CELEBRATE THE POWER OF THE VOICE

Music for Good Friday at the May Festival



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Since at least medieval times, the Christian observance of Good Friday has included music to enliven, elevate, and illustrate the events surrounding the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, commonly known as “the passion”. In the earliest examples, the gospel narrative was chanted; later polyphonic, or multi-voice, insertions were made, often to illustrate the voice of the crowd, or turba. Gradually, the tradition developed to include the complex passion settings of J. S. Bach, as well as a host of music related to the events of Good Friday. Given the prominence of these works in the canon of European art music, it is no surprise that they have frequently appeared on programs at the May Festival.

J.S. Bach left two complete passion settings to posterity: the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion. Nine May Festivals have included the St. Matthew Passion:

YEAR

CONDUCTOR

1882, 1890

Theodore Thomas

1908

Franck Van Der Stucken

1918

Eugene Ysaÿe

1935

Eugene Goossens

1972

Julius Rudel

1985, 2010

James Conlon

2019

Juanjo Mena

 

The Bach St. John Passion has been heard only twice in the May Festival’s history: in 1925, under the baton of Franck Van Der Stucken; and in 1983, led by Robert Shaw.

Three notable passion settings of more recent times also received May Festival performances. Krzysztof Penderecki’s extraordinary St. Luke Passion was offered at the 1973 May Festival under the baton of Robert Shaw as part of the 100th Anniversary Festival. In 2019, Scottish composer and May Festival Creative Partner Sir James MacMillan led a performance of his own passion cantata Seven Last Words from the Cross to stunning effect. In the same year, Craig Hella Johnson, music director of the Cincinnati Vocal Arts Ensemble, led VAE in an acclaimed performance of his own Considering Matthew Shepard, which, though not a setting of the gospel narrative, draws much musical and structural inspiration from J. S. Bach.    

The Stabat Mater text is also associated with the events of Good Friday. The medieval poem is often attributed to thirteenth-century writer Jacopone da Todi and describes Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the crucifixion. Given its highly emotional content, the poem has been a rich source of inspiration for many composers.

The Stabat Mater of French composer Francis Poulenc was led by James Conlon in 1995, and he led a performance of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater in 1989.

Giacchino Rossini’s operatic treatment of the Stabat Mater text has enjoyed a very long tenure at the May Festival:

YEAR

CONDUCTOR

1878, 1888

Theodore Thomas

1918

Eugene Ysaÿe

1944

Eugene Goossens

1971

Julius Rudel

1988, 2007

James Conlon

 

Among the many prominent soloists who have sung the Rossini Stabat Mater at the May Festivalare Sondra Radvanovsky (2007), Dolora Zajick (1988), and in 1971, Leontyne Price and John Alexander.

The Verdi Stabat Mater has been quite popular at the May Festival, but only since the mid-twentieth century.

YEAR

CONDUCTOR

1948

Fritz Busch

1954

Josef Krips

1986, 2003, 2012

James Conlon

1997

Robert Porco

 

Additionally, Antonín Dvořák’s Stabat Mater was first heard in 1890, led by Theodore Thomas, and was subsequently heard four times under the baton of James Conlon, including his very first appearance at the May Festival (1978, 1993, 2005, 2016).

Another important work adjacent to the “passion” tradition is Sir Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time. Though quite popular in England, it has been heard at the May Festival only once: in 2006, with Robert Porco conducting. Tippett’s work was inspired by the events of Kristallnacht in 1938, and draws musical and structural influence from Handel’s Messiah and the Bach passions. Bach used well-known Lutheran chorales, or hymns, in his works, and Tippett updates and reimagines this tradition by using African-American spirituals in comparable fashion.

Finally, though written for unaccompanied chorus, the exquisite Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence(Four Motets for Time of Penitence, or the season of Lent)of Francis Poulenc deserve mention. Though brief, they are among the great works of the a cappella choral repertoire, and have been heard twice at the May Festival: in 1999 (James Conlon) and 2019 (Robert Porco), both at Covington’s Cathedral-Basilica of the Assumption.