Artistic depictions of Christ’s gory crucifixion and glorious resurrection have long functioned as important multisensory experiences for Christians. According to Swiss musicologist and pianist Kurt von Fischer, the earliest report of sung New Testament crucifixion narratives comes from “the pilgrim Egeria who visited Jerusalem in the 4th century and described the services held there during Holy Week.” These chanted gospel passages eventually blossomed into the Passion, a large-scale musical work featuring the words of Jesus, his mother, his accusers, and the men and women who followed him.
When people think of musical Passions today, they probably think of Lutheran composer Johann Sebastian Bach, whose musical works are the gold standard for Western religious art. But these aural feasts from the 18th century are not the only ones worth incorporating into your Easter celebrations. In fact, there are many living composers who have offered musical meditations on Christ’s passion. Here are six significant Passions (or passion-themed works) created in recent years.
1. The Passion of Yeshua, Richard Danielpour
Richard Danielpour’s music reflects the influence of Leonard Bernstein and the mid-20th-century American composers who sought to differentiate their music from that of their European counterparts by tackling the stories and sounds of the American landscape. For Danielpour, this means integrating rhythmic elements from jazz and popular music (he claims the Beatles as an early influence) alongside exploration of his own Persian cultural roots. Danielpour brings empathy and pristine lyrical writing to his Grammy-winning epic The Passion of Yeshua (watch a selection below). The ominous waves and Middle Eastern inflections in the work’s prologue immediately establish both the universal and local aspects of Jesus’s story—born in poverty to an oppressed people, unjustly crucified, and eventually hailed as King of kings.
2. La Pasión Según San Marcos, Osvaldo Golijov
Born to Jewish immigrants from Europe, Osvaldo Golijov grew up in Argentina and Israel, then moved to the United States to study composition. His influences range from klezmer and Jewish liturgical music to Latin American dances and Middle Eastern songs. Commissioned by the Bach Academy in Stuttgart, Germany, for the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death, Golijov’s La Pasión Según San Marcos (“St. Mark’s Passion”) is a Spanish-language reimagination of the passion narrative in Latin American terms. The work includes a groovy salsa tune, “¿Por Qué?” (watch below), centering on the woman who anointed Christ’s feet with perfume (Mark 14:3–9). Golijov’s use of a dance tune seems odd, but the jubilant community formed between the lead singer, choir, and rhythm section perhaps foreshadows the celebratory “end” of Christ’s work. Later, “Agonía” features a lonely accordion followed by weeping vocal swells, depicting the vulnerability and humanity of Christ’s obedience in Gethsemane.
3. The Passion of the Christ Symphony, John Debney
Shivers ran up my spine upon first hearing the driving percussion and fortissimo ascending choir lines of John Debney’s “Resurrection” track in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (watch below). For this score, Debney augments the orchestra and choir with Middle Eastern instruments, resulting in an earthy sonic offering that fittingly accompanies the dark psychological bent of this torturous film. Because film scores enhance the moving images to tell a story, they’re sometimes less engaging when heard on their own. This is not the case with Debney’s Passion soundtrack—which, like Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings and John Williams’s Star Wars music, has become a concert work. Regarding this work and how it might differ from other films he scored (Elf, Iron Man 2, The Jungle Book), Debney says, “Yes, [it is different] because I happen to be of the faith. So for me, it was very personal.”
4. Johannes-Passion, Sofia Gubaidulina
I have previously compared Gubaidulina’s visceral music to the jarring images of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. In fact, film composers today (especially those scoring horror films) are indebted to the highly dissonant sounds pioneered by 20th-century composers like Gubaidulina. The frightening opening of her Passion (watch below) underscores the awesome opening lines of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God” (John 1:1), which are also used to powerful effect in the work’s conclusion. Her use of the traditional pipe organ brings a centuries-old instrument associated with Christian worship into the concert hall. Even the lighter portions, like her sparkling “Liturgy in Heaven,” are intense. Gubaidulina is not interested in softening the edges of the crucifixion. She instead invites listeners to the foot of the cross where the sounds, sights, and smells of the dying Lamb of God are made plain and personal. It’s an invitation to contemplate the terrifying beauty of the cross.
5. Simeron, Ivan Moody
Over the past 25 years, Ivan Moody has created musical offerings heard in both churches and concert halls around the world. In 2014, Moody was visionary-in-residence at Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and Arts, cohosted with the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers. “When Augustus Reigned” and “Akathistos Hymn” both incorporate Byzantine chant into modern musical textures, resulting in music that is rooted yet fresh. When asked to write a new work to accompany Arvo Pärt’s “Stabat Mater” (a 13th-century poem about the crucifixion from Mary’s perspective), the result was Simeron (Greek for “today”), an intimate piece that juxtaposes extremely quiet music with loud blistering dissonance (watch below). The result is an otherworldly soundscape that seems equally immanent and transcendent, perhaps reflective of the “fully man, fully God” view of Christ that Moody affirms. As Moody says in the program notes from Simeron, the repeated word “today” functions both as a musical pillar and as a means of emphasizing the “present reality of the events of the passion and resurrection of Christ.”
6. St. John Passion, James MacMillan
James MacMillan—who I’ve previously discussed—has already written two Passions (St. Luke and St. John) and a host of crucifixion- and resurrection-themed works performed around the world, including “O Radiant Dawn,” “Seven Last Words from the Cross,” and “Kiss on Wood.” Instead of the fire and fury of some Passions, MacMillan’s St. John Passion (watch a selection below) opens with modal recitative-like music, as if a story told by a band of medieval troubadours. MacMillan’s music sounds otherworldly but familiar—deeply spiritual and ethereal, yet planted firmly in the mud and muck of our world. In this sense, MacMillan manages to create music that is fully human, reflecting our locatedness and finitude, without giving these the final word. Perhaps this is the truth that a Passion illuminates—a harsh road to the cross that culminates in the magnificent mystery of an empty tomb.