Musical Mediation for Holy Week

It’s time once again to embark on one of my longest-standing personal spiritual traditions: Finding some time during Holy Week to listen to J.S. Bach’s towering masterpiece, the Matthäus Passion.

It grows progressively more difficult each year, because “some time” actually means 3+ hours. And Lent seems to fly by more rapidly each year. And there are shocking number of kids around my house. But it’s worth it, especially if you have a chance to sit down with the libretto and read along while you’re listening. Below, Karl Richter’s interpretation, which I picked because it has the libretto built in. And because it features Peter Schreier as The Evangelist, whose performance in my favorite-and-not-readily-available version of the Passion — Herbert von Karajan’s recording from the 1970’s — is second only to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s performance as Christ.

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YouTube has an astonishing number of available versions in addition to the Richter one above (which I chose because it has the words). From Claudio Abbado’s faster-paced interpretation to one of Nicholas Harnoncourt’s earliest recordings of the work; from Philippe Herreweghe to Eugen Jochum to Peter Dikjstra, from Iván Fischer to the Mauersbergers, from Gustav Leonhardt to John Eliot Gardiner to Karl Münchinger. I don’t find them all equally meditative — the pacing varies wildly — but all are gorgeous. (Bach’s Joannes Passion is certainly Holy Week-worthy, as well.)

The length can be a bit daunting. Heck, I find it daunting, and I’ve been doing this for years. But the length actually adds to the overall meditative effectiveness of the work, I think. In years past, when I hit my single most-beloved moment in musical history some hours in– “Wahrlich, dieser ist Gottes Sohn gewesen!” — there have been tears. And by the time the Passion finally draws to its exhausting close — “Rest softly, softly rest! Rest, ye exhausted limbs!” — I’m spent.

Which is exactly where I want to be.

Attribution(s): The Taking of Christ” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Via Web Gallery of Art ( Image, Info) and licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.


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About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, being amazed by his (currently) lone daughter, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.