The Season of Lent Begins

Feb 15, 2011

by Gabe Statom

To begin the Lenten season, the Music Ministry of Second Presbyterian Church is offering a unique worship experience in a service led by Second’s Laudis Domini Vocal Ensemble, a 16-voice auditioned group that sings some of the finest sacred music that the church has heard over a thousand-year period. This particular service, “A Lenten Evensong,” will include music predominately from the Renaissance era.

The Renaissance is a time in history that is most known for the development of art, music, architecture and literature on a secular level. But if we carefully evaluate the achievements from this great time of civilized development, we will find much of this was coming from the church. Look at the great works of art in the Vatican produced by Michelangelo.

Similarly, much of the music you will hear at this evensong service will be from composers whose works were written specifically for the Sistine Chapel or Westminster Abbey choirs. Though much of this music is not used in modern worship in our evangelical traditions, it represents an important part of the church's history, including worship and music development.  

One reason we have selected this era of music for the beginning of the Lenten season has much to do with the rich biblical texts surrounding Christ's Passion. Take, for instance, the musical setting of Crux Fidelis, written by John IV, King of Portugal, who lived from 1604-1656 and enjoyed composing his own music for the court chapel.  This musical setting appropriately proclaims the richness of the text, speaking of the cross and its sweet part in our salvation.

Cross most faithful, highly exalted,
Noble tree beyond compare:
Never grew there one so blessed,
Branches, blossoms green and fair:
Sweetest wood, sweetest nails,
Sweetest burden thou dost bear.

The composer uses simple harmonies that sound complex, suspensions which add tension and resolve to the music and text.  The sweet simplicity of music emphasizes the words of the text, which were written by Venantius Fortunatus, an early church father, in the late 6th century.

Another rich aspect of the texts from this era is the personal perspective they use in expressing devotion or admonishment to our Savior. One of these is the Adoramus te Christe, set to music by Orlando deLassus, a prominent Italian composer who wrote music for the courts of many royals in Italy and later in Bavaria.

The text is one that calls for music that not only expresses human adoration, but also adequately accommodates the later part of the text, '...death's dark torment...'.  The full translation of this text shows why the composer would start in a major (bright) key, move towards a minor (dark) and then return to the major key:

Jesus, Savior, we adore thee,
and bless thy Holy Name always,
for thou who death's dark torment suffered,
by thy cross redeemed us.
Lord, we pray, have mercy on us.

These are a just a few examples of why this music is still poignant in 2011. We hope you will take advantage of the opportunity to step out of the hurriedness of this century and step back to a time in history when the sound of religious music caused the church to spend more time in meditation, reflection and sincere, personal adoration for Christ' work in their lives. We hope you will be as blessed by experiencing this music as we have been to prepare it. The call for self examination during this Lenten season will be a rich blessing if you allow the words and music to sink deeply within your hearts.