As a doctoral student at UC Santa Barbara 25 years ago, I encountered a repertoire of wonderful music written in viceregal Mexico in the 16th and 17th centuries. I was intrigued that such a body of music existed and fascinated by accounts of its early performances mostly by indigenous musicians trained by Spaniards since the conquest.
At the time, I was casting about for a dissertation topic. A singing friend, who had written a thesis on music composed at the cathedral in Mexico City, offered me microfilm images of a book of music for Holy Week found in the cathedral archives. This 17th-century source included seven musical settings of the Passion, the biblical accounts of Jesus’s arrest, trial and crucifixion. Spanish composers of the period, including New-World maestros, typically inserted bits of choral music into pre-existing chanted versions of the Passion. The result: simple solo, formulaic recitations punctuated by interjections from a choir. These choral bits naturally included the words of groups of people (the disciples, the religious authorities, the soldiers), but Spanish composers went further, giving the choir impassioned outbursts of individuals and intense passages of the narration. Passions written in this style came from the region of Andalusia, which became known for flamenco, a passionate genre of music that developed later.
Have you noticed the variants of the word passion I’ve used? How does our common understanding of the word (intense emotion, perhaps with erotic overtones) relate to the Passion of Jesus? Literally, through suffering. The Latin word passio means “suffering,” so to suffer an intense emotion is to experience passion. In the 16th century, passion began to assume its contemporary meaning coincidentally when Spanish composers began writing their particularly passionate Passions.
What is the point of a musical setting of the Passion, especially a particularly passionate one? Music written for any text can be a meditation on that text, in which the music serves as a sort of commentary. In this sense, musical settings of the Passion belong to a long tradition of the contemplation of Christ’s Passion represented by a number of devotional guides, including Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). This four-week program of meditation aimed at spiritual regeneration exhorted the believer to converse internally with the crucified Jesus. Another Spaniard, the Carmelite mystic Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582), wrote that she became uniquely conscious of the presence of God by reflecting on Christ’s Passion.
What is the point of meditating on the Passion? Why contemplate the mental, emotional and physical trauma Jesus endured in his final hours? If you believe that Jesus’ crucifixion was a necessary sacrifice in payment for the sin of humankind—the conviction of many Christians—the extent to which you comprehend Jesus’ suffering may affect the depth of your gratitude to him for paying the ultimate price. This seems to be the intent of Mel Gibson’s notorious 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ. Many found it abhorrent for its graphic violence, but a number of evangelical leaders endorsed the film. However, not all Christians choose to focus on the Passion to this end; some emphasize how Jesus’s blameless life, including its tragic end, transforms us by example. Others focus more on Jesus’s ultimate triumph over death through the combined events of his crucifixion and resurrection. In the church I attend, I’m sure people have a number of reasons—and a host of questions—why hearing the Passion sung on Good Friday evening moves them.
Meditation on Christ’s Passion offers wisdom not only to Christian believers of any stripe but to anyone with a conscience. We can all learn from the figures in this tragic story. While Jesus demonstrates complete trust in God’s goodness, Peter convicts us of our readiness to abandon our firmest-held principles when threatened. The religious authorities warn us about our willingness to sacrifice what is truly good for the sake of status and power. With whom do we identify? Music well written, maybe even by a 17th-century, New-World Spanish composer, can help us hear and understand a familiar story in new ways. This Lent, may we experience the passion of the Passion, perhaps in the form of a musical meditation. And may it transform us.
Note: The Westmont Chamber Singers, under the direction of Dr. Grey Brothers, will perform the Passio secundum Joannem (Passion according to John) by Luis Coronado, maestro at the cathedral in Mexico City from 1641 to 1648, in Westmont’s Chapel service on Wednesday, March 16.
GREY BROTHERS is a professor of music at Westmont College.