Forty Days of Lent (And Music)

Tyler Versluis   -  

It is difficult to imagine Christmas time without Christmas carols. But do you feel the same way about Lent? We often think about Lent as a time to scale back the grander expressions in our worship, but arguably Lenten themes are some of the most dominant expressions in Christian art, music and architecture. The Crucifixion scene dominates Western painting, from the Syriac Rabbula Gospel manuscript from 586AD, to Salvador Dali’s Corpus Hypercubus from 1954. Composers wrote massive Lenten works to express the gravity of Lent: The Saint Matthew Passion of J.S. Bach, the Stabat Mater of Pergolesi and Vivaldi, and Franz Liszt’s Via Crucis.


As the weeks of Lent go by, I will share curated lists of Lententide music, ranging from the traditional and devotional to the provocative and idiosyncratic. While the music contained here holds its own artistic value, its primary focus here is to increase your own devotion as the Lenten season goes by.


Miserere Mei, Gregorio Allegri (c. 1582-1652)




Miserere Mei, is for all intents and purposes, a setting of Psalm 51, which we read every Lenten season on Ash Wednesday. Written for two choirs, it consists of alternating verses of monophonic psalmody and polyphonic verses. The work possesses an arresting power, and for centuries the Vatican guarded the piece closely, refusing to have the music published or copied. Eventually a precocious musician by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart heard the music during a service, and proceeded to copy down the music from memory. He handed the music to an English publisher who finally made it widely available. Pope Clement XIV, instead of being perturbed by this action, was stunned by Mozart’s talent and bestowed on him the Order of the Golden Spur.


Were You There, sung by Marion Williams (1927-1994)




Marion Williams devoted most of her life to gospel music, although she also learned blues, jazz and calypso styles during her long singing career. Despite pressures to move towards the more popular rock genre that was blossoming in the 50’s, Williams stuck to singing gospel as a devotion to her powerful Christian faith.


Were You There was composed and sung by enslaved African-Americans working on plantation farms, and was eventually notated and published in a collection of plantation hymns in 1899. It became noteworthy as the first African-American spiritual to be published in a major American hymnal, when it became part of the 1940 Episcopal Hymnal.


Hodie Mecum Eris In Paradiso (Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise) from The Seven Words of Christ for solo organ, Charles Tournemire (1870-1939)




Charles Tournemire was a French composer and organist, and one of the greatest liturgical improvisers. He is best known for his organ collection L’orgue Mystique, a massive work almost 20 hours in length, containing prescribed organ music for every Sunday and Feast Day in the liturgical calendar. As one might expect, Tournemire’s music is greatly influenced by the free-flowing nature of plainchant, but also scales and melodies from Hindu classical music.


Tournemire’s Seven Words of Christ contains seven “chorale poems” for solo organ, each titled with one of the words spoken by Jesus Christ while on the cross. The music is extremely unsettling and moody, full of long chromatic melodies and tense harmonies. The movement Hodie Mecum Eris In Paradisopierces this darkness briefly as Jesus comforts the criminal who is crucified beside him.