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Listening Lists: Easter

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

In many cultures, particularly those with a Christian heritage, Easter weekend is very important. Many classical music works are inspired by both religious and secular aspects of different holidays, and this one is no exception! Here are FOUR Easter-themed works for you to listen to!


Bach: St Matthew Passion

The "St Matthew Passion" (German: Matthäus-Passion) is a Passion - a musical work which explores the final period in the life of Christ, designed to be performed during the Christian Holy Week. The "St Matthew Passion" sets chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew to music, with interspersed chorales and arias.

One of the most stunning Bach arias is found in this work: the alto aria "Erbarme dich, mein Gott", also featuring violin obbligato (an instrumental part which is integral to a piece of music). One of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, Yehudi Menuhin, called it “the most beautiful piece of music ever written for the violin". The text reflects the apostle Peter’s heartache after he denies knowing Jesus three times.


Have mercy, my God,

For the sake of my tears!

Look here, heart and eye

Weep bitterly before thee.

Have mercy, my God.

Excerpt recommendations:

1. Chorus I & II, Kommt, ihr Töchter

6. Aria (Alt). Buß und Reu

8. Aria (Sopran), Blute nur, du liebes Herz

27. Aria a doi Cori So ist mein Jesus

29. Choral, O Mensch, bewein' dein Sünde

39. Aria (Alt), Erbarme dich

49. Aria (Sopran), Aus Liebe will mein Heiland

65. Aria (Baß), Mache dich, mein Herze,rein

68. Chorus I & II, Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder


Wagner: Parsifal

"Parsifal" is a work in three acts by German composer Richard Wagner. It is an Arthurian (as in King Arthur) tale, based on the 13th-century epic poem "Parzival" about the knight Parzival's search for the Holy Grail.

Wagner came up with the idea of "Parsifal" on Good Friday in 1857, but did not finish it until 25 years later. He described the work as "Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel" ("A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage"), rather than an opera (but most people call it an opera). It is "through-composed" - there are no stand-alone arias or excerpts, though some sections were arranged by Wagner for concert performances. One such section is the "Good Friday Music" from Act III, Scene 1.

A fun fact: At Bayreuth Festspielhaus (a venue built by Wagner and dedicated solely to the performance of his works), audiences do not applaud at the end of the first act of "Parsifal". At the first performance, there was much applause after the first and second acts. Wagner told the audience that the cast would not be giving curtain calls (bows, acknowledgement of applause) until the end of the performance. The audience misinterpreted this, and thought they were not to applaud at all. Over time, the tradition developed that no applause would be heard after the first act.

Want the full opera? Here it is! Be aware that it is over 4 hours long in its entirety (the music is gorgeous - totally worth it). Make sure you have plenty of snacks! Click here for the libretto (text) in German and English.


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Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana

"Cavalleria rusticana" ("Rustic chivalry") is an opera in one act by Pietro Mascagni (Italian libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci). The story was adapted from a short story and play of the same name. It is considered to be a "verismo" (realism) opera. It is often double-billed (performed together with) another short opera, "Pagliacci" by Ruggero Leoncavallo, and together the two are called "Cav and Pag".

"Cav" was entered as part of a competition for young Italian composers who were yet to have an opera performed on stage. Mascagni heard about the competition two months before the closing date, and quickly got to work. The librettists (text writers) sent fragments of their text to Mascagni, sometimes on the back of a postcard. The opera was submitted to the competition on the last day that entries would be accepted. Out of 73 operas, three were chosen as winners, including "Cavalleria rusticana". Its first performance was a great success, with Mascagni taking 40 curtain calls!

The action takes place on Easter Sunday. The back story: The young villager Turiddu, has returned from military service. He finds out that his fiancée Lola was married to the carter Alfio in his absence. In revenge, he seduces a young woman named Santuzza. Lola is jealous, and begins an affair with Turiddu. The plot: Lots of drama between the four parties! Alfio and Turiddu end up dueling to the death. Who wins? You'll have to watch the opera to find out (this link is a film version, by Zeffirelli, with English subtitles)!

One well-known excerpt of "Cav" is the "Easter Hymn", sung by a church choir, the villagers, and Santuzza. The villagers enter the church, while Santuzza and Lucia remain outside.


Mahler: Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection"

Mahler's second symphony is known as the Resurrection Symphony. Though the composer had some religious background, he did not convert to Catholicism until a few years after the completion of this symphony. Its purpose was to explore the human concepts of life and death, rather than exploring religious doctrines. The entire work is around 1.5h long, and is often included among the greatest symphonies of all time.

Mahler had some difficulties deciding on a text for the final (fifth) movement, which he had decided would feature a choir. Inspiration came to him in the form of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock's "Die Auferstehung" (The Resurrection). He wrote to conductor Anton Seidl: "It struck me like lightning, this thing, and everything was revealed to me clear and plain".

The fourth movement, "Urlicht" (Primal Light), serves as a bridge between the orchestral movements and the choral movement. It is a song Mahler had already used in his "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" set of songs, and is sung by an alto (mezzo-soprano or contralto) soloist. It illustrates the longing for heavenly relief from earthly challenges.


O red rose,

Man lies in greatest distress,

Man lies in the greatest pain,

I would rather be in heaven.

Then I came to a wide path,

There came an angel who wanted to turn me away,

Oh, no, I would not be turned away.

I am from God and want to go to God again,

The good Lord will grant me a little light,

Which will light me into eternally blessed life.


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