Whether you celebrate the resurrection of Jesus or you prefer to search for colorful eggs, Easter is celebrated in many forms worldwide. One of the oldest holidays, Easter has been around since the 2nd century! This has led to an endless amount of music written for the special day, so here is a list of some classical music inspired by Easter:
The King of the Jews by Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936)
The Russian composer wrote The King of the Jews in 1913 for a mystery play (a play based on biblical stories or the lives of saints) utilizing orchestra and choir. The main theme symbolizes “the figure on the cross” (Glazunov’s own words), and the 11-movement work draws on Russian Orthodox church music to paint the full picture. Here is an English translation of the lyrics in the first chorus:
Blessed be the son of David!
Hosanna, King of Israel,
Who comes in the name of God!
Hosanna in heaven!
In heaven, it’s peace
And glory in heaven!
Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), Lamentations of Jeremiah
Composed around 1565-70, Lamentations was part of a trend: Catholic composers enjoyed setting Holy Week bible stories to music during the 1400s, and English musicians (including Tallis) caught on about a century later. Lamentations is one of Tallis’s most expressive works; the exquisite storytelling through the five vocal lines transports the listener back to the Holy Week. The words quote the first two verses of the Book of Lamentations:
Here begins the lamentation of Jeremiah the prophet
1) How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the cities has become a vassal.
2) She weeps bitterly in the night, tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. Jerusalem, turn again to the Lord your God.
Listen to part 2 here, which quotes verses 3 through 5 of the Book of Lamentations.
Russian Easter Festival Overture by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Composed in 1888, Russian Easter Festival Overture was written to capture “the transition from the solemnity and mystery of the evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious celebrations of Easter Sunday morning” (according to Rimsky-Korsakov himself). In fact, Rimsky-Korsakov borrowed themes from a collection of Russian Orthodox chants, and these contrast heavily with the bright and playful orchestra. Listen at 7:35, for example, when a solo trombone imitates a chanting priest.
Karol Szymanowski’s (1882-1937) Stabat Mater
Composed from 1925-26, Stabat Mater was the Polish composer’s first religious piece (based on a religious text). The original Stabat Mater was a 13th century Catholic hymn portraying Jesus’s mother Mary as she watches her son on the cross. Click here for a full English translation.
The work has six movements and was written for three soloists, a full choir, and an orchestra. Unlike previous pieces composed to the text of Stabat Mater, Szymanowski’s was written to be performed in Polish instead of the usual Latin. And Szymanowski also incorporates Polish folk aspects in the work (like the ancient folk harmonies and melodic themes).
Symphony No 2 (“Resurrection”) by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Even though the title “Resurrection” is unofficial, the work takes the listener on a journey from tension and destruction in the first movements to redemption in the finale.
This symphony took six years to complete (1888-1894) – partly because Mahler lacked inspiration for the text sung in the fifth movement. However in 1894, he heard Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s poem Die Aufersterhung (“The Resurrection”) and was immediately struck by the words. He borrowed the first few lines, wrote an additional twenty to go along with it, and the effect is amazing:
- Rise again, yes, rise again,
- Will you My dust,
- After a brief rest!
- Immortal life! Immortal life
- Will He who called you, give you.
- To bloom again were you sown!
- The Lord of the harvest goes
- And gathers in, like sheaves,
- Us together, who died.
- —Friedrich Klopstock
- O believe, my heart, O believe:
- Nothing to you is lost!
- Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
- Yours, what you have loved
- What you have fought for!
- O believe,
- You were not born for nothing!
- Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!
- What was created
- Must perish,
- What perished, rise again!
- Cease from trembling!
- Prepare yourself to live!
- O Pain, You piercer of all things,
- From you, I have been wrested!
- O Death, You conqueror of all things,
- Now, are you conquered!
- With wings which I have won for myself,
- In love’s fierce striving,
- I shall soar upwards
- To the light which no eye has penetrated!
- Die shall I in order to live.
- Rise again, yes, rise again,
- Will you, my heart, in an instant!
- That for which you suffered,
- To God shall it carry you!
- —Gustav Mahler
For more information on this huge symphony, read here.
Easter Oratorio by J. S. Bach (1685-1750)
I can’t finish this list without including one of the famous Baroque Easter pieces, so here’s Bach’s Easter Oratorio. First performed on April 1, 1725, the 11-movement work tells the story of the resurrection via four soloists, a choir, and a small orchestra (here’s an English translation for the work). There are two main musical ideas developed and explored throughout the piece: the joyous mood portrayed in the opening, and a contrasting melancholy theme representing Jesus’s death. Overall, it’s a beautiful rendition of the Easter story.
Do you have a favorite Easter piece?