I suspect that it is timely that the musical settings for the Gospel Passions be discussed in the wake of the approaching Season of Lent and the contemporaneous release of Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, The Passion of the Christ
. For the uninitiated, the story of the torture and death of Jesus Christ has been an artistic subject since it occurred in ca. 30 A.C.E. While not strictly liturgical music pertaining to the Roman Catholic Mass or Prayers, it is nevertheless high choral in nature and a popular subject for composition, even today.
Johann Sebastian Bach composed Passions for all four biblical accounts. Other notable Passion composers include Heinrich Schütz, George Frideric Handel, Georg Philipp Telemann, Arvo Pärt, and Krzysztof Penderecki. The latter composer’s 1965 St. Luke Passion is enjoying a recent resurgence and is featured here.
Polish-born Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) has been one of the most important and listened to choral composers of the late 20th Century. In 1964, the composer was commissioned by West German Radio to compose a large-scale choral piece to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the consecration of Munster Cathedral in Ulm Germany. Penderecki wrote this important work just eight years after completing his formal composition studies at the Kraków State Academy of Music.
The full title of the work is Passio et Mors Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Secundum Lucam (The Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to St. Luke) for 3 voices, narrator, choruses & orchestra. It is scored for huge forces: solo soprano, baritone, bass, and speaker; three mixed choruses; a boys' choir; full orchestra without oboe or clarinet but including saxophones; full percussion, including a vast array of instruments. The text is a setting of St. Luke's account of the Passion and also includes some psalms, Latin hymns, and other liturgical texts.
Penderecki's Passion is part of the grand tradition of the Passion exemplified by Bach's St. John and St. Matthew Passions. The St. Luke Passion's most notable Bach-inspired characteristics are its two-part structure and its alternation of narration singing. A speaker, juxtaposed against an orchestral backdrop, moves along the narrative. Soloists sing the dramatic roles of Christ, Pilate, Peter, and the Maiden. Penderecki borrows his own Stabat Mater (composed in 1962) and employs Gregorian chant-like fragments and manipulations of the B-A-C-H motif. The composer also uses 12-tone rows in the manner of the Second Viennese School, typified by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. Instead of an overarching tonal framework, Penderecki elects to use notes as tonal centers, surrounding them with melodic fragments, chord clusters, and dense textures bordering on heterogeneous racket.
With the orchestration plainly Wagnerian and avant-garde 20th Century harmonies seasoned with Gregorian sensibilities, this performance can be a bit disconcerting. Penderecki composes into this Passion all of the angst, fear, brutality, and violence. The composition is uniformly dark with minor key and dissonant cries and groans.
This is disturbing music, majestic as Bach’s in scope but also ruthlessly honest and terrifying. Much of the mood recalls Prokofiev’s score for Romeo and Juliet. This is not music for the casual classical music listener who might expect well-behaved bach, Haydn, or Mozart. No, Penderecki yells at the listener, trying to grab attention, trying to convey the horror and Grace of the subject.