Czech Easter music – from carols to cantatas

Photo: CzechTourism

In the Czech Republic, celebrations of the moveable holiday of Easter combine Christian traditions and age-old pagan customs. Music plays an important part in the celebrations, spanning from folk chants to religious oratorios. In this year’s Easter Monday special we will give you a taste of Czech Easter music, from carols to cantatas.

Photo: CzechTourism
It is a tradition in most parts of the country for young male carollers to go from house to house on Easter Monday in search for girls and women. They playfully whip them with braided willow sticks with colourful ribbons and are given painted or otherwise decorated eggs in return. Originating in ancient pagan fertility rites, the practice is supposed to guarantee beauty and good health for the women in the coming year. The carolling is accompanied with folk songs and chants, such as this one, Hody, hody, doprovody, sung the children’s choir Ostravička.

Falling on the first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox, the date of Easter varies from the 22nd of March to the 25th of April, the beginning of Spring eagerly awaited by our ancestors who depended on natural resources for their survival. The welcoming of Spring is therefore an important feature of traditional Easter songs, such as Velkonočko, velkonočko sung by the boys’ choir Pueri Gaudentes.

Easter is, of course, the most important Christian festival commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his crucifixion at Calvary. The accounts of the story in the gospels have served as inspiration to countless works of art throughout history, including music. The 18th-century Czech composer František Xaver Brixi who came from a distinguished family of musicians chose the betrayal of Judas Iscariot as inspiration for his Easter oratorio in 8 parts titled Judas Iscariothes written around 1760. It tells the story of Judas who betrays Christ and commits suicide after the crucifixion. František Xaver Brixi died at a young age, just 6 years older than Christ. You can now hear the Introduzione, or introduction, to his Judas Iscariothes.

Easter is the culmination of the Passion of Christ, following a forty-day period of Lent devoted to fasting, prayer and penance. One traditional way of commemorating the suffering and death of Jesus in many parts of Europe are the so-called Passion plays. In this country, the old and popular tradition died out under communism but has been brought back to life in many communities since 1989.

Inspired by the tradition (not in this country, but among Greek Orthodox believers) the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů wrote his four-act opera Řecké pašije or The Greek Passion in the mid-1950s. He took the story from Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel “Christ Recrucified”. Taking place in a Greek village under Ottoman rule the story depicts the locals’ attempts to stage a Passion play, held in the village every seven years. In the introductory part of Martinů’s opera we hear the elders of the community assigning the parts to individual villagers. It was recorded by the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Libor Pešek.

Antonín Dvořák
Perhaps the best known and most beautiful piece of Czech classical music connected with Easter is Antonín Dvořák’s Stabat Mater. He finished the cantata in 1877 following the successive deaths of his three children. The Latin lyrics were taken from a Catholic hymn about the sorrows of Mary, attributed to the 13th-century Italian Franciscan monk and poet Jacopone da Todi.

Dvořák’s Stabat Mater was performed in England in 1883 to great acclaim and was presented in New York and Pittsburgh in the following years winning the composer much popularity in the United States as well. It is considered as one of the greatest and most powerful works of Czech classical music. The final piece of music in this special Easter Monday music programme is “Tui nati vulnerati”, the fifth part of Stabat Mater by Antonín Dvořák, performed by the Czech Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch.