A number of years ago now, when I was 21, I was housesitting over Easter. I watched The Passion of Christ on Good Friday. Through watching it, and thinking about music (as I was want to do at the time, studying Classical Music), I realised that there weren’t many compositions that explored this idea of the Stations of the Cross. While there are many examples of pieces relating to Easter, such as Bach’s St Matthew Passion or St John Passion, I couldn’t think of any that actually combine the stories as is found in the Stations of the Cross. Part of the reason is probably because many versions of the Stations of the Cross include extra-biblical material – that is, parts that have been accepted into the stations through tradition, and weren’t actually biblical. So I decided that I would start writing a piece based upon the Stations of the Cross.
First, I found a version of The Stations of the Cross to follow, which was the one that Pope John Paul II followed in 1991, which I chose because the 14 stations were based on passages from the bible narratives. Of the 14 passages, there’s 3 from Matthew, 3 from Mark, 5 from Luke, and 3 from John. I decided to write for String Quartet and Narration, mainly because I knew how to write for strings, and would be able to utilise the colours and effects effectively to evoke the text. In terms of overall arrangement, I decided that it would work best in 4 movements – the first covering the first 6 stations, then the second with stations 7 to 9, the third with stations 10 to 12, and the final movement with stations 13 and 14.
I originally wanted to base this work from a relatively popular translation of the text, however the number of verses was more than their fair use policy allowed, and upon seeking out permission to use it, I was going to be charged a large amount to use the text, for a licence that would only last 3 years. (As it’s been 7 years since I started this, I’m glad I didn’t shell out the money). As such, the text comes from the Open English Bible, an “open source” Bible released into the public domain. The Narration is notated, but is only intended as a guide as to where it starts, and roughly where it finishes. The narration is intended to sound as natural as possible, but lining up with the elements in the music.
I started by writing prose notes to describe my thoughts as to how each of the four movements would come together. The notes that follow are largely based off those notes, along with what my composition, The Stations of the Cross, actually ended up as.
The Stations of the Cross – Compositional notes
We open in the Garden of Gethsemane. Lush chords and melodies evoke spring in a dry Mediterranean climate (In my head, I was thinking New Norcia). I was picturing Jesus walking along, seeing the beautiful new growth, but at the same time distracted by the sorrow of what was about to occur, as demonstrated by the dissonance at the end of melodic phrases.
The Cello introduces the transition to the next station, introducing a theme which will soon represent the pack that comes to arrest Jesus. Changing time signatures and heavy accents depict the roughing up of Jesus, which disappears to nothing as they take Jesus away. Short melodic phrases over the top of this pack theme depict the disciples running away.
We find a pompous theme depicting the council of the Sanhedrin. As the accusations flow, this theme builds up to a frenzy, then dies away.
This section slowly builds as we hear Peter’s repeated denials. After the third denial, the violin imitates a cock-crow, followed by a chromatic descent to the bottom of the quartet, depicting Peter’s disappointment and despair.
Mark 15:1-5, 15
The pompous theme returns as the Council presents Jesus to Pilate, represented by the fanfare. The pompous theme is transformed many times to represent the barrage of accusations, which is met by silence. The frenzied theme returns as Jesus is handed over.
Bartok Pizzicato (where the string is plucked to purposefully have it slap against the fingerboard of the instrument) is used to represent the whipping of Jesus. A short fugue based on a theme from the St John Passion by Bach represents the Soldiers crying out “Hail, King of the Jews” before the Bartok Pizz returns as Jesus is slapped in the face.
John 19:6, 15-17
The movement opens with an ostinato from the cello, which will become a theme throughout the movement. The pompous theme returns again, rapidly and up high in violin 1, and is soon joined by violin 2, viola and cello. The viola breaks away to represent Pilate through his fanfare theme, but is drowned out as Pilate is unable to get his own way. The ostinato returns and continues for the rest of the movement.
A new theme using the Tezeta Minor scale emerges in violin 2. This is a scale which comes from Ethiopia, which is thought to be where Simon of Cyrene originated from. An argument with a theme based upon Pilate’s fanfare theme, this time representing the guards, breaks out, with violin 2 eventually falling away to join the cello’s ostinato, which we discover as representing Jesus’ path to Golgotha.
Violin 2 and Cello continue with their ostinato. A sorrowful melody over the top of the ostinato represents the mourning of the women. It flirts with major tonality for verses 29-31, before fading away to leave just the ostinato as Jesus has his final approach to Golgotha.
Bartok Pizzicato return in the viola and cello, representing the nails being driven into Jesus’ hands as they crucified him. A minor chord transitions to a major chord as Jesus forgives those crucifying him, before reducing to a diminished chord that dissipates into an open 5th.
A melody based upon minor thirds in the viola represents the discussion between the two criminals hung on either side of Jesus. The violin 2 part represents the criminal who asked Jesus to remember him, which is then met by lush chords as Jesus tells him that he will be with him in Paradise.
A warm melody from the cello is paired with lush harmonies as Jesus’ mother and the disciple whom he loved. This theme is passed through the quartet, ending with a duet between the cello and violin 1 to close the movement.
A repeated tremolo pattern aims to evoke the darkness over what is about to happen. A dark melody emerges from the violin 1 part, soon joined by viola and violin 2, before an accelerating scale from all instruments builds up the tension as Jesus commits his spirit to God, and then dies.
Chords, tinged with a slight bit of dissonance introduce the new section. A new theme, based upon the Ahava Rabbah scale (a Jewish scale, which according to wikipedia translates as “Great Love”), represents Joseph of Arimathea. This discusses with a sullen fanfare, representing Pilate. The chords continue, still with the slight dissonance. The stations finish with Jesus dead, but the final chord represents that while dead now, there is something more to come.
Recording and Use
Parts are available for purchase, and include the right to performance. I would also ask that if you do perform it, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. This recording is a demo only – it isn’t properly mastered, it is using commercially available virtual instruments (London Solo Strings), which – while better than general midi sounds – aren’t fully representative of what I had in my mind when writing this piece (for example, for many parts I had to repeat the viola notes because it would only last three beats of the tempo I was working with). However, I hope it gives you enough of an idea that it will inspire you to look into performing this. As the recording is only a demo, it is not to be taken, redistributed, or changed in any way. It is Copyright © 2014 Ben Clapton, All Rights Reserved.