Program Note

This work is a series of seven musical meditations on the messages and the universal resonances of Jesus’ Seven Last Words, or phrases, spoken from the cross.

I. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do

Luke 23, 34

This movement is a reflection in three parts on the crucifixion of Jesus.

Whispered fragments of Psalm 22 surround the music of the first section, which portrays Jesus’ deep anxiety stemming from his knowledge that the moment of his betrayal is at hand. The words he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, asking that his Father spare him if possible, yet that also express ultimate faith in his Father’s will, are recalled by the soloist in three statements.

The music in the second section meditates on the pain and suffering of the crucifixion. The choir here is assigned the taunts and epithets that were hurled at Jesus in the events leading up to and during the crucifixion as recorded in the Gospels.

The focus in the third section is on Jesus’ utterance of the remarkable first word, a cry for forgiveness for those at whose hands he suffers.

Through certain references this movement pays tribute to the late Claude Vivier, a composer whose work I greatly admire.

II. Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise

Luke 23, 43

The ‘good thief’, who has also been crucified, pleads ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.’ In this movement the choir repeatedly sings his petition while the soloist vocalizes on the word ‘amen.’ The basses sing his words in Latin and their line functions as a ground bass upon which the upper voices are laid. The tenors, altos and sopranos sing the text in English and their lines are set in counterpoint to the ground bass. As the music progresses, the choir’s supplication becomes more intense and their counterpoint more chromatic and florid until the tension is broken by the soloist who gradually voices the second word accompanied a capella by the choir.

III. Woman, behold your Son...Behold your Mother

John 19, 26-27

The first portion of the third word, Woman Behold your Son, is sung a number of times by the soloist at intervals throughout the movement. The text of the first verse of the Stabat Mater dolorosa (Our Lady of Sorrows) is divided into ostinato figures sung by the choir and is superimposed upon Christ’s words as sung by the soloist. Again, a ground bass, this time outlining an unresolved cadential figure, is sung by the basses and embellished by the low strings. It supports the contrapuntal layers that are added above in the choral and instrumental parts. The music eventually culminates with the remainder of the third word, Behold your Mother, sung by the soloist.

IV. Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Matthew 27, 46

This movement is a meditation on Christ’s extended suffering in desolate silence upon the cross. God is distant and the Apostles have fled. Musically, the wide distance between the emotionally detached music in the upper strings and the pedal tones in the double bass portrays the vastness of the desolation of the cross while two solo cellos and a solo viola express the anguish. The passing of time is marked by the recitation of additional fragments of Psalm 22 and by periods of silence. The fourth word emerges tutti from silence near the end of the movement.

V. I thirst

John 19, 28

Desiccated, Christ begs the Roman soldiers to quench his unbearable thirst. In this movement the soloist sings the sixth word in Latin while the choir provides a faint reverberation of the soloists’ pitches. The strings, at intervals, interrupt the texture with sharp agitated, chordal attacks. The choir then recalls Jesus’ words recorded earlier in John’s Gospel, ‘whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.’ Shortly thereafter, a melodic line emerges in the upper voices as the tenors and the basses insistently declare the sixth word in English.

VI. It is finished

John 19, 30

The tenors sing St. Thomas Aquinas’ chant Pange, lingua gloriósi (Of the glorious Body telling, O my tongue, its mysteries sing) over a drone pitch held by the basses. Over this, a solo viola at first and eventually a string trio presents a rhythmically displaced modal setting of Hans Leo Hassler’s Passion Chorale, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, which Bach had used in his St. Matthew Passion. Superimposed upon this textural counterpoint is the voice of the soloist uttering Christ’s words on a pitch foreign to the prevalent mode. The choral amen that concludes Aquinas’ chant emerges from within the texture and gradually evolves into a tutti which concludes the movement.

VII. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit

Luke 23, 46

The choir, repeatedly singing the word Abba, a personal word for God as Father, accompanies a solo violin melody that gradually moves from a low to a higher register. The solo voice enters singing the seventh word while the strings and the choir enunciate together an ever-expanding breathing gesture. The piece concludes with an echo of the opening of this movement as the soloist alone sings Abba, this time on a pitch outside of the mode, thus reserving a sense of harmonic resolution while symbolizing the beginning of the period of waiting for Easter morning.