A ‘strange white light’

'The Three Crosses', Rembrandt

I'm taking some moments out from the renumerative industry of defining wp_query loops in WordPress to write a brief post about something somewhat unrelated.

As ever, to mark Holy Week, there's been quite a bit of Bach on the radio, mainly the St Matthew and St John Passions. Certainly nothing wrong with that (and I'm looking forward to John Elliot Gardiner's BBC documentary on the great man this Saturday).

I thought I'd mention another musical account of Christ's final days that I've appreciated very much since its release two or three years back: a recording of Frank Martin's oratorio Golgotha, directed by Daniel Reuss.

The oratorio was composed by Martin during the 1940s, after he encountered Rembrandt's engraving The Three Crosses, a stark depiction of the crucifixion. In Martin's words:

One sees there a strange white light falling vertically on a dark world where, beneath the three crosses on which Jesus and the thieves are dying, a host of figures appear fixed in a sort of prostration. In the first states of this etching, they even seem to turn away from the drama that is taking place. In the final state, Rembrandt turned them round so that they appear to be looking at the crosses; but perhaps they are even more fixed in their contemplation than they were when the seemed to be trying to run away. This is probably Rembrandt's most powerful work, or at any rate the one in which his mind is most directly engaged. On this small surface of paper we see the moment in world history were the fundamental incompatibility that exists between our material world and the world of the spirit was most dazzlingly manifested.

Though he had misgivings about working in the shadow of Bach, Martin was inspired to seek to communicate something of the essence of that 'strange white light', and began work on Golgotha soon after:

My aim was to re-enact the sacred drama before my listeners, and above all to evoke the divine person of Christ… true to my initial concept, given to me by Rembrandt's etching, I sought to concentrate all the light on the person of Christ, leaving all the other protagonists in the shadows.

I feel scarcely qualified to comment on this intense music: I can only say that, for me, it evokes that pure, brilliant brightness, the sun outlined behind shifting clouds.

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