Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter music: It’s about the Resurrection!

From nearly 20 centuries of Christian music, we have Gregorian chants going back 1400 years, and 900 years for the Sarum Rite from the cathedral of Salisbury. We have sacred classical music such as the great chorales, masses and oratorios. We also have the newer folk- and rock-inspired religious music.

Still, today is the one day where nearly all of that music should be set aside, whether in church, Christian radio or even in Christian households. We take it for granted that Christmas Day (and Christmas Eve and even December or the 12 Days of Christmas) are set aside for music for Christmas music: why not also agree to reserve Easter Day (and perhaps Easter Even) for Easter music?

Easter is the highest of high feasts of the Christian year. Without the Resurrection there is no redemption, no eternal life and (from a practical matter) no Christians spreading the faith. The author of a definitive 800 page study of the Resurrection, theologian N.T. Wright, said:
It is only with the bodily resurrection of Jesus, demonstrating that His death dealt a decisive blow to evil, that we could find the proper grounds for calling the kingdoms of earth to submit to the Kingdom of God.
So I firmly believe that any Easter worship service — even for those that do not follow a liturgical calendar — should use only hymns and anthems that celebrate the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. (Here I don’t mean to exclude a sung Kyrie, Sanctus etc.) We are Christians because Christ arose, and on this Sunday we should celebrate this unequivocally with heart and soul and voice. Save the rest of the music for the other 51 Sundays.

Today, I tried to get as much Easter music as possible, both during and after church. After church, I put on the greateast English-language oratorio of all time, the Messiah. (I am partial to my Christopher Hogwood recording with the Christ Church choir and the Academy of Ancient Music, but Amazon has dozens of alternatives).

There are three ACN (Anglican) parishes with four Rite I (1928 BCP) services near our home. Today I attended two of those parishes; we went to the third a couple of years ago on Easter. The results were disappointing.

If Easter is about the Resurrection, then Easter hymns should be about the risen Lord — not just about the general promise made to Christians, but the specific act of Christ triumphing over death as told by the Gospels.

At both church services, there was only one hymn directly mentioned that act. In fact, it was the same hymn, and I heard it three times on Sunday. In addition to the church services, when I was driving between services I heard it on EWTN radio, sung by the choir of the English College of Rome at the Vatican’s Easter services.

That hymn? #85 in my favorite hymnal, appropriately named Easter Hymn:
Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!
our triumphant holy day, Alleluia!
who did once upon the cross, Alleluia!
suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia!
I did not hear the great Vaughan Williams processional, Salve Festa Dies, and its timely refrain so familiar from my childhood days as a choirboy:
Hail thee, festival day!
Blest day that art hallowed forever;
day wherein Christ arose,
breaking the kingdom of death.
When woven appropriately into a church service, hymns reinforce the message of the lessons, collects and sermon. Both of these hymns make the immediate point: Easter is about the risen Christ.

It appears that while the hymns are preserved in our hymnbook, the knowledge of how and when to use these hymns is being lost. This suggests a need for identifying and preserving the canon of important Easter hymns, just as we have a widely accepted canon of Christmas music. More later.


jleecbd said...

There is something to be said for having a generally rigid set of hymns etc. defined for each day (or at least each Saint or event, as the variations come from specific Saints that might get commemorated on a particular Sunday or feast day). Here's a collection of hymns for this Pascha - both Matins and the Paschal Liturgy. Not surprisingly you have no doubts about what is being celebrated that day.

Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρών, θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας, και τοις εν τοις μνήμασι ζωήν χαρισάμενος.
(Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and bestowing life to those in the tombs).

C.W.S. said...

So what did they sing instead? Hard to imagine non-Easter hymns on the day itself when there are so many to choose from.

I know we did our usual 5 hymns and every one was an Easter morning / Resurrection text -- not even an Eastertide hymn among them.