Cathedral music: March 2020

By Dr Christopher McElroy

For the season of Lent this year we are offering musical reflections on various aspects of the Passion narrative on Sunday afternoons in place of Choral Evening Prayer.
On the Second Sunday of Lent (8 March) our girl choristers and Lay Clerks will sing Kenneth Leighton’s Crucifixus pro nobis. This cantata was written in 1961 and explores three important aspects of Jesus’ life: ‘Christ in the Cradle’, ‘Christ in the Garden’ and ‘Christ in His Passion’. The first movement, reflecting on Jesus’ childhood is sung by a solo voice, contrasting sharply with the choir alone in ‘Christ in the Garden’. It is not until the Passion movement that both the soloist and choir combine. The music here captures the theological essence of Jesus’ purpose in a way in which it is very difficult for us humans to put into words.
On the Third Sunday of Lent (15 March) our boy choristers and Lay Clerks will sing The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross by César Franck. The composer César Franck is best known in Catholic parishes today for his Panis Angelicus. The Seven last words is a devotional work written in 1859, but never performed until the work was discovered in 1977. Franck was not the only composer to set the seven last words of Jesus (actually, sentences not words) but Franck was unusual in that he sought to expand on the brief text by supplementing other biblical and liturgical texts reflecting the fact that Franck was a parish church organist steeped in the Catholic liturgical tradition. Of interest to Franck was not so much the suffering of Christ on the Cross, but what lay beneath and what the crucifixion symbolised.
On the Fourth Sunday of Lent (22 March) the focus shifts to Mary, appropriately so as we celebrate Mothering Sunday. As is traditional at the Cathedral, our girl choristers will sing Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa. The text of the Stabat Mater is a 13th-century hymn reflecting on Mary’s suffering during the crucifixion of her son. The powerful words have inspired many composers to set the text to music, including the 18th-century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Pergolesi’s musical setting alternates movements sung by the full choir, and sections sung by soloists. The singing will be accompanied by two violins and chamber organ.
On the Fifth Sunday of Lent (29 March) our Lay Clerks will sing a setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah by Thomas Tallis. The biblical text (drawn from the first five verses of the book of Lamentations) was originally set for the holy week office of Tenebrae. Tallis’ composition is extraordinarily impassioned music for a 15th-century composer, capturing the longing of the text alongside the hope inspired by its concluding statement: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto the Lord your God’.
Our Lenten series finishes on Palm Sunday (5 April) with the sung office of Tenebrae at 5pm, with the responsories sung to a musical setting by Francis Poulenc, and Psalm 50, Miserere Mei, being sung to the famous setting by Gregorio Allegri. More about this service in next month’s column!
All of these Lenten offerings take place at 3pm on Sunday afternoons (with the exception of Palm Sunday) in Lent and are free to attend.