Composing the Passion – Sibelius Review companion piece

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by Collin Makariak

There are few, if any, moments in history more significant than the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the very essence on which our faith in God and salvation is based. When I was first approached about doing a review of the Sibelius composing software, while composing an original piece for Easter, I was excited.

I wanted to create something unique, and set out to compose a two-movement piece that shares my vision of the Passion, from the perspective of the apostles and those closest to Jesus. It is my opinion that a lot of the music written about The Passion in the past under represents the feelings and emotions of the apostles themselves; the sadness, confusion and despair they must have felt when Jesus was arrested and crucified, followed by the elation and joy upon seeing Him again after His resurrection.

One of the most important things to consider when composing is instrumentation. The mood of a piece can be completely changed depending on which instruments composers use to play their music.  I decided the first movement, depicting the death of Christ, would feature violin, cello, piano and harp because these can attain the bittersweet emotion I was trying to capture. In addition, the harp has been a popular instrument since the dawn of civilization; and is often mentioned in the Bible during times of celebration. By using the harp in the first movement of the composition – The Passion – I was able to keep that Biblical reference point, but instead of using it as celebration, I used it to convey a deep sense of melancholy and mourning, along with the cello and violin.

The opening movement is in D Dorian. Dorian scales are the brightest of the minor church modes. The Passion was a violent time in Jesus’ life, and a sorrowful event for the apostles and his other followers. The opening theme in the piano is supposed to show the grief felt by those close to Jesus as he was being crucified. The violin and harp are introduced shortly into the piano introduction. The harp mimics the melodic line from the piano opening, but as an accompanying line running underneath the rest of the piece.  The violin represents the women; Mary, his mother, Mary Magdalene, and others – the higher tones of the violin line ably express  their grief and remorse for Jesus’ death.  When the cello line comes in, it represents the male apostles; trying to support the grief of the women, while at the same time expressing their own sorrow during the crucifixion.

Although the events of the Passion are upsetting, the death of Christ was necessary for the rest of mankind who fall short of God’s standard. Without the death and resurrection mankind would have no means of being restored in God’s eyes. It was important to not just emphasize the negatives of the Passion, but also the hope it brought to all who believe and accept the gospel. Towards the end of the song, the violin takes on the melodic line presented by the cello. By expanding the melodic line to the higher toned violin, a glimmer of understanding is added to the piece, which is further showcased by the piano-only ending, which transforms from the principal key of D Dorian to an ending key of D major.  This key change serves to transform the sadder tones heard in the melodic ideas early in the piece to those of the hope of salvation Jesus’ death promised.

The second movement – The Resurrection – is much more upbeat and joyous. It starts with the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after the Crucifixion, and is written for solo piano. I chose this because the timbre of the upper register of the piano suits the joyous, yet almost disbelieving, sound I needed.  The principal key is F Lydian, as this mode provides the bright sound I was looking for, while the Dorian scales used throughout provide the harmonic basis for large sections of the piece. I felt by using this harmonic relationship, I would be able to capture the sense of celebration, joy and disbelief Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome (Gospel of Mark) must have felt as they discovered the empty tomb, and were given the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.

Near the end of the piece, the first theme moves to the left hand, while the right hand takes on the accompanying line representing many voices raised in joyous celebration as Jesus meets his followers one last time before his ascension to heaven to sit at God’s right hand. The ending of the piece, which moves up harmonically in minor thirds during the last few bars of The Resurrection represent the ascension.

While both pieces initially sound unrelated, there is a theme carried throughout.  The violin and cello in the first piece present the same harmonic progression that runs through the opening sections of the second piece, and are made joyful. Both D Dorian and F Lydian keys use exactly the same pitches and the only exception is that the first starts on D, and the second on F, which makes a huge difference in the character and tone of the pieces.

Representing the grief and the joy felt by Jesus’ followers during both the crucifixion and resurrection was important to me. Being able to flesh out the emotions they must have felt allows us to share these emotions with them, echoing down through the centuries, to the joyful culmination of the resurrection, which fully reveals God’s love for us made manifest.

Collin Makariak is a composition student at Acadia University and plays piano and sings in the choir and with the men’s quartet at Wolfville Baptist Church, in Wolfville, NS. To read his full review of Avid’s Sibelius Software in our March 2018 issue, click here.