Stark and unanswerable: John Sanders – The Reproaches

by 5:4

Each year, on this, its most solemn day, i used to travel to Gloucester Cathedral for the morning Liturgy. Their approach, while lacking a true sense of the abject, was fittingly sombre, particularly at the service’s central point, the Veneration of the Cross. The moment is crushing enough, filing to the high altar to face the Cross and all it signifies, but the Cathedral then crowns it by performing John Sanders‘ setting of The Reproaches. The Cross before me; Sanders’ music behind me; on all sides the unavoidable, unanswerable, questions posed by the refrain:

O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!

The words continue, describing at length the good things God has done, and humanity’s response, putting Christ to death. Sanders sets all this narrative as a simple chant; saving his rich and excruciating (in the best sense) harmonies for the refrain and also the Trisagion, the one portion of the text where we respond:

Holy is God! Holy and strong! Holy immortal One, have mercy on us.

The sole recording i know of is on a very nice CD – a mixture of Psalms and 20th Century anthems – by the Choir of St John’s, Elora, under Noel Edison. Sanders’ is not the only setting of The Reproaches that i’ve encountered (Victoria’s setting is performed each year at our Abbey), but, for me, the bitter starkness of his setting encapsulates the essence of Good Friday.

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@ Michael & Dexter: it's very impressive that Sanders' setting continues to inspire people during Holy Week. Hope your performance went well – and in a church relatively local to me too! :)

Thank you for your blog entry and link. This is a stunning performance, so much so that I have bought the CD! We performed this yesterday (Good Friday) at St Mary's Church, Thornbury.


Hi Megan, thanks for your comment :) Apart from early music, Sanders seems to be the only setting in more recent times – something i shall have to change in the years ahead! Anyway, enjoy it!


hi, i found your post looking for a download of this piece, i think it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music i’ve heard.

As far as other settings go i think there is one by palestrina that i’ve sung before, with the text in latin and greek, although personally i still prefer the Sanders.


Thanks for this, Phil; to some extent, though – and without taking anything away from Sanders’ brilliant setting – the popularity of his and Victoria’s settings must be affected by the lack of any other settings. Apart from these two, i’ve never encountered any others, which strikes me as odd; haven’t composers found them worthy of exploration?
Thanks also for the info about the Sanders Society; i didn’t know this had started •

Phil Webb

The popularity of John Sanders’ Reproaches is, I think, a clear indication of that which you identify in your post here, Simon.

For those interested, The Sanders Society has recently been formed to further promote his music and to encourage young composers of music for the liturgy. The website includes an opportunity to register performances of John’s works.

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