Music in Springtime: A Naxos Spotlight: April 19, 2011
Capella Istropolitana, Takako Nishizaki
Rel. 5 Oct 1995
The wonders of spring are upon us (well, at least in places north of the equator): the weather is warmer and a spirit of rebirth and renewal is in the air, as nature rejoices in surviving the harsher days of winter. Classical Archives and our friends at Naxos have teamed up to musically celebrate the joys and beauty of springtime, along with music written in commemoration of the two principal feasts of the season, Easter and Passover. Many favorites of the classical repertoire are dedicated to this season, including Vivaldi's "Spring" from the Four Seasons, Copland's Appalachian Spring, and Schumann's "Spring" Symphony, as well as sacred masterworks like Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Our feature includes a brief Introduction on the season, the feasts, and the music associated with them, as well as a set of outstanding releases by Naxos and the many superb labels it distributes. We also include two Naxos-derived 1-Click Concerts, available to our subscribers. As a special gift, Naxos is generously offering all visitors to Classical Archives a FREE STREAM of the complete Naxos CD Gloria, featuring great music by composers such as Dufay, Bach, Tallis, Vivaldi, Mozart, and Fauré. Happy Spring!
The acclaimed Naxos label has been a leading force for classical music since its founding by Klaus Heymann in 1987, and has won numerous awards for its superb recordings - including being named "Label of the Year" by Gramophone in 2005. Their roster includes such outstanding conductors, ensembles, and soloists as Antoni Wit, Marin Alsop, David Hill, JoAnn Falletta, Capella Istropolitana, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, Kodály Quartet, Jeno Jandó, Maxim Fedotov, Takako Nishizaki, Daniel Grosgurin, and many more. Naxos presents recordings of classical favorites from all periods, but they also have admirably dedicated themselves to recording lesser-known works of the past, as well as the output of many contemporary composers from around the world.
In addition to their own releases, Naxos has further augmented the accessibility of classical music by distributing (digitally and physically) many great classical labels, including BIS, Chandos, haenssler CLASSIC, Genuin, Innova, CPO, PentaTone, Profil, and dozens of others found right here at Classical Archives.
Naxos and its partners have released dozens of terrific CDs dedicated to the themes of spring, Easter, and Passover.
Since the dawn of human culture, springtime has been celebrated as the season of rebirth and renewal. During its three-month stretch - roughly March to May in the Northern Hemisphere, September to November in the Southern Hemisphere - the axis of the Earth steadily increases its tilt toward the sun, yielding longer, and hence warmer, days. The result is a significant increase in plant growth, as well as a birth season for scores of animals; life, in other words, tends to "spring forward" during this time - hence the English name. In cultures throughout history, the advent of spring has been celebrated with joyful rituals, which invariably include music. Over the centuries, composers of every nation and culture have given nod to the joy, playfulness, and beauty of springtime in their instrumental and vocal works - yielding such perennial favorites as Vivaldi's "Spring" from the Four Seasons, Beethoven's "Spring" Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op.24, Britten's Spring Symphony, Op.44, Schumann's Symphony No.1 ('Spring'), Op.38, Copland's Appalachian Spring, and dozens of songs and movements with the word "spring" in the title.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, moreover, springtime is associated with joyful and prominent religious holidays - Passover and Easter, respectively - which celebrate today's good news while remembering past sorrows; they thus reveal a link to their pagan origins, celebrating the joys of spring while remembering the harsh challenges of the winter months they just survived.
Passover, celebrated for 8 days beginning on the 15th day of the Hebrew (lunar) month of Nisan (this year beginning at sundown on April 18), commemorates the story, in the Old Testament Book of Exodus, in which the Israelites escaped the bonds of slavery in Egypt through the help of God, and the heroism of His servant Moses. As such, it remembers the sorrows of Jewish ancestors held in bitter slavery, while rejoicing in the freedoms enjoyed today by the Jewish people. The name "Passover" refers to the instructions given by God to the Israelites: to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of the spring lamb - as a sign by which the angel of death would spare all Jewish first-born males, by "passing over" (or hovering in protection of) their homes during the carrying out of the 10th and final Plague against Pharaoh and the Egyptians. As with all Jewish ceremonies, music plays an important role in the celebration of Passover - perhaps most famously with the song "Dayainu"; but also in the form of concert works written in dedication to the feast - such as Erich Korngold's Passover Psalm, Op.30.
