The Prodigal Blogger returns, after a busy season of holidays and the first month of the New Year have passed!
I am looking forward to the premieres, one at a time, of my new set of organ pieces, Seven Last Words, over the season of Lent. Rob Shuss, organist at Shoregate United Methodist Church in Willowick, my home church, will play a new piece in the set during the 10am worship service at Shoregate. The premiere will stretch through Lent, beginning on Sunday, February 14, continuing every Sunday until Palm Sunday, March 20, and concluding with Good Friday worship on March 25.
I wanted to take a moment to put down a few ideas to help explain the piece, how it is put together, and what it means.
This work was the result of a conversation Pastor Jon Wilterdink and I had about the role of art and music in Christian worship. Shoregate has a strong, diverse musical tradition that incorporates many members of the congregation in both vocal and instrumental music, and the church where I grew up had a similar relationship to music. It is safe to say that much of who I am as a musician was formed in the church, both by participation and by listening to the music of others. At the time of our conversation, Pastor Jon was planning a more music-centered worship for Advent, and wondered if something similar could be done for Lent.
The Lenten season is central to my experience of the Christian faith. The Scriptures for Lent emphasize Jesus’ humanity while at the same time underscoring His divinity, and there is a relentless intensification as the Church once again follows his ministry as it begins in earnest, culminates in triumph and ends in seeming tragedy. I thought immediately of the theme of Christ’s Seven Last Words from the cross, the utterances (not words, but phrases, really) that the various Gospel writers recorded during his public execution.
I thought immediately, too, of Rob Shuss, Shoregate’s wonderful organist, who provides the support for so much of our music making. A set of solo organ pieces would be an opportunity to show his talents and abilities in a new light. It would, also, be a challenge for me as a composer–although I have included organ in music for larger ensembles, and arranged the music of others for organ, these are my first solo organ pieces. Each instrument has its quirks and unique abilities, but organ is special because each instrument has a somewhat unique set of capabilities, and even instruments manufactured to be identical are installed in different locations. A piece for organ, then, will, more so than for other genres, rely much more intently on the skill of the performer to make decisions about the overall sound that will work best on any given instrument. Not being an organist myself, I have made suggestions regarding the registration, or specific sounds to be mixed and blended, but in the end, I have to trust that Rob will work with my notes and Shoregate’s instrument to produce a clear, effective performance.
Since my new work was to be seven pieces, each about 4 minutes long, but spread over 40 days, I looked for ways to organize the entire set and make them coherent and relevant. Each piece is a short meditation on the “word” at hand, and each is influenced by one of the Psalms, which Jesus often quoted and turned to during his agony. But, to ensure that the pieces would not be seven independent pieces bunched together, I found three musical ways to unify the set. If, someday, someone chooses to play all seven pieces in one sitting (which would take about 30 minutes), I hope the work can be heard as a unified whole, more than the sum of its parts.
An overall plan emerged, then, before I had written a note of music. This is not unusual for a composer, and for any large work, one needs to have a road map of sorts in mind. There may be detours along the way, or the journey to a complete piece may end up with a completely different destination, but without an ending in mind, the route will either ramble aimlessly, or simply never leave home. Since there is nothing better for the creative process than a good spreadsheet, I fired up Microsoft Excel and laid out my ideas, one row for each of the seven pieces, and a column for the various Scriptures and attributes I hoped to incorporate.
To hold the seven pieces together musically, I used several devices. First, all seven pieces have the same pitch, C, as their tonic, or musical home base. Each piece, however, uses one of the seven diatonic modes. Without going down the rabbit hole of music theory, a mode is a major scale (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do) that chooses a note other than do as its tonic pitch (home base). At any rate, each piece has C as its home base, but uses a slightly different scale. Over the seven pieces, the modes are organized so that the first piece uses the brightest mode (Lydian) and the last piece uses the darkest mode (Locrian). Each mode has seven pitches, and between any two consecutive pieces, six of those seven pitches are held in common. The result is a gradual shift from light to dark as the tonic pitch remains the same while the other pitches change, symbolizing the progression to the darkest day of the Church calendar, Good Friday. Each piece begins and ends with a cluster of all seven pitches for that mode played at the same time. The cluster is repeated three times, to remind us of the three nails that held Jesus to the cross.
