Hebrew, Latin, Greek : for soloists, SSAATTBB choir, organ and obbligato double bass
by Elliott Gyger (2002)
From the CD Live performance recordings, 2000-2002
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Score & Part
Hebrew, Latin, Greek : for soloists, SSAATTBB choir, organ and obbligato double bass / by Elliott Gyger.
Library shelf no. 782.554/GYG 1 [Available for loan]
Hebrew, Latin, Greek (2002)
I - Hypodeigma
II - Niglathah
III - Illuminatio
In chapter 19 of John's Gospel, we are told that Pilate had an inscription put above Jesus' head on the cross - "Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews" - and that the inscription was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. It is fascinating to speculate how this inscription might have been intended and/or read by speakers of each language. Latin was the language of the imperial Roman authority under which Jesus was crucified. The accusation against a crucified criminal was customarily displayed above the victim's head; but being "King of the Jews" seems a rather strange crime, and in any case it isn't what Jesus is accused of by the Jewish leaders. Pilate is the first person to introduce the phrase. He believes that Jesus is innocent, but is too weak to oppose the crowd's push for his destruction; labeling him "King of the Jews" - that is, a potential leader of resistance to Roman rule - creates a credible justification for his execution. To a Hebrew-speaking Jew, by contrast, the label would come across as a cruel taunt, aimed not only at Jesus himself, whose "kingship" does not protect him from the most ignominious death, but also at the Jewish authorities who brought him to trial (and who are quick to object to Pilate's wording). That the "King of the Jews" should be a "Nazarene" - from the outlying region of Galilee, rather than the Jewish heartland of Judæa - adds insult to injury. Greek was the language of merchants and travelers, including many Jewish families from all over the eastern Mediterranean who had returned to live in Jerusalem, but it was also to become the language of most early Christians (including the author of John's Gospel). To them, Pilate's inscription was also an unwitting acknowledgment of the true, divine kingship of Christ, revealed fully in the Resurrection and again at the end of time.
Over the first few centuries of Christianity, the status of the three languages themselves was to shift. The spoken Hebrew and Greek of Jesus' time became enshrined as the original languages of divine revelation, while Latin underwent a remarkable transformation from tool of imperial persecution to vehicle of Scripture and liturgy. For at least one medieval theologian, Isidore of Seville, the fact that Hebrew, Greek, and Latin were the three sacred languages of the Church was directly attributable to their presence in the inscription on the cross. They can also symbolize the past, present, and future phases of the history of salvation as seen from the vantage point of Jesus' earthly life: Hebrew represents the past of his tradition and upbringing, and the prophecies he is understood to fulfill; Greek is the common coin of his own time and place, in which his ideas and influence first take root; while Latin points to the future ascendancy of the Western Church and its rich theological, liturgical, and artistic traditions.
In Hebrew, Latin, Greek (2002) I have taken Pilate's trilingual inscription as the starting point for a triptych of meditations on the identity of Jesus, as revealed in texts from the liturgy of the Easter Triduum. Hypodeigma sets most of the Gospel reading from Holy Thursday, the narration of Jesus washing his disciples' feet (John 13), in Greek. Niglathah makes use of the opening verses of the Suffering Servant Song from Isaiah (52:13-53:3) in Hebrew, the Old Testament reading for Good Friday. The final piece, Illuminatio, sets a few passages from the original Latin of the Easter Proclamation, a wonderful, joyous text chanted near the beginning of the Easter Vigil. The text of the inscription itself appears in each movement in the relevant language, functioning as a kind of refrain, but wildly different in mood on each appearance.
The first movement begins with a solemn chordal setting of the inscription. All the later settings are variations of the same musical idea, while more elaborate transformations provide the material for the work as a whole. After this opening, the Gospel text describes Jesus with his disciples, a friend among friends, but simultaneously a complete mystery to them. The first half of the movement centers on the dialogue between Peter (impetuous entries for the chorus) and Jesus at his most enigmatic (interweaving solo lines). After an aggressive, fugue-like passage describing Judas' betrayal, the return of the inscription ushers in a final section unraveling the earlier tensions, as Jesus explains the meaning of his actions to the disciples.
While the Old Testament is usually taken for granted as part of Christian tradition, a return to the original Hebrew language serves as a useful reminder of its origins and continuing existence as a non-Christian sacred document. In approaching the extraordinary words of Isaiah, interpreted by Christians as a searing prophecy of Jesus' crucifixion, I could not help but wonder uncomfortably how Jews feel about the Christian reading of the text - especially in light of the centuries of Christian persecution of Jews, collectively held responsible for Jesus' death. The result is a setting which attempts to dramatize the tension between Isaiah's words and their Christian interpretation, by superimposing on the Hebrew poetry a musical structure based on the Stations of the Cross. In this structure the role of the suffering Jesus is played not by the baritone soloist (who functions rather as a cantor-cum-Evangelist), but by an obbligato double bass, while other characters (Mary, Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, the women of Jerusalem) are played by the chorus. The refrain/inscription is heard three times: once broken up among the supporting cast, then spat out violently as Jesus is crucified, and finally as a peaceful epitaph over the tomb.
The last movement, although musically elaborate, is the most straightforward dramatically, celebrating the kingship of the resurrected Jesus and the reconciliation in him of the human and the divine. A trio of female voices symbolizes both the three women who discover the empty tomb, and the angelic choir of the opening lines of the text. The first section is a gradual build-up, accumulating layers of text and music in a joyous hubbub. A turbulent central section depicts Jesus' victory over death, with the words of the inscription ringing out triumphantly in the solo voices. After a radiant a cappella passage on the text "the night will shine like day: the night will be my light, my joy," the closing pages evoke a completely new world: the organ becomes a dawn chorus of birds, while the vocal entries are delicate and gentle, seamlessly interweaving the liturgical text and that of the inscription.
Hebrew, Latin, Greek was written for Jennifer Lester and the Seraphim Singers, who gave the first performance on February 24, 2002, at St Paul Catholic Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Instrumentation: Vocal soloists, SSAATTBB choir, organ, double bass.
Duration: 27 min.
Difficulty: Advanced — Professional.
Contents note: I. Hypodeigma -- II. Niglathah -- III. Illuminatio.
Text taken from the Bible - Gospel of John ; Isiah ; and the Easter Proclamation.
- In the form/style of: Easter Music
Performances of this work
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