The Easter story has undoubtedly inspired, and continues to inspire, some of the best classical music in the repertoire. From the scared, to the secular, to the simply sublime, here are our top 10 best classical Easter music pieces for the ultimate Easter playlist.
Listen to the best classical Easter music on Spotify and scroll down to read our selection of the Top 10 essential pieces.
Best Classical Easter Music: Top 10 Essential Pieces
Handel’s Messiah is a mainstay of choral society singing, one of the best classical Easter music masterpieces, and one of most enduring choral works of all time. This oratorio is synonymous with Easter, with the scriptural text of the King James Bible set to Handel’s dramatic and emotive music. Best known of course for the famous ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, however the rest of the Messiah is equally beautiful, featuring exquisite arias such as ‘Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted’. In a word? Iconic.
Victoria: Tenebrae Responsories
Perhaps one of the most stunning examples of relatively unknown early music. Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories were composed in 1585 for performance during Catholic services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Comprised of eighteen motets with text derived from the Catholic liturgy, Victoria writes for simply four voices a cappella. The eighteenth responsory ‘Sepulto Domino’ is the epitome of pared-back vocal writing, with slushy suspensions and blissful harmonic progressions.
Mahler: Symphony No 2, ‘Resurrection’
Mahler’s second symphony, nicknamed ‘Resurrection’, is the composer’s own meditation on rebirth and afterlife, themes reminiscent of Easter. Radical for its fusion of both vocal and orchestral genres on an unprecedented scale, the ‘Resurrection’ symphony is scored for an extra-large orchestra, full choir, organ and church bells. Mahler wrote the text himself. The fifth movement in particular is explosive yet poignant, beginning with a passage known as the “cry of despair” and ending with the words, “Die shall I in order to live/Rise again, yes, rise again.”
The final moments of the ‘Resurrection’ symphony will quite simply blow your socks off, punch you in the face, and break your heart in the space of five minutes.
Vaughan Williams: Five Mystical Songs
The first of Vaughan William’s Five Mystical Songs from 1911 is titled ‘Easter’. Scored for baritone solo and accompanied by choir and orchestra, ‘Easter’ is an endlessly joyful setting of a poem by George Herbert. The throbbing string accompaniment creates an atmosphere of excitement and exultation, whilst the rich baritone solo sores above. Uplifting and jubilant throughout, ‘Easter’ and the four other Mystical Songs, represent Vaughan Williams’ work at its absolute finest.
Bach: St John Passion
The first of Bach’s two mammoth sacred Passions, the St John Passion is an epic musical setting of the gospel. The John was first performed during service on Good Friday in 1724, it has remained a core part of the liturgical canon ever since and is one of the best classical Easter music masterpieces. Scored for soloists, chorus and orchestra, John Passion is intense, dramatic, and evocative throughout. Perhaps the most breath-taking moments belong to the Evangelist, for whom, as narrator, Bach writes astounding recitative passages that border on the divine.
Bach: St Matthew Passion
The St Matthew Passion is a sacred masterpiece on a scale even grander than its John counterpart. Again, performed by chorus, orchestra, and the Evangelist narrator, the Matthew is arguably the pinnacle of Bach the church musician and is one of the best classical Easter music masterpieces. If you’ve got the stamina, the full three hours of the Matthew Passion are well worth your undivided attention.
Pergolesi: Stabat Mater
The Stabat Mater is sombre hymn, conveying the suffering of the Virgin Mary at the crucifixion of Christ. Pergolesi’s version was written just before his own death in 1736. Moments of grief such as ‘Quando Corpus Morietur’ are contrasted with lighter moments such as ‘Cujus Animam Gementem’. This particular setting of the Latin liturgy is potentially one of the most tender and evocative duets in sacred music.
Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Overture
Based entirely on chants from the Russian Orthodox Church, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Easter Overture (1988) is a purely orchestral work and one of the best classical Easter music pieces. This piece is wonderfully programmatic: the underlying Easter narrative is unmistakable thanks to the composer’s genius use of orchestration. The contemplative opening section underlines the solemnity of the Passiontide in the lead up to Holy Sunday, before transitioning into the unbridled joy of Easter morning.
Tallis: Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet
Composed circa 1565 to 1570, Tallis’ Lamentations are settings of verse from the Book of Jeremiah, specifically the first ‘Nocturn’ for Maundy Thursday. Tallis masterfully selects five male voices, opting for lower, darker and richer tones, which he skilfully balances in contemplative polyphony. As a result of this relentless and complex counterpoint, these Lamentations are deeply emotional and utterly entrancing.
Tavener: As One Who Has Slept
A modern Easter anthem, As One Who Has Slept was written by Tavener in 1996, with words from the liturgy of St Basil to be sung on Easter Sunday. Tavener creates a harmonic drone that is maintained throughout the piece, almost as though to put the listener into a meditative state. Through heart-wrenching harmonies and a subtle feeling of timelessness, Tavener creates an ethereal setting for the words, “As one who has slept, the Lord has risen, and rising He has saved us.”