Forty Days of Music V

Tyler Versluis   -  

In 2013 I had an intense musical experience in a church basement in Ottawa. The JACK String Quartet performed the third string quartet by Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas, which according to strict instructions by the composer, must be performed in total darkness. For those who have experienced total darkness- in a sensory deprivation tank or elsewhere- the sensation is akin to being “buried alive”, as music critic Alex Ross mentions. It is not totally obvious what Haas was attempting to evoke with this work, but the quartet is subtitled “In iij. noct.”, a reference to the Third Nocturn in the Tenebrae service , and the ending of the quartet contains a musical quote from Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories, the text of which reads:


He was brought as a lamb to the slaughter,

And when he was evil entreated

He open’d not his mouth:

He was delivered up to death,

That he might give life to his people.

He hath poured out his soul unto death,

And he was numbered with the transgressors:

That he might give life to his people.


Darkness is sometimes necessary if we want to appreciate light. In fact, darkness and suffering are important elements in Christian art and music, because they reflect our human experience as sinners. If we omit this darkness, from our worship and music, our life, our worship becomes shallow. In the last instalment of this blog series, we turn to the Orthodox traditions of Holy Week, which encapsulate this darkness of the season.


The Lord’s Lamentations (with fragments of Psalm 118), sung by Byzantion Choir, Iasi, Romania.


The Lord’s Lamentations are lengthy liturgical hymns sung during Holy Week in Orthodox churches. In this interpretation, the Lamentations are set to a traditional Romanian melody and interspersed with verses of Psalm 118 (119 in most Protestant Bibles). In general, the Romanian Orthodox church has stuck close to the Byzantine style of church music, which is monophonic chant accompanied by an ison, a drone note.


Blessed art You, O Lord! Teach me Your statutes.

Blessed are the blameless in the way who walk in the law of the Lord.

In a tomb they laid You, O Christ the Life. The angelic hosts were overcome with awe and glorified Your condescension.

Blessed are those who search out his testimonies; they shall search for Him with their whole heart.

O Life, how can You die? How can You dwell in a tomb? Yet by Your death You have destroyed the reign of death and raised all the dead from Hell.


The Betrayal of Judas, Gyorgy Sviridov (1915-1998), sung by the Kyiv Chamber Choir “Credo”

Continuing the Orthodox theme, we listen to a hidden jewel of Russian music, a hymn from the Maundy Thursday liturgy by Gyorgy Sviridov. Through his music, Sviridov attempted to reconcile the entire history of the Russian school of music: his music contains influence from Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and most important, the choral music of Rachmaninoff. The music, however, is undoubtedly modern, though rooted in tonality: thick chords, indicative of the Russian choral tradition, contain pungent dissonances and a knack for innovative sonority. The music sets the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, the climax of the Maundy Thursday liturgy.


When the glorious disciples were enlightened at the washing of their feet before the supper, the impious Judas was darkened by the disease of avarice, and to the lawless judges he betrayed You, the Righteous Judge.

Behold, this man because of avarice hanged himself. Flee from the insatiable desire which dared such things against the Master!


The coda lessens the intensity of this betrayal, and ends on a series of slow luminous chords, acknowledging the providence of God, even in this dark moment of Christ’s life:


O Lord Who deals righteously with all, glory to You!


Tyler Versluis