Arts & Books

Even Bach struggled to capture the Resurrection in music

Bach’s two great surviving Passions – St Matthew and St John – conclude at the tomb. There is no Resurrection music. Bach knows, of course, that his listeners understand that the end of the Passions is not the end of the story. The unheard music of the Resurrection is all the more powerful for being awaited.

But this absence raises an interesting question: what kind of music could adequately express the fact of the empty tomb? Much great music is conflicted, even tragic. But music that might decently represent the joy of the Risen Christ is hard to envisage.

That is, perhaps, the reason why Bach’s so-called Easter Oratorio (BWV 249) is infrequently heard. Based, rather oddly to our ears, on the lost secular “Shepherd Cantata” (BWV 249a), the Oratorio is, in itself, wonderful. But the challenge of putting into music the feelings of Easter morning are real.

Bach opens his Easter work with brass and woodwind in exuberant fanfare patterns, sounding very much like the opening of the Christmas Oratorio. It is exciting. But it cannot more than hint at that world-changing moment in the garden.

It is easy to find other composers aware of this problem with the limits of musical expression. And also how some Easter music falters. Handel’s oratorio La resurrezione (1708) is not a regular feature of Easter concerts or liturgies.

Concentrating on narrating the events of Easter week, Handel revealingly gives no part to Jesus. The resurrected Redeemer is not to be directly presented in music.

Much later, and on a smaller scale, CV Stanford falters. He loses his way in the middle of his popular Easter anthem “Ye choirs of new Jerusalem” (1910), piling enormous organ chords on top of each other and then startlingly changing key. It feels uncomfortably distracted. And the anthem’s jaunty opening melody, too, sounds more like a secular song. It is as if Stanford relinquishes, even from the beginning, the effort to capture a solemnity that might adequately reflect his topic.

There are spectacular effusions. The Resurrexit from Hector Berlioz’s Messe Solennelle (1824) reveals the 20-year old composer in full imaginative flight, a unique musical voice. This is invigorating (albeit something of a gallop). But it is also theatrical: this is opera more than anything else.

There are individual moments in other masses, too, where the Et Resurrexit is memorably vibrant: Bach’s Mass in B minor (BWV 232), for example. Yet depicting lines from the Creed is a more contained business than endeavouring to represent the Resurrection in any more extended way.

What music of Easter Day really tells us is of the unfathomable and unrepresentable wonder of the empty tomb. It is beyond human powers of telling.

Francis O’Gorman held an organ scholarship at the University of Oxford and writes widely on organ and choral music. He is Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh and one of the organists of the Priory Church of the Holy Trinity, York