Despite my deep love of music, I seldom write music reviews, largely because I listen to classical music 90% of the time, and I just don’t have the corner on classical music reviews. But I also listen to worship music, and every once in a blue moon an album will so impress me that I have to write about it.
Fernando Ortega’s 2017 album, The Crucifixion of Jesus is one such album. It is far and away the best album I’ve ever heard that is focused on Holy Week, and specifically Good Friday, but it is also probably the best Christian album I’ve heard in a decade or more.
The listener who forms an impression of this album from 1, 2, or even 5 separate songs will probably say my praise is too high. There are several songs that in their own right are beautiful and powerful, especially “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” and “Stay with me here,” but the real power of the album is in its cohesive wholeness.
The album is a mixture of songs—both new and old—readings from Scripture, and devotional readings. The inclusion of readings is highly unusual, and the experience of listening to the album is very similar to actually attending a liturgical church service, which is one reason I love it so much. Through the apt choices of music and readings, the listener who listens to the album in one sitting will be taken from Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, through the cleansing of the temple, the last supper, Gethsemane, and finally the crucifixion. It is in this complete storytelling that the album shines.
As a church music director, I am always looking for songs that are good for congregational singing. This album has few such songs. It is a devotional work, best listened to privately all at once, with time for silence and contemplation afterwards. But a few of the individual pieces do warrant specific mention.
“Blessed be our God” opens the album and immediately sets the right tone. The lyrics simply remind of God’s greatness in repetition, as if trying to reassure the listener. The music is ambiguous, neither particularly joyful nor completely morose, which is the perfect lead in to Holy Week, beginning in triumph but quickly melting away into anger, denial, and finally death.
“Prepare the way, O Zion” describes Palm Sunday, and as such is a joyful song. It is simple, congregational, and lovely. It is a great song to mark the first historical moment of the story being told in this album.
“Stay with me here” is taken from Matthew 26, when Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane. It conveys Jesus’s great sorrow knowing what lay ahead and reveals the humanity of Jesus in a very compelling way. Just as we desire others near us when we are going through great trial, so does Jesus, even though in very short order all will abandon him and he will be truly alone. Very few songs capture sorrow as well as this one (one other that never fails to bring tears to my eyes is Eric Whitacre’s choral masterpiece “When David heard,” about David’s response when he heard of the death of his son Absalom).
“Ah Holy Jesus” is an old German hymn with amazing lyrics. This version is not the most common tune, but it is still lovely. Sufjan Stevens also does an interesting version of this song for those of you who are into the indie music scene. (I am decidedly not into that scene, and am not even sure the label “indie” is appropriate.)
“Psalm 22” – on its own this song would be a little strange, but as a part of the narrative it works perfectly. The song captures Jesus’s cry to God from the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—in a discordant, monotone set of phrases, very apt for the subject. As a side note, it is important for the reader of Scripture to know something about quoting the Old Testament in Jesus’s time. In that time, when you quoted the opening verse of a Psalm, you were understood to be referencing the entire Psalm. So was Jesus merely despairing when he quoted the opening lines of Psalm 22, or was he saying more than that? I’ll let you go read the rest of the Psalm for yourself.
“Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” is my favorite song on the album, and is drawn from the Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah 53. The tune is a German folk song, and both tune and lyrics are haunting and beautiful.
In summary, this album is simply amazing. Go listen to it, and have a blessed Holy Week.