One of the best-known dramas of all time is the setting for the latest work by composer and conductor Dr. René Clausen.
The work grapples with intrigue, loss, betrayal, love and forgiveness through “The Passion of Jesus Christ.”
“On a number of levels, the idea of setting the Passion of Christ is an intimidating project,” Clausen says. “Especially when the master himself, Johann Sebastian Bach, wrote both the 'St. Matthew Passion' and the 'St. John Passion,' which are masterpieces.”
Clausen says throughout the creative process it was a good reminder that his work didn’t need to and shouldn’t mimic Bach’s “Passion.” Clausen steered away from the baroque language and drew on new techniques to bring the story alive. “I had to realize, don’t try to be Bach. Use the language that you know and at the same time, learn, push yourself. Grow. Move toward newer ideas compositionally that you may have not used,” Clausen says.
The piece, which premieres April 8 and 9 in Minneapolis and Moorhead respectively, is the longest work Clausen has created. A prolific composer of shorter works, Clausen says when shaping the architecture of the piece he was careful not to fall back on his usual composition style.
“When you are writing a larger work,” Clausen says, “it would be tempting to make that a series of 14 or 15 anthems and that was a challenge for me. I’ve written a lot of shorter length works, but now we are talking about an hour-long composition, which always has to carry the narrative forward and the dramatic action forward.”
While drawing heavily upon the text of Matthew, Clausen also worked with Dr. Roy Hammerling, a professor in the religion department, to create some monologues of the inner tensions that characters in the Passion are feeling.
“Roy is a gifted poet,” Clausen says. “What I wanted to have from him was more of the reflective part. He comes up with some wonderful imagery and very emotion-laden poetry and text that I think is somewhat unusual. And that’s what I wanted – to bring a 21st-century perspective to this.”
The work, made possible through a gift from John and Veronna Capone, comes at a special time in the life of the college and the church.
“This is Concordia’s 125th anniversary and we are coming up on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation,” Clausen says. “The combination of those events and the opportunity to create a new piece of art that could both celebrate the college and our Lutheran heritage was too tempting to pass up.”
And while most Passions end very close to the scene in which Jesus Christ is crucified, Clausen takes us to the more hopeful moment when Jesus appears to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus after His resurrection.
“I’ve created a new choral setting of that road to Emmaus story with the words, ‘Stay with us for quickly falls the evening.’ And at the end of the movement Christ comes back to say what he said at the end of Matthew which is, ‘Lo, I am with you always.’ So it comes to a gentle ending, with Christ saying, ‘I will be with you.’”
Amy Kelly '95 is the college communications and media relations director for Concordia.