Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

The Passion in Music

  • 2008 20 Mar
The Passion in Music

For nearly two millennia, the Gospels' passion narratives have inspired memorable works of art, the most recent example being Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ.

Gibson acknowledged this artistic tradition when he said that he wanted his film to be a "Caravaggio in motion." His reference was to the sixteenth-century painter whose use of contrasting light and dark gave his depiction of biblical scenes a sense of urgency and intensity.

It's almost impossible to imagine the history of Western painting without the art inspired by the Passion. Da Vinci, Tintoretto, Giotto, and El Greco are but a few of the great artists whose definitive works depict the events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday.

What's true of painting is certainly also true of music. Johann Sebastian Bach set the passion narratives in Mark, Matthew, and John to music. Unfortunately only the latter two survive. Of these, it is his St. Matthew's Passion that sits atop the Western musical canon.

First performed on Good Friday of 1729, the work is almost sacred opera. Soloists sing the words of Jesus, Judas, and Pilate, while another soloist, called the "Evangelist," narrates the story. These interactions are punctuated by choral settings of well known hymns.

What you are about to hear is one of these chorales based on a hymn that is as familiar to you as it was to those who first heard the work. [To listen to excerpt, listen to this commentary online.]

Two-and-a-half centuries later, another Christian composer, Arvo Pärt, set John's Passion to music. The influential music magazine Gramophone called the result, Passio, a work "that transcends the doubt and nihilism of [our] age. …"

While Bach and Pärt are telling the same story and share the same faith, the results are very different. One reviewer has characterized Passio as a music of "massive stillness." Whereas "Bach celebrated the human voice for its expressiveness, Part turns it into an instrument." [To listen to excerpt, listen to this commentary online.]

Bach's expressiveness and Pärt's stillness combine to help the listener more fully appreciate what happened on that first Good Friday. That's why Christians owe it to themselves to become better acquainted with their work and the other art inspired by the Passion—art that can help us transcend the doubt and nihilism of our age.

© 2008 Prison Fellowship

BreakPoint is a daily commentary on news and trends from a Christian perspective. Heard on more than 1000 radio outlets nationwide, BreakPoint transcripts are also available on the  Internet. BreakPoint is a production of The Wilberforce Forum, a division of Prison Fellowship: 1856 Old Reston Avenue, Reston, VA 20190.

This commentary first aired on April 6, 2004.