Friday, April 15, 2011

Requiems on Palm Sunday?

This may be an esoteric question, and more concerned with church music outside of the liturgy, but as we approach Palm Sunday it concerns an ongoing practice in the life of the church: As a church musician and liturgist, I am puzzled by the frequency and popularity of church choirs performing settings of the Requiem on Palm Sunday (though not doing so as part of the liturgy of the day). Why is this so?

Others have raised the question, but it doesn't seem to have any clear historical answer (there might be a dissertation for a liturgist or musicologist here). Like Tevye (in Fiddler on the Roof), we don't know why we do this, but it has come to be "tradition." An exchange on Ship of Fools a year or two ago raised the same question. One respondent noted that he "had never really thought of a requiem as a passion work" but "as the church's liturgy for the faithful departed and not about Our Lord's Passion." A second writer seconded this, adding "The implication, that we might be singing the Requiem for Jesus ('may he rest in peace'?), is staggering." Have church musicians simply decided, as another noted, that our entrance into this sad week in the church's life requires a "sad requiem"?

A different musical/liturgical tradition better reflects the not only the theological shape of Holy Week but also the church's use of scripture throughout the week, with the passion narrative from one of the synoptic gospels proclaimed on Palm Sunday, and the passion for John's gospel on Good Friday. Given this, one could argue that if a choir is looking for a "large work" for the beginning of Holy Week, the theological and liturgical shape of the week would send us toward musical settings of the passion--of which there are many (from J. S. Bach's settings of both the Matthew and John narratives forward to Arvo Part's setting of the John narrative, or even Stephen Schwartz's Godspell).

What is it that we think we are doing? Are we, as the one writer suggested, singing a "requiem for Jesus"? If so, what does this tell us about the character of our Christian faith? Does the church not believe, as the gospels tell us, that Christ is risen? Or, as Luke asks of the disciples, and of the church, on the Easter morning, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen."

Ron Anderson is Styberg Professor of Worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and president of The Liturgical Conference.

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