Did you know that Easter is not just one day but a whole week of holy celebration? You may be more surprised to find that the origins of Easter were pagan rather than the Christian. Listen to some great Easter music while we take you on a journey from paganism to Christianity to secularism.
The Easter you know and the Eostre you don’t
What’s paganism got to do with Easter?
Put simply, quite a lot. Some of the most recognisable Easter symbols are influences by pagan beliefs. A bunny or hare, for example, is said to have originated with the Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring, Eostre. The hare was her animal companion but also a symbol of fertility in its own right.
The date itself is strongly linked to the ‘Spring Equinox’, the pagan festival that celebrated the day in March where night and day are of equal length. Easter even takes place every year the Sunday succeeding the first full moon after the ‘Spring Equinox’.
‘Eastre’ by Jaques Reich, 1901
Igor Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ – a contraversial choice
Starting with a “pagan” work for this Holy Week may be a controversial choice, in fact, this piece caused a major scandal during its first performance in March 1913. However, we think it’s important to recognise that Easter, as a celebration of rebirth, spans much further back than the Christian holiday we celebrate today.
Why did this work cause such an uproar? The pagan theme of a girl sentenced to dance as a sacrifice until death ensues and the unconventional ballet choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky was certainly shocking to audiences used to more traditional fare.
Dancers from the original production of ‘The Rite of Spring’, 1913
Yet, just by listening to the piece you’ll be able to understand. The dissonant strings sow discord and provoke images of the girl’s desperation. The alternation between loud and quiet is frequently unsettling leaving the listener in a constant state of anxiety. Perhaps most of all, the sheer defiance of Stravinsky’s refusal to stick to one singular time signature is most worthy of protest.
As you’re listening to Stravinsky’s piece, try to count along with the music in groups of four. Don’t be disheartened if you can’t; Stravinsky alternates between different time groups constantly. Rather than simple 4 time, sometimes it’s 3, 5, maybe 9 time. If it’s difficult for us to count, imagine how hard it is for the musicians! Frustrating maybe, worthy of uproar? Apparently so.
The Holy week with Gesualdo, Allegri, and Handel
To avoid any more controversy, let’s move on the Christian Easter, the most important week in the Holy calendar. Here we’ll take you through the last four days of the holy week with the next five pieces.
Since today is Maundy Thursday, the day of the last supper where Christ gathered his apostles to drink wine and break bread, we appropriately begin with the third responsory from Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday. Jesus tells his followers of the betrayal that will come and his impending sacrifice in the garden of Gethsemane.
‘Agony in the Garden’ by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1897
The ‘Miserere Mei, Deus’ is sung in churches throughout the country during Easter. It was originally sung only on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday in the Sistine chapel in front of the pope. While not explicitly about Good Friday, the Psalm 51 (which Allegri used for this work) asks for forgiveness and the washing away of sins, just as Jesus asks God to forgive and wash away the sins of man on the cross. Listen out for the top C, one of the highest notes written in any sacred choral music.