Lastly, each piece is centered around a musical interval–the distance between two pitches. Musicians number these intervals by counting the number of note names involved–a third, for example, might be the notes B and D. Counting those note names and the note C between gives us the name “third.” (Incidentally, we name intervals this way for the same reason that we speak of Jesus rising from the dead on the “third day”–because the Greeks and Romans didn’t have a concept of zero.) I’ve chosen these intervals for their traditional symbolism, and they remind us of various aspects of the Crucifixion.
Here is a summary of all seven pieces:
1. Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do. Luke 23:34. To be performed the First Sunday in Lent (February 14). It uses the Lydian mode (a G-major scale, starting on C), and centers on the interval of the second, symbolizing duality, important here as Christ’s nature as fully man and fully God. It is associated with Psalm 3.
2. Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise. Luke 23:43. For the Second Sunday in Lent (February 21). It uses the Ionian mode (also known as the C-major scale), and emphasizes the interval of the unison (or first), symbolizing unity, the final covenant that God makes with us through the Crucifixion. Is is accompanied by Psalm 62.
3. Dear woman, here is your son… here is your mother. John 19:26-27. For the Third Sunday in Lent (February 28). This piece uses the Mixolydian mode (an F-major scale, starting on C), and focuses on the fourth to represent the church and the imperative that we have to care for each other as if we were born into the same family. Psalm 2 is the reading for this piece.
4. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34. For the Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 6). This piece uses the Dorian mode (a B-flat-major scale, starting on C). This middle piece, using the middle mode, is inspired by the only one of the Seven Last Words to appear in more than one Gospel. Its musical interval is the sixth, symbolizing Satan, and the temptation that is memorialized in the whole Lenten season, and that must have been renewed for Jesus as he hung on the cross. The text is the wrenching Psalm 22, also the source of Jesus’ words.
5. I thirst. John 19:28. For the Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 13). This piece uses the Aeolian mode (also called the C-minor scale). The number five has often been used to symbolize humanity, and since this Last Word underscores Jesus’ own human needs, the interval of the fifth plays a prominent role. Psalm 42 restates this literal thirst as a spiritual thirst.
6. It is finished. John 19:29-30. For Palm Sunday (March 20). The dark Phrygian mode (an A-flat major scale, starting on C) contrasts the triumph of Palm Sunday with the suffering to come. The musical interval of the seventh, symbolizing God, reminds us that what is finished at this moment is not only the man Jesus’ life, but God’s plan to finally redeem his creation. At this central moment of history, it is only fitting to consider Psalm 118, the literal middle book of the Protestant Bible.
7. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. Luke 23:46. For Good Friday (March 25). The darkest mode, Locrian (an D-flat major scale, starting on C) completes the cycle of modes. The interval of the third symbolizes the Trinity, reunited at the moment of Jesus’ death. Psalm 31 provides the accompanying text.
I hope that hearing these pieces through the season of Lent will help you focus your attention on the topics of the season and consider, as I often have, the grandeur and majesty of God’s grace, through Jesus’ suffering as a human being. It is my hope that, after Good Friday, we will feel the depths of that darkest moment, and that Easter will thus be all the brighter for us as we celebrate anew the risen Lord.
 These seven verses have often been a theme for composers over the centuries. The two most famous pieces are Théodore Dubois’ oratorio Les sept paroles du Christ, an 1867 work for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra; and Hadyn’s Die Worte des Erlösers am Kreuze, in versions for orchestra, orchestra with chorus, and string quartet, from 1786. Both pieces last over an hour in full performance, and I take some inspiration from them, but neither piece is really my model for Seven Last Words.
 If you want to know more about modes, here’s a pretty good YouTube video about it.