In his book The Soul of the World (2014), the late Roger Scruton, one of the world’s foremost philosophers on the subject of music and aesthetics, said that the difference between pop music and classical music ‘is the difference between preventing silence, and letting silence speak.’

Unlike the beats of modern music, which are designed, packaged, and produced to fill the silence, to create in us an addictive response, the music of previous eras was born from silence. Scruton says this kind of music ‘uses silence as a painter uses the canvas’, allowing it to express the themes of the music itself. In this way, classical music has an intentional and personal relationship with silence, and demands from us a deeper, quieter form of listening.

Holy Week is, it should come as no surprise, a week of unusual silences. In our churches, the altars are stripped bare, sacred images are covered, and Holy Thursday ends on a strangely anticlimactic note: it’s an unfinished piece of music, almost, a liturgy that plays with silence in order to allow that silence to speak. We then carry that silence within ourselves, through Good Friday and into the depths of Holy Saturday, before the music of Resurrection offers us a satisfying conclusion.

Precisely because of the way in which the liturgies of Holy Week mirror classical music’s use of silence, a good way for us to enter into the mystery of Holy Week might be through the door of music. Perhaps this year is the year to do something different and allow the beauty of music to set the tone and tenor of our prayer. There are two pieces in particular you might want to consider for this, both by the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach: St Matthew’s Passion and St John’s Passion.

Johann Sebastian Bach Portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann (1746)

J.S. Bach

J.S. Bach is, understandably, one of the most respected musicians in the classical tradition, representing especially some of the best of the baroque period.

Born in 1685, he belonged to a family with a long history of music: he was the eighth generation of classically trained musicians. Famously, he also had twenty children (seven to Maria Barbara Bach, who died sadly at the age of 35; thirteen more to his second wife, Anna Magdalena).

In 1721, Bach acquired the position of Cantor at the Thomasschule, a boarding school in Leipzig. There he would compose some of his finest spiritual masterpieces, among them the two Passion pieces. Both were designed to suit Vespers services on Good Friday, and what they manage to do is set to music specific chapters from the Gospels (which makes them appropriate listening).

These are also some of his longer pieces (ranging from between two and three hours long), but it should go without saying that they are well worth the time – even if that time is broken up to fit your day (just don't listen to them Bach to Bach).

St John’s Passion

St John’s Passion was the earliest of the two, and the chapters it sets to music are John 18 and 19. It begins with an immediate sense of tension, which fits because the beginning of John 18 is the arrest of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. You can’t escape the feeling that you’ve suddenly entered the final act of a play, where the drama is heightened, darker forces are rallying, and something climactic is about to occur. When Jesus asks the guards who come looking for him, ‘Who are you looking for?’ and they reply, ‘Jesus the Nazarene,’ (v.5), St John’s Passion turns this response into a powerful refrain (sang in German, obviously): ‘Jesum von Nazareth!’

An important thematic element of this piece is that it situates Jesus, despite the suffering of his Passion, as the cosmic Lord, as Herr, unser Herrscher (“Lord, our Ruler”), not simply focusing upon his sufferings as a human.

The Netherlands Bach Society has done an incredible performance of this piece, which you can watch below. And, if you need some guidance through what’s going on in the piece, click here.

St Matthew’s Passion

Two years after composing St John’s Passion, Bach composed St Matthew’s, and it sets to music chapters 26 and 27 of Matthew’s Gospel. This piece is widely recognised to be a more complex piece, but also one of the most profound in the Western tradition. It caused a bit of a stir at the time because it was considered too operatic for religious services.

Interestingly, throughout the piece there are moments when the drama and narrative is suspended for chorales and arias, which provide theological reflections on what is happening in the biblical text. Although everything is happening in German, translations are available online if you want to delve deeper into what is now a pillar of Western sacred music. In the Netherlands, leading up to Easter there is something called ‘Matthew madness’, where each town has its own performance of it.

Again, the Netherlands Bach Society has provided an excellent performance of their own:

What has beauty to do with crucifixion?

Scruton also talks about the impulse to dance as moving with the music, something only human beings are capable of. The mystery of Christ’s Passion is almost too profound for us to know what to do with it. How do we understand it, or let our spirits be moved by it and with it? There is an undeniable patience required by our modern, restless bodies, for music like this. Still, given what they accomplish, and the sense of emotion, drama, and tension throughout, we might find that taking the time to listen to them unlocks a whole new world of religious experience.

This sounds counterintuitive, since confronting ourselves with the shock factor of the crucifixion through Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ has become so routine. What has beauty to do with crucifixion? Well, we could say: conversion. The beauty of Bach's music has introduced so many people to the mystery of Christ, and throughout Japan – a largely secular nation – has even led to some profound conversions.

The substance of prayer, as Simone Weil said, consists in a ‘habit of attention,’ or deep listening. This is certainly something the music asks of us, and with great reward. It might help us prayerfully enter into the mystery of Holy Week and deepen our own conversion, too.

Listen to St John's Passion played live at St Patrick's Cathedral on Thursday 7 April, from 6.30pm - 9pm. The performance is presented by the Little Yarra Steiner School as a musical gift to the community. Entry is by gold coin donation.