 60 cm). Private collection, Milan. Photo © The William G. Congdon Foundation.

William Grosvenor Congdon (1912–1998) was a modern American artist, often classified as an abstract expressionist, who spent much of his life in Italy after World War II. He converted to Catholicism in 1959 and for the next two decades painted dozens of Crucifixions, which became more and more abstract as he went on. The one above is one of his earliest, and the subject is still easily recognizable.

Christopher Reardon explains how Congdon achieved the thick surface textures of his paintings:

Typically Congdon applied paint with a palette knife, then incised the encrustations of oil with a jackknife or awl. The technique suited him to the end. “With a brush, it’s a kiss,” he said after painting one of his final landscapes last winter [1997]. “You have to fight with a knife.”

This technique contributes to the agitated feel of many of his Crucifixion paintings.

LISTEN: String Quartet No. 1 “Calvary” by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, 1956 | Performed by the Catalyst Quartet, 2021

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932–2004) was a prodigious American composer whose work spans many genres, including classical, jazz, pop, film, television, and dance. After receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Manhattan School of Music, he cofounded the Symphony of the New World in New York in 1965 and later became its music director. He was also music director of Jerome Robbins’s American Theater Lab and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Perkinson composed his first string quartet when he was twenty-three, basing it on the melody of the African American spiritual “Calvary.” It’s in three movements, which together capture the light and shade of the Crucifixion event:

I. Allegro
II. Quarter note = 54 (video time stamp: 5:40)
III. Rondo: Allegro vivace (video time stamp: 10:36)

The performance above is by the Grammy-winning Catalyst Quartet. It was part of the “Uncovered” series they played last year at The Greene Space at WNYC & WQXR, comprising three free concerts of work by five historically important Black composers: Florence B. Price, Jessie Montgomery, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, George Walker, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (Perkinson’s namesake!). View the full concert series here.

I wanted to show a performance caught on video so that you can better see how the instruments interact with one another, but for an album recording, see Perkinson: A Celebration (2000), where the piece is performed by the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble Quartet. I include two of the movements, in addition to the Calvary Ostinato from Perkinson’s Black Folk Song Suite, on my Holy Week Playlist.

Holy Week Playlist

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.”

Art & Theology Holy Week playlist (art by Odilon Redon)

[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.

Continue reading “Holy Week Playlist”