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The Good Friday 5: Musical Passion Stories You Must Hear

This 1653 engraving by Rembrandt inspired composer Frank Martin to write his oratorio Golgotha in 1945. Wikimedia Commons hide caption

toggle caption Wikimedia Commons

This 1653 engraving by Rembrandt inspired composer Frank Martin to write his oratorio Golgotha in 1945.

Wikimedia Commons

For Christians around the world, this week, leading up to Easter Sunday, is one of the most meaningful in the religious calendar. The dramatic story of Jesus' final days, as related in the four Gospels of the New Testament, has been meaningful for composers, too, and a rich source for many musical settings of the Passion story. J.S. Bach is still the benchmark when it comes to composing Passions. His St. John Passion and especially St. Matthew Passion continue to loom large over any composer attempting to tell the tale. For the Holy Week, we've picked a few of our favorite musical Passions — four from the 20th and 21st centuries sit alongside Bach's monumental St. Matthew.

5 Musical Passion Stories You Must Hear

Cover for Bach:St. Matthew Passion

St. Matthew Passion (Matthäuspassion), for soloists, double chorus & double orchestra, BWV 244 (BC D3b) [Part Two: "Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden"]

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J.S. Bach: St. Matthew Passion - 'Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden'

  • from Bach:St. Matthew Passion
  • by John Eliot Gardiner

This is the apex not just of the Passion form — but it may just be the summit of all choral music, full stop. It's a work of emotional extremes, immense power and scale and yet also full of moments of intimacy, tenderness and self-reflection. No wonder that Mendelssohn went to such lengths to revive this work, which Bach wrote for St. Thomas' Church in Leipzig, where he was choir director. There are many (many!) excellent recordings of the St. Matthew readily available, but this John Eliot Gardiner-led version strips the well-worn lacquer, built up over a thousand Sunday mornings' worth of church services, right off this piece. Gardiner's pacing is brisk, his Monteverdi Choir is crisp, and his soloists — including Barbara Bonney, Anne Sofie von Otter, Michael Chance and Anthony Rolfe-Johnson – are excellent. (AT)

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Song
Bach:St. Matthew Passion
Album
Bach:St. Matthew Passion
Artist
John Eliot Gardiner
Label
Archiv
Released
2008

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Frank Martin's Golgotha.
Harmonia Mundi

Golgotha, oratorio for 5 soloists, chorus, organ & orchestra [Part 2. No. 10. La Résurrection. Ô mort]

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Frank Martin: Golgotha - 'Resurrection'

  • from Frank Martin: Golgotha
  • by Daniel Reuss

In 1945, Swiss composer Frank Martin stumbled on a Rembrandt exhibition that would trigger one of his greatest works. "Down from the sky a bright shaft of light poured forth on to the cross, where Jesus was struggling against death," Martin later wrote after viewing an engraving of the crucifixion. Over the next three years Martin composed his oratorio Golgotha, a dense work, beautiful and touching in its meditative restraint. At once inspired and haunted by Bach, Martin's Golgotha, like the St. Matthew Passion, opens and closes with large choruses, but the musical language feels more like Debussy. Martin's Resurrection begins with dissonance, as the choir sings "Oh death, where is thy sting," but gradually opens up, to let the light of Rembrandt shine through. (TH)

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Song
Frank Martin: Golgotha
Album
Frank Martin: Golgotha
Artist
Daniel Reuss
Label
Harmonia Mundi
Released
2010

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Cover for Osvaldo Golijov: La Pasión según San Marcos

La Pasión según San Marcos (The Passion according to St. Mark), for chorus & orchestra [3. Primer Anuncio]

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Osvaldo Golijov: La Pasión Según San Marcos - 'First Announcement'

  • from Osvaldo Golijov: La Pasión según San Marcos
  • by Jessica Rivera

How does a Jewish, Latin American composer approach retelling the story of Jesus' last days and crucifixion? With Afro-Caribbean rhythms, Brazilian martial arts and a Jewish prayer of mourning — and this somewhat risky cross-cultural bet by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov has paid off multifold. Since its Stuttgart premiere in 2000, his Passion According to St. Mark been recorded twice and mounted in productions all over the world, from Caracas to Sydney to Rome and already a handful of times in New York alone, including most recently at Carnegie Hall — and in an excellent performance you can hear in full right here on NPR Music. It's easily one of my favorite works of the 21st century so far, and if you haven't heard it yet, you're in for an incredible experience. (AT)

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Song
Osvaldo Golijov: La Pasión según San Marcos
Album
Osvaldo Golijov: La Pasión según San Marcos
Artist
Jessica Rivera
Label
Deutsche Grammophon
Released
2010

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Cover for Tan Dun: Water Passion after St. Matthew

Water Passion after St. Matthew, for soprano, bass-baritone, violin, cello, percussion, sound sampler, chorus & sound designer [Death and Earthquake]

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Tan Dun: Water Passion After St. Matthew - 'Death and Earthquake'

  • from Tan Dun: Water Passion after St. Matthew
  • by Tan Dun

Chinese composer Tan Dun's take on the Passion story, Water Passion After St. Matthew, from 2000, sports an ambitious East-meets-West vibe. In eight sections, over a 90-minute span, Water Passion follows Jesus from baptism to Resurrection. Onstage, the composer places 17 transparent water bowls, lit from below, in the shape of a cross. It divides pairs of choruses, soloists, string players and three percussionists. In the dynamic "Death and Earthquake" section, traditional Mongolian throat singing collides with a Western-style choir, a high-flying soprano, the xun (Chinese ocarina) and the expressive cries of a lonely cello. Beware: The earthquake gets frighteningly loud. (TH)

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Song
Tan Dun: Water Passion after St. Matthew
Album
Tan Dun: Water Passion after St. Matthew
Artist
Tan Dun
Label
Sony
Released
2002

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Cover for Sofia Gubaidulina: Johannes-Passion

Johannes-Passion, for soloists, double chorus, organ & orchestra [Das Wort (The Word)]

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Sofia Gubaidulina: St. John Passion - 'Das Wort'

  • from Sofia Gubaidulina: Johannes-Passion
  • by Valery Gergiev

As with the other Eastern Christian branches, Russian Orthodox Easter won't be here for more than another month yet, but we're getting an early start with music by the 81-year-old devout Russian Orthodox composer Sofia Gubaidulina. Her momentous and darkly brooding St. John Passion (which, like Tan Dun and Osvaldo Golijov's Passions, was commissioned by conductor Helmuth Rilling's International Bach Academy in 2000), intertwines texts from the Gospel of John and the terrifying and strange Book of Revelations — it's a deeply internalized and frankly bleak work, which may or may not be your first choice for Passion narratives. But her palette is a fascinating transference of Russian Orthodox liturgical tradition with its bells, prominent solo bass and richly textured choruses. This performance of Gubaidulina's work (which she substantially revised in 2006), led by the then-rising Valery Gergiev and featuring the magnificent bass Gennady Bezzubenkov, is well worth your time. (AT)

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Song
Sofia Gubaidulina: Johannes-Passion
Album
Sofia Gubaidulina: Johannes-Passion
Artist
Valery Gergiev
Label
Haenssler
Released
2001

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

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