Lotti's Crucifixion - Liturgical Music for Holy Week

As part of our build up to Easter during this Holy Week, here is a posting by professional chorister, Elizabeth Black, about a piece by the 17th century composer Antonio Lotti: his Crucifixion. Elizabeth sings in the choir of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC and this will be part of their Good Friday liturgy. Written especially for The Way of Beauty blog, she brings the special insight of the performer to the discussion. (I have embedded the music below, on some sites you will need the link that says 'Watch on You Tube'.)

"We are entering upon Holy Week and I am reminded, as I am every year, why I spend long hours singing.  You see, it is during Holy Week that the full force of the beauty of the liturgy and its music springs upon us musicians; and it takes me by surprise every time.  This Lenten music is haunting and expresses the full and intense love of the Church for her Sacrificial Groom.  This year, we will be singing Lotti’s (1667-1740) Crucifixus during the Good Friday service. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khJtf8WMMeY&feature=player_detailpage

The first thing that jumps out is the dramatic shift from transparency to density in the first few measures of the piece.  Beginning with a simple 3 notes quietly sung by the bass, the music swells quickly into the 8 different musical lines (called voices), each voice entering with the similar motif.  These varying 3 notes sung by each line bump up against each other in buzzing collisions of notes, usually when an individual line is singing “fi” of “crucifixus”.  It is a kind of delicious pain.  This sets up the mood of tension and anguish which the faithful feel upon gazing at the death of the Lord.

Immediately after this dramatic first section, the simple word “crucifixus” repeats in a new musical phrase (0:50), but this time with the pulsating repeated notes “crucifixus etiam pro nobis” (he was crucified for our sins).  The music ebbs and flows here like water, overlapping itself in waves of sound.  The image which comes to mind when I sing this piece is the blood and water flowing from Our Lord’s side.

(1:16)“Sub Pontio Pilato”(under Pontius Pilate).  The music has been at an intense emotion level to this point, and in this third section it slightly abates.  We also hear a subtle reference to the opening of the piece when the lower voices sing a sort of mirror image of the opening “crucifixus”; this time with different text (1:30).  Here, rather than the notes rising higher (which in the opening imitates the cross being raised, perhaps?), the melody seems to fall.

But out of this lull (1:15-1:40), rises the soprano voice announcing “passus et sepultus est” (having suffered and was buried) at 1:47 and 1:54.  The effect of this lull and sudden rise of intensity imitates the natural waves of emotion.  Think of some violent fit of weeping: the intense sobs are interspersed with quieter sobs.  With this “passus”, the sobs come on again, and the violent weeping only subsides with the end of the piece.

The last few measures are full of lusciously intense chords (2:13) while the piece rallies itself one last time to declare that Christ suffered and died.  The emotional punch of 2:13 is due to the fact that each voice has been singing the same text up to this point, but at different times.  This is called polyphony-from the Greek for “many voices”.  However, at 2:13, the entire choir sings “passus” simultaneously (this is called homophony) before moving back into polyphony.  The chords seem to be searching for resolution, as the sopranos wait on top, patiently holding their note while the other voices progress from dissonant chord to dissonant chord.  The effect is expectant suspense which is only heightened by the lengthening of the unresolved penultimate chord.  And finally, after expecting it for measures, resolution and soothing of the emotions comes in the final chord.

Lotti’s “Crucifixus” is three minutes of emotional distress and anguish as the music takes the listener through a meditation on the pain and trauma of the crucifixion.  This piece expresses through sound the emotion that the Church and her members undergo (passus!) during Holy Week as we relive the death of our Lord.  However, this piece is not a journey in painful emotion merely for its own sake.  For after journeying though emotional anguish, Lotti gives his listeners the resolution of the final chord.  Just as after the pain and sadness of Good Friday, when Our Lord has died and been buried, Christians find hope that Easter Sunday will come."

Elizabeth Black will teach the two-week workshop on Gregorian chant at Thomas More College's Way of Beauty Atelier this summer. The course teaches the student how to sing Gregorian chant through training in sight-singing and the study of chant theory. To this end, the students will chant the Divine Office and the Mass daily.  The class day is centered on and receives its fruition in the liturgy, with classes culminating in a fully sung final Mass in the Thomas More Chapel. Studies will also include a survey of chant history, a discussion of the principles of Sacred Music and their implementation in parish life.  Students will leave with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Sacred Music and with the tools necessary to continue chanting on their own.

It will take place while the art classes of the atelier are being held. Each evening there will be lectures that will appeal to attendees at all three Way of Beauty Atelier classes that place art, architecture and music in the broader context of Catholic  and Western culture. This promises to create a unique and stimulating dynamic.

The images are of Pilate washing his hands by Duccio; and the Resurrection by Fra Angleco.