The meaning of Easter for many people in the modern world has become obscure. It’s a time associated with eggs, bonnets, the Easter bunny, chocolate, and not much else. But for Christians, it has the deepest possible meaning, perhaps even more important even than Christmas, and the sacred music which belongs to Easter reflects the beauty and grandeur of the spiritual message. That is the impact of Easter music.
Passover and Easter are intertwined, and both major religious festivals in some of their elements harken back to the symbolism of earlier, pagan springtime rites. In fact, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” might be considered the quintessential pagan Easter music.
It is virtually certain that Jesus and the disciples sang Passover hymns at the Last Supper. It’s an odd thought, we never think of Jesus singing, yet there would have been singing in the temple and for Jewish religious observances in the home. Once you have the image in your mind of Jesus singing, it is hard not to imagine him along with his disciples and followers, both male and female, lifting up their voices in song as they walked along the highways and byways of the Holy land. Perhaps songs of praise, but perhaps also, folk songs celebrating the themes of fishing, farming and commerce which Jesus so loved to use in his stories. He was a joyful man – he must have sung.
At Easter we are used to seeing the springtime symbols of chicks, rabbits, eggs, flower and the like. But where do they come from? The egg is symbolic of fertility, of course, of new birth, and also a broken egg symbolizes the empty tomb. The rabbit is also a fertility symbol, and it happens that in the northern hemisphere, chickens start to lay at their best in the spring. So our Easter secular music features, chicks, flowers, bunnies and eggs.
Probably the enduring popular music for Easter is the song “Easter Parade”. Even though bonnets are no longer worn, the image of the pretty girl in the pretty hat, fresh and spring-like, endures. The song was originally featured in the Hollywood film of the same name, starring Judy Garland in her youth and beauty. Most people would find it hard to think of another popular Easter song. (Peter Cottontail perhaps, but this is not known outside of the US.)
It’s rather mysterious that Christmas had produced hundreds if not thousands of top quality, beautiful secular songs, and of course countless carols and Christian hymns, whereas Easter doesn’t seem to inspire writers in anything like the same way. Where is the Easter equivalent of “Have yourself a merry little Christmas”, “White Christmas”, “I’ll be home for Christmas” – all beautiful, and incidentally, slightly soulful and sad, Christmas songs?
Of course, Christmas is an almost perfectly happy celebration, with only the gifts of the wise men foretelling what the future was to hold for the Hope of mankind. The images are all positive; the baby, the animals, the star, the angels, the young mother – these pictures in our head allow us to celebrate and be happy.
Yet the Easter story is different. Much more powerful, yet with an image of horror at its beginning which somehow doesn’t allow for trivialization and jolly songs. The resurrection itself, for believers, is such an overwhelmingly powerful thing that it can hardly be reflected in popular song. “Christ is risen and loves the world, and that’s why I’m walking out with my girl”. No, it doesn’t work.
The great Easter music is of course Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion, with its glorious and uplifting messages. Yet, the St. Matthew’s Passion of necessity has great darkness within it. It’s interesting that Handel’s Messiah, which is so very fitting for Easter, is almost always used as a choral presentation at Christmas time. The Messiah is more or less unmitigated joy from start to finish. In particular the Alleluia Chorus and the exquisite aria, “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, make prefect music for Easter Day – yet are rarely used at Easter.
Modern Christian praise music has any number of Easter songs, but for many of us, they lack the sinews , musical gravitas and sheer beauty of hymns of earlier times. Contrast the music and words of say, “Guide me, oh thou great redeemer, o’er the world’s tempestuous sea,” with a few of the “modern” Easter songs. The former is majestic, powerful, poetic, the latter is, well – lets just say they don’t really measure up.
So the great Easter hymns will ring out in churches this Easter. “There is a Green Hill Far Away”, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”, even “The Old Rugged Cross”. And radio stations across the nation will content themselves with the latest offerings from the popular music industry, pretty well none of which will make the attempt at an Easter theme.