What do shadows sound like?

What do shadows sound like? March 31, 2021

Sometimes words are not enough – especially when we contemplate the great mysteries of our faith, like Christ’s crucifixion. That’s when we need music.

As we commemorate Good Friday, I offer my choral work Tenebrae factae sunt.  It is a dark and dissonant musical setting of some Jesus’s final words from the cross.

It’s not an easy piece to listen to. But then again, its words are not either.

Last year I wrote about this piece in an article for The Biblical Mind:

“In this piece tried to capture the fear, pain, and utter desolation of Jesus during the moments of his death.  I started by establishing a dark, sinister mood by asking the choir to sing a wordless passage heavily spiked with dissonances.  To set the text “There was darkness over all the earth,” I gave the altos and tenors moaning, sinewy melodies that snake around each other unpredictably. This passage calls to mind a Gregorian chant whose beauty has been warped by pain and dissonance. When the biblical author turns our attention to Jesus, I set the words “And Jesus cried out in a loud voice” using a fugue whose tumult dramatizes the anguish in his voice.

“These disparate layers of the music only come together when Jesus finally cries out in utter desperation, “My God.”  Yet at the moment the music suddenly pauses, and I set the Jesus’s phrase “Why hast though forsaken me?” in quiet and surprisingly consonant music. I chose these contrasting moods to illustrate Jesus’s twin natures as both man and God: the terrified cry to God coming from his human nature, and the humble, accepting second phrase revealing his understanding of God’s purpose.”

I offer this piece as a means of contemplating the central mystery of Holy Week. The text below. You can listen  to the world-premiere recording here.

There was darkness over all the earth.

Then Jesus cried out in a loud voice:

“My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

There was darkness over all the earth.

Then Jesus cried out in a loud voice:

“Father, into thy hands I commend my sprit.”

And he gave up his ghost.

– Matthew 27:46, Luke 24: 44-46, KJV


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