Golgotha
Passion oratorio, based on biblical texts and words by St Augustine

for 5 soloists (soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone, bass), mixed choir, orchestra and organ

Year of composition

1945-1948

Duration

90'

Scored for

5 soloists (soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone, bass), mixed choir, orchestra and organ: 2 2 2 2 - 4 2 3 0 - timp. - perc.(2) - piano - strings

Publication information

Universal Edition (UE 11947)

Text(s)

Biblical texts and words by St Augustine (Confessiones) and pseudo-Augustine (Meditationes).

Commentary

During the spring of 1945, I admired a marvellous collection of etchings by Rembrandt at an exhibition in our Museum of Fine Arts. Amongst so many masterpieces, I was particularly impressed by three prints, three ‘states’, each very different, of a vision of Calvary, usually entitled The Three Crosses. Against a dark background of humans, who seem to be frozen in shock, the three crosses rise up; a sheet of white light descends from heaven onto the central cross, bearing Jesus in agony. From that moment on I was obsessed with the idea to create an image of the Passion within my abilities. But, on the one hand, the magnitude of the subject caused me to doubt my powers, and on the other hand, I did not know how to accomplish this in concrete terms. I would have liked to be able to compress this entire terrible and magnificent drama into one very brief work, as Rembrandt did on his modest sheet of paper. However, I soon understood that a musical work has different requirements to an engraving, or even a poem; a very short piece of music on the Passion would be completely unsatisfactory during a song recital or a symphonic concert. I came to the conclusion that an oratorio, by its dimensions, could provide the framework and atmosphere necessary to express such a subject. I also realised that if I only used the words of the Gospels, I would be unable to establish a coherent musical form; I needed texts which could express lyrical commentary, sort of meditations on the different episodes of the sacred drama, to give a sense of what these episodes mean to us. Thus, inevitably, I was approaching the classical conception of the Passions, such as the magnificently expressed great masterpieces of J.S. Bach: yet another reason to hesitate!

However, it seemed to me that each period of time should have the right to attempt to express the important themes which nourish our minds, and that a new vision of Christ’s suffering and victory over death could provide more present-day relevance, for some people at least. Moreover, I realised that there was little risk that I would produce a menial copy of the classical Passions. In these Passions we follow the story of the death of Christ, a story told to a gathering of believers who react with chorales, arias and ensembles. My idea, in contrast, was for us to relive the sacred drama, and especially to evoke the divine person of Christ; to show him first of all in action, condemning the hypocritical Pharisees with the same vigour as when he drove the traders out of the temple; subsequently to show him during the Last Supper, preparing his disciples for his parting; then in his anguish at Gethsemane. Finally, in the second part, during the trial, to show him having overcome his anguish replying to the High Priest and to Pilate with divine peace and authority. The commentary, the parts of lyrical character, would only intersperse Christ’s different attitudes. I was fortunate to find texts by St. Augustine, long meditations on the mystery of the Passion from which I took excerpts to supplement the account from the Gospels.

True to the first idea, inspired by Rembrandt’s etching, I tried to put the spotlight on the person of Christ, leaving all others in the shadows; for this reason, I decided not to mention St. Peter’s denial. Only two figures stand against him: the High Priest and Pontius Pilate. As I did not intend to follow the story of the Passion step by step from one of the Gospels, but to give an overall view of the sacred drama, I chose from each of the Gospels what I found to be the essence and the most suited to my purpose. This resulted in seven scenes, the first of which is Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the people’s enthusiastic welcome. The second is entirely devoted to the words spoken by Jesus condemning the hypocrites at the temple. The third is the Last Supper and the fourth takes us to Gethsemane. The first part ends when Jesus is arrested there. The second part consists of the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (5th scene), before Pilate (6th), and finally leads us to Calvary (7th).

The first scene is preceded by an important chorus which conveys our attitude towards the Passion, followed by a meditation sung by the choir: “How far, oh Saviour and Lord, only Son of the Father, how far wilt Thou come down in Thy measureless humility?” The words spoken at the temple are followed by a meditation, mystic in character, given to the soprano solo: “One day will I too have the good fortune to behold the blessed day, to behold thy fair beauty, when thou wilt enter into my being, thou, my only heavenly consolation?” The Last Supper is followed without a break by the scene at Gethsemane. After the arrest of Jesus, a meditation is sung by the soloists and taken up by the choir, which ends the first part: “Oh see the Lamb of God, taken away by sinners.”

