Music: Modern Passions

Religious oratorios would hardly seem to be the musical medium of our times, but they are cropping up with a persistence that invites attention. In April, I wrote of American composer John Adams’s new Christmas composition, El Nino, a deeply flawed but fascinating attempt to come to terms with the 21st-century remnants of Christian faith. Now some of the fruits of a “Passion 2000” project from conductor Helmut Rilling and the International Bachakademie Stuttgart, commemorating the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, are available from the Hanssler Classics label. Two of the four oratorios so far available, from Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina and Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, illustrate the benefits and problems of trying to sustain this religious form in an increasingly secular age. Another current release, from Musikszene Schweiz, of Frank Martin’s Le Mystere de la Nativite, reminds us that even in the heart of the 20th century, great religious music was being written, if not recognized.

Gubaidulina’s new oratorio, St. John Passion, is an affirmation of Pope John Paul II’s prediction that the West may be re-Christianized by the East. Her aim is nothing less than “an attempt at revealing the Word of God, which has come to us and is living within us.” I have found much of Gubaidulina’s previous work musically incomprehensible. What I know about her—for example, that her work received Shostakovitch’s sponsorship and that it is motivated by religious convictions—makes me think that this is probably my problem. Still, I cannot imagine that the average listener would know what is going on in much of her work. No such problem exists with this Passion. Gubaidulina’s language is quite accessible, even conventional. She deploys a large orchestra, with pealing bells and chimes, four vocal soloists, and a large chorus. She breaks with the Orthodox ritual by using instruments and dramatizing the Passion text, for which there is no tradition in Russian church services. Indeed, the level of dramatic engagement is a far cry from the iconic, meditative detachment that even Rachmaninov used in his liturgical works.

Though it employs relatively conventional means, this engaging work is by no means easy to listen to. It is riveting, even harrowing, because it speaks of the Last Things. The Passion text from St. John is interspersed with sections from Revelation. “The entire chronology of this story,” Gubaidulina explains, “can be truly seen, heard and understood only if you have the image of the enlightened vision of the end (eschatology) behind you, the image of the last Judgment.” Terrifying eruptions of timpani and outbursts of brass bring the listener close to that Day of Dread. Gubaidulina here attempts an intersection of the temporal and the timeless and comes astonishingly close to succeeding.

The vocal and choral writing is extremely impressive, with maximum use of the famous Russian basses. Curiously, some of the male vocal writing reminded me of the Peter Grimes arias from the opera of the same name by Benjamin Britten, one of Shostakovitch’s favorite composers. Valery Gergiev conducts a breathtaking performance with the St. Petersburger Kammerchor, Chorus, and Orchestra from the Mariinsky Theaters. Gubaidulina’s St. John Passion amply repays repeated attention and may establish itself as a landmark.

Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasion Segun San Marcos is as ridiculous as Gubaidulina’s Passion is profound. Golijov is an Argentinean-Jewish composer of Russian heritage who has studied in Israel and the United States. In his setting of St. Mark’s Passion, he incorporates popular folk and dance idioms from Latin America and elsewhere. He is obviously a composer of talent—there are several undeniably beautiful sections, especially “The Eucharist” and “Colorless Moon: Aria of Peter’s Tears”—but I have rarely encountered such a breathtaking mismatch of musical means and expressive ends. After the excruciating hours spent listening to this work, I have to conclude that Golijov did not understand the ends at all. Indeed, he states, “I don’t have a theological burden here.”

If one is enamored with the tango, mambo, rhumba, bossa nova, and flamenco, one might have an agreeable enough experience listening to this music. But without the text, no one would ever guess that it is a setting of the Passion. This work made me think of the parody Masses of the Renaissance, in which composers would appropriate secular tunes and transform them for liturgical purposes. Here, however, the street idioms are not transformed; they take over and produce a multicultural disaster. Predictably for anything dumbed down to this extent, La Pasion Segun San Marcos has been hailed as “the first indisputably great composition of the 21st century” (Boston Globe). Sorry, but I cannot salsa down the via dolorosa.

What a difference faith makes. It was the very character of Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Christian faith that shaped his music. For Christmas 1959, Martin composed an hour-and-40-minute oratorio called Le Mystere de la Nativite. It contains some of the sweetest, most faith-filled music I have heard. Martin barely eluded the clutches of the major musical gear-stripper of the 20th century, Arnold Schoenberg, under whose influence he fell for a period. Escaping from what he described as the “iron straight jacket” of Schoenberg’s dodecaphony, Martin went on to write some of the most profound religious music of our time.

In Le Mystere, Martin chose a lyrical, deliberately naive, and occasionally archaic style to capture the spirit of a medieval mystery play written by Arnoul Greban around 1450. The character of this work calls to mind the carved wooden panels found around the exterior of the apse and choir walls of many medieval cathedrals. It is as if these medieval bas-reliefs had suddenly sprung to life musically, though in a 20th-century idiom. However, the idiom is not Martin’s usual chromaticism. He said that in Le Mystere he “used a very bare and entirely diatonic musical language for the celestial world.” For the scenes in hell, a nearly atonal language expresses the diabolical cacophony (though the devils are more redolent of Punch and Judy than Milton).

Greban’s Passion play consists of 35,000 verses, most of them in rhymed couplets. (Greban apparently never suffered from writer’s block; his next mystery play contained 60,000 verses.) Martin extracted twelve scenes that neatly encapsulate salvation history up to the Presentation in the Temple. “I have been inspired by stained glass windows to divide into twelve separate scenes my Mystere de la Nativite, several of which combine two or three consecutive events,” Martin said. After a prologue set in heaven, we are shown devils rejoicing in hell at the arrival of the first human souls; Adam and Eve in limbo, anxiously wondering, “When com’st Thou, sweetest Messiah?” and then God sending Gabriel to Mary. The remaining scenes take us from the Annunciation to the Presentation.

Both the text and the music have that special kind of innocence, intimacy, and sense of spiritual reality that only those with true faith possess. The setting of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary is one great love song, as are Mary’s first words to the newborn Jesus. If Mary sang to her Newborn, it must have been with music like this. And could the shepherds have heard anything more beautiful than what Gabriel sings to them here? Simeon’s longing to see the Messiah could not be more beautifully and poignantly expressed, or the celebration at His arrival more joyously conveyed. Le Mystere is a work of true radiance, a rare masterpiece of the spirit. It shines inwardly throughout. Martin must have had the soul of a child to write something this pure.

Several years ago, the Swiss label Cascavelle released the first available recording of this masterpiece on a two-CD set that includes a shorter oratorio, Pilate (VEL 2006). The 1959 mono sound of the live premier performance, with star soloists and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, under Ernest Ansermet, was a little murky, so it is now a great joy to have a modern stereo recording from Musikszene Schweiz (available through Qualiton Import). The new recording was taped live in 2000 at a concert performance in Lucerne, with the Akademiechor Luzern, Madchenchor in VOICE, and the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, under Alois Koch. In most respects, it is superb. Unfortunately, the text is only in French and German, and soprano Barbara Locher comes nowhere near to eclipsing the radiant performance of Elly Ameling in the key role of Mary in the Cascavelle recording. In any case, you should not be without this work, and you can purchase this recording with confidence.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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