Witnessing Passion Lecture by Prof. Mark Vuorinen

Monday, November 18, 2019

passionWatch the complete lecture on video on YouTube

The following is a brief excerpt from the 2019 Benjamin Eby Lecture “Witnessing Passion: Musical depiction of minor characters in Passion music by Bach, Ešenvalds, MacMillan and Pärt,” given by Music Professor Mark Vuorinen on October 10, 2019. 

The Passion accounts in the four canonical gospels are full of witnesses to the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Christ. Often, their presence is distilled into a single line of text. In musical settings of the Passion, that single line of text might result in just a single measure of music, yet their presence as eye-witnesses is absolutely essential. 

What is it that draws composers to consider the Passion narrative as a source for musical inspiration? In an increasingly secular society how do audiences encounter this story? And what can we learn from the actions of those biblical bystanders, who, in the words of the old African-American spiritual, “were there when they crucified my Lord”?

To help answer these questions, I began to think about how the bystanders in the passions relate to the story. Are they like extras on the set of an evolving narrative, waiting for their moment on camera, and a fleeting two minutes of screen-time? Some of them have lines. But many do not. Some are noted only by their presence; a short walk-on, an interaction with other players, before taking their leave. The musical characterization of the Passion’s minor characters (and here the old adage “There are no small roles” is apt) are embedded in the works of Bach and of the other composers whose music is under consideration in this lecture. In some instances, it is the musical material itself that overlays a characterization, an interpretation, or a subtle interaction, on or with a bystander, which like Joseph of Arimathea in Perugino’s painting Lamentation over the Dead Christ, might otherwise go unnoticed. In other examples, the interpolation of non-narrative text serves to slow the scene down, offering a window, like an aside, into the thoughts of the players on the stage. They are the reminder that this divine story is also rooted in our humanity. 

Watch the complete lecture:

Watch video on YouTube

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