The second part begins with a long lament given to the alto solo, expressing the solitude and distress of the abandoned soul: “What shall I say? What shall I do? Where, oh where shall I find the beloved?” The choir replies, as if from afar, with words of consolation by the psalmist: “I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord which made heaven and earth.” But it is not yet the confirmation of triumph; the soul remains abandoned; Jesus is still in the hands of the sinners. Then comes the high-energy scene of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, which begins with dignity and ends with insults, blows and spitting. The female choir intervenes abruptly with a meditation on our own ignominy. Jesus is then brought before Pilate and once again, in a different way, the scene begins calmly and ends with the population shouting: “Crucify him!” and Pilate’s abandonment. Then it is the scene of Calvary sung by the low voices of the choir, interspersed with only very few words of Jesus on the cross, as told in the Gospel according to St. John. But when Jesus gives up his spirit the choir suddenly cries out: “Oh death! where is thy sting? Oh grave! where is thy victory?” The whole final chorus evokes the luminous mystery of the Resurrection.

I have given more emphasis here to what my intentions were, rather than to the musical realisation of this oratorio. However, before ending, I need to say some words about it. In this musical composition, I have tried to exclude anything which might seem to be some kind of aesthetic research, by keeping as much as possible to my idea of the right expression for each scene and each sentiment. I was not afraid to write certain passages in a very simple musical language, and others in a much more complex and tormented language, which could doubtlessly appear difficult for those who have to study it, especially the vocal parts. Let me assure you that no difficulties were included in this score unless I found it essential for the musical expression of the text.

One of the great problems for singers lies in the fact that the melodic lines only make sense together with the other voices, the harmony and the bass line. It is only when the sound construction is complete and assured, that the musical sense is revealed. Of course, this does not help with studying! I hope that the Chanteurs du Chant Sacré will be rewarded finally for their great trouble and that they will be able to find some joy in performing this oratorio.

[…] Before going any further, I would like to tell you about another composition on sacred texts that I’m working on at the moment, of my own free choice. It is not a commissioned work and there is no excuse for taking it on, after all that I have just said. This new oratorio is a Passion in two parts, the first of which is now complete. I chose the text from different Gospels, and some contemplative parts from writings by St. Augustine. The decision to devote myself to this work contradicts any reasonable reflections on this subject, requiring a few words of explanation. Moreover, writing a Passion after the ones left to us by J.S. Bach must certainly appear very pretentious. In a way this decision was imposed on me after I saw Rembrandt’s etching The Three Crosses. In spite of all my inner reticence, this subject gripped me, especially this vision, new to me, of the Passion which Rembrandt’s work evoked.

There is a strange white light which falls vertically onto a dark world where, below the three crosses bearing the dying Jesus and the thieves, a whole world of figures seem frozen in a kind of prostration. In the first “states” of this etching, they seem to be looking away from the unfolding drama. In the last “state” Rembrandt has turned them around so they seem to be looking at the crosses; but perhaps they are even more frozen in their contemplation than when they seemed to want to flee. This is probably Rembrandt’s strongest work; in any case the one which expresses his spirit best of all. On this little piece of paper, we see the moment in the history of the world when the fundamental incompatibility between our material world and the spiritual world is most strikingly revealed. With the spirit revealed in all its clarity in the person of Christ, it was inconceivable for the world not to refuse or reject him. The world could not bear the brightness of such a light because primarily it was not illuminated but obscured. With a few strokes of shadow and light, on a small rectangle of paper, Rembrandt documented this tragic opposition and the supreme hope which this great light, descending from heaven onto these three crosses, can offer us.

There could be no question of transposing a similar conception into music, nor the emotion I felt on contemplating these Three Crosses, all that remained was a sort of inner obligation to tackle this subject, for once in my life and within my abilities, the greatest subject of all. I know that many will only see a piece of music like other works of music; I know that it will be seen as matter of artistic value, whose aesthetics will be discussed. I find that utterly disagreeable in advance. I also know that the oratorio could shock the intimate feelings of some believers, that it would be uncomfortable for them to hear a singer expressing the very important role of Christ, and that would grieve me. I know all the dangers of such an undertaking and that a work of this sort would more or less fall short in our artistic world. But in any case, I must write this oratorio one day, so it might as well be today rather than tomorrow. There is always hope that it could once, in spite of its imperfections, give someone the sense of this tragic encounter of shadow and light. I add that my plan, in this oratorio of the Passion which I call Golgotha, is quite different to that of J.S. Bach. His work is church music, written for his church, and his Passions seem to express above all the believers’ feelings for the Passion. The Evangelist tells the story, dramatized more or less by the intervention of various characters and of the choir. But the accent is on the recitatives, the arias sung by the soloists, the big, lyrical choruses and the chorales. Bach’s Passions represent worship of the Passion and reach out to deeply committed Christians, expressing varying sentiments and faith.

