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On Using Silence to Structure 'Via Crucis'

I’m delighted to announce that Via Crucis will be premiered by The Handful Chamber Choir on the 19th of March in Bath. More information on that here.

In 2019 I was delighted to win a composition competition to write a piece for The Handful Chamber Choir’s concert. The piece was to be performed alongside Allegri’s Miserere and James Macmillan’s Miserere, both well-known and well-loved Lenten works.[1] I had been considering setting the stations of the cross (also known as the Via Crucis) for some time, and this competition seemed to be an excellent opportunity to write the piece.


The Text

The Via Crucis (also known as the stations of the cross) are a series of images depicting Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion, with a simple descriptive text beside it. Usually, a series of fourteen images is displayed along a path and people travel along it, stopping at each station to reflect on the depiction of each event depicted. This path can be undertaken individually or in a group; the most common time to complete the Via Crucis is during the season of Lent. It is in widespread use in many churches, including Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and Roman Catholic.[2]


Identifying themes within the text

The object of the Via Crucis is to help people make a spiritual pilgrimage though contemplation, allowing time for silence and reflection. In setting the Via Crucis, I wanted to maintain this spirit of silence, procession, reflection and seeking of forgiveness. I decided to investigate similar meditative practices to inform the composition.


The Lectio Divina

Whilst looking at various different meditative practices, I came upon the four stages of the Lectio Divina. The Lectio Divina is a traditional monastic practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer. The first two stages involve absorbing and thinking about the reading and the second two involve a response to that reading. The first step, called ‘Lectio’ is the reading of Scripture, perhaps several times.[3] The second stage, ‘Meditatio’, involves silent meditating upon and pondering on the scriptural passage.[4] The third stage, ‘Oratio’, is a vocalised prayer. The final stage, ‘Contemplatio’, is a silent prayer.[5]


Using Silence to Structure Via Crucis

I found this approach to meditative prayer compelling. It has a similar meditative approach to the procession of the Via Crucis around a given space and allows for silent breaks of reflection. The musical structure of the piece was therefore based around the four stages of the Lectio Divina. Between each individual station, there is a period of silence. If the work is used in a liturgical context, this allows time for silent contemplation and physically moving to the next station. In the first section, two musical ideas are introduced and stated. In the second section, the music ‘meditates’ on the material in the first section - initially almost a direct repetition but gradually diverging and increasing vocal range, harmonies and dynamics. The third section consists of a loud, exclamatory and dissonant exhalation, gradually becoming more subdued as the section progresses. Finally, in the fourth section, the music drifts away to silence.


Summary

I have used silence as a structural device in previous works, including the fourth movement of Requiem (premiered by The Westminster Williamson Voices and recorded by The Same Stream Choir) and Into Thy Hands, O Lord (premiered by Anchorae). In Via Crucis, however, it has a much more carefully thought-out and multifaceted role. It has a practical role - it allows opportunity for the procession of the choir around the venue in which they are performing; it has a contemplative role - allowing an audience to contemplate each station individually; and it has a narrative/structural role (underlining the musical narrative based upon the Lectio Divina).


I do hope that if you’re in the area that you come to listen to The Handful perform the premiere of Via Crucis. Happy February.


PWR 19/02/2022

[1] Macmillan, J. (2009). Miserere. London: Boosey & Hawkes. [2] St. Michaels Episcopal Church. (2012). The Stations of the Cross. [online] Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20150217004848/http://st-michaels-episcopal.org/episcopalian-beliefs/stations-of-the-cross/. [Accessed 30 July 2020]. [3] Robertson, D, (2011). Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading. Collegeville: Cistercian Publications. p. xvii. [4] Robertson, (2011). p. 217. [5] Robertson, (2011). p. 218.

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