The feast of Easter is the highpoint of the Christian liturgical calendar, a day celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ - which according to the New Testament establishes Him as the Son of God and judge of mankind; and which offers spiritual salvation to all who believe in Him. New Testament writings reveal a connection between this moment and the Jewish feast of Passover, in that the Last Supper - during which time Jesus informs his 12 Apostles of his impending betrayal and death - took place during Passover (either at the first Seder or on the night before). In this way, Jesus became the new Paschal or sacrificial lamb of the traditional Passover meal - as seen in His words after breaking bread, from Paul's 1st Epistle to the Corinthians (11:23-26), "Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you." The connection is also seen in the very name of the feast in most languages, for example, it is "Pascha" (derived from the Hebrew "Pesach" or Passover) in Latin, with derivative forms in all Romance languages. By contrast, the word "Easter" derives from the Germanic fertility goddess Eostra, celebrated at the vernal equinox - thus reinforcing the connection between Easter and springtime. This connection - as well as the broader springtime associations of the feast - also lies behind the popular secular traditions of Easter, such as decorating eggs, the Easter bunny, etc.
Like Passover, Easter is a movable feast, falling (since at least the 4th century) on the first Sunday after the full moon following the Northern hemisphere's vernal equinox - that is between March 22 and April 25 in the (solar) Gregorian calendar (this year on April 24). Given the solemnity of the feast, the week leading up to Easter Sunday is likewise quite significant in Christian liturgy - and particularly the preceding three days: Maundy Thursday (commemorating the washing of Apostles' feet by Jesus feet during the Last Supper, among other things), Good Friday (the day of His crucifixion or Passion), and Holy Saturday (the day He laid in the tomb). Eastertide, the season starting Easter Sunday and continuing until Pentecost seven weeks later, is particularly joyous as it marks the end of Lent, a period of fasting and penitence while contemplating the impending suffering of Jesus. In this way too it can be seen to mirror aspects of both Passover and the arrival of the spring season.
Music has always played a seminal role in Christian worship, exemplified in the huge body of chant - known as Gregorian chant in the West, after Pope Gregory I (d.604). The chants of Eastertide (for the Mass and Office) are among the most elaborate of the literature. Some of these chants (and chant-inspired texts) became popular sources for conductus, motets, and related genres by composers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance - most notably the Easter sequence "Victimae paschali laudes" ("praise to the Paschal victim), which was set by such notable Renaissance composers as Busnois, Josquin, Lassus, Willaert, Palestrina, and Byrd.
During the Baroque era, the most powerful musical form associated with Easter was the setting of the Passion (the story of Christ's crucifixion) - especially as told in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, but also Sts. John, Mark, and Luke. Alongside the epic settings by J.S. Bach (most notably his St. Matthew Passion), Passion settings exist by Schütz, Telemann, Handel, and others. Bach likewise wrote several cantatas in association with the Easter season - namely BWV6, 31, 34, 42, 43, 108, 128, 172, 175, 182, 184, as well as the cantata-like Easter Oratorio, BWV239. Although large-scale Passion and related musical settings waned in the late 18th and 19th centuries (an instrumental exception being Rimsky-Korsakov's Easter Festival Overture, Op.36), several 20th century composers - such as Krzysztof Penderecki and Arvo Pärt have continued the tradition with their own Passions. Undoubtedly, the highly emotional and spiritually significant story of Easter will continue to inspire composers well into the future.
Nolan Gasser, Artistic Director, Classical Archives