The Golgotha, which I intend to complete, aims to present the event itself, leaving the listener to draw his own conclusions. This will be an oratorio to be played in a church, but it will not be church music. It should be like a performance of the Passion drama, but not in worship. The contemplative parts which separate the different scenes, settings of text by St. Augustine, are only there to give time for meditation and to give orderliness to the totality in a musical form, which could not be done with the narrative texts of the different gospels. During the entire first part, which takes us up to the arrest of Jesus, I emphasize certain characteristics of his person which become evident during the days preceding the Passion. They explain his gestures and words spoken in the temple, when he violently condemns the religious leaders. Thus, I have included a large part of these statements, which are truly provocative and which led fatally to his condemnation: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” During the last days of his life, the human aspect of Christ is affirmed distinctly and continues until his definite acceptance at Gethsemane, when he speaks the words: “Thy will be done.” When he is arrested, he is just a poor accused man, no more than a condemned prisoner who is dragged to his agony. However, although vanquished in the eyes of the world, he is totally victorious in his human nature; he is truly victorious.

(Extract from the lecture ‘Le compositeur moderne et les textes sacrés’, given in Basel in May 1946. In: Un compositeur médite sur son art, op. cit.)

Premiere

World premiere Geneva 29 April 1949, R. Defraiteur, N. Grétillat, E. Haefliger, H.B. Etchéverry (Christ), H. Rehfuss; choirs of the Chant Sacré, conductor Samuel Baud-Bovy

Recordings (selective list)

  • Cappella Amsterdam/Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
    Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
    Judith Gautier/Marianne Beatle Kielland/Adrian Thompson/Mattijs van der Woerd/Konstantin Wolff
    Daniel Reuss, conductor
    Harmonia Mundi - HMC 902056.57 ℗ + © 2010 (FMS143)

  • Symphony Orchestre/Faller Choir/Choir University de Lausanne
    Wally Staempfli/Marie-Lise de Montmolin/Eric Tappy/Pierre Mollet/Philippe Huttenlocher
    Paulette Zanlonghi, piano/André Luy, organ
    Robert Faller, conductor
    Apex 2564 64398-2 © 2007 Warner Classics (FMS008)
    Erato 3984-24237-2 ℗ 1969 + © 1998 (FMS014)

  • Ensemble Vocal de Lausanne & Sinfonietta de Lausanne
    Barbara Locher/Elisabeth Graf/Laurent Dami/Marcos Fink/Michel Brodard
    Luca Antoniotti, organ
    Michel Corboz, conductor
    Cascavelle VEL 3004 ℗ 1994 (FMS007)
    Brilliant Classics 6574 ℗ 1994 (licensed from Cascavelle S.A.) (FMS129)

  • Berliner Symphoniker
    Solistenensemble der Musikhochschule Luzern
    Luzerner Knabenkantorei/Kantorei der Stiftskirche Stuttgart
    Barbara Locher/Ralf Romei/Michel Brodard/Liliane Zürcher/René Koch
    Alois Koch, conductor
    Live Mitschnitt des Konzertes vom 1. April 2004 im KKL Luzern
    Musiques Suisse MGB CD 6221 ℗ + © 2004 (FMS062)

  • Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
    Münchner Rundfunkorchester
    Tatiana Lisnic/Lioba Braun/Claude Pia/Gilles Cachemaille/Jerôme Varnier
    Marcello Viotti, conductor
    Hänssler PH04037 ℗ 2000 + © 2005 (FMS076)

  • Chor der Erlöserkirche Bad Homburg
    Frankfurter Bläservereinigung
    Offenbacher Kammerorchester
    Martina von Bargen/Margit Hungerbühler/Friedhelm Decker/Joachim Gebhardt/Martin Blasius
    Hayko Siemens, conductor
    VENGO 354.402/03 ℗ + © 1988 (FMS130)

  • Wiener Singakademie/Concentus Vocalis
    Wiener Jeunesse Orchester
    Cornelia Hosp/Annette Markert/Jorge Perdigón/Petteri Salomaa/Jean-Philippe Courtis
    Norbert Zxeilberger, organ
    Herbert Böck, conductor
    Hansler 98327 © 1998 + ℗ 1999 (FMS131)

< Previous page