On April 9, the 150 singers and 21 string players of the Masterwork Festival Chorus and the New York City Chamber Orchestra took the Isaac Pearlman stage in Carnegie Hall in New York City to perform The Seven Last Words of Christ, a 45-minute, eight-movement work by Bellarmine composer-in-residence Richard Burchard. It was the first time he had heard one of his pieces sung at Carnegie Hall, which has been the theater all musicians aspire to since it opened in 1891.
I’m fortunate to have had my music performed in a number of amazing venues around the world—cathedrals, concert halls, theaters. I knew Carnegie Hall would be special, but I admit, I was not prepared for how magical the space is. It’s not only beautiful, but the acoustics are perfect; every subtle musical gesture could be heard.
As a classical choral composer, text is very important to me. While I tend to set texts that aren’t generally familiar to the music world, there are other texts, such as The Seven Last Words, that have inspired composers throughout history. In setting this text about the crucifixion, my intent was to capture my
connection to the story, evoking emotions of love, fear, sorrow, hope, betrayal, agony and ecstasy.
The Seven Last Words is darkness; it is light. “Daughters weep not for me” imagines the story from the vantage point of Angels, setting a somber tone that transitions to the dirge-like treatment of the First Word. This is the procession to Calvary, as Jesus implores God, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”His cries of suffering are intertwined with moments of serenity. The music depicts his fragility and devotion, his confusion and disorientation, as if he is drifting in and out of consciousness: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Second Word) and “My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Fourth Word).
Equally powerful is his mother’s anguish. She is helpless and destitute, racked with pain and grief as she bears witness to her son’s destiny: “Woman, behold thy son” (Third Word). The remaining movements reveal desperation, “Thirst” (Fifth Word); the inevitable, “It is finished” (Sixth Word); and hope in a situation of despair as Jesus hangs his head and says, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Seventh Word).
The musicians were on point the entire evening. The singing and playing were expressive, sensitive and emotional. It was the kind of performance that every composer dreams of, and that night was definitely one of the highlights of my career.
Hear the full work—which Marty Rosen, classical music writer and critic for Louisville’s LEO Weekly, described as “filled with solemn, sweeping grandeur”—at www.richardburchard.com.
By Richard Burchard