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For the Joy Set Before Him

© 2020, MaLoMaLo Press

for Bassoon

Duration: 20 min.

Program Notes:

For the Joy Set Before Him explores the contrasts between Jesus and the other characters in the Passion narrative. The other characters seek a natural or physical victory, represented by the candles that are clearly visible. Jesus seeks a spiritual victory, represented by the candles in the curtained-off “spiritual” realm. Although some characters achieve their ends and others do not, their flames are all eventually extinguished, showing the transience of the physical, regardless of apparent outcome. Even the candles at Jesus’ place are eventually extinguished at his physical death. The “spiritual” candles are lit as Jesus achieves spiritual victories by maintaining his godly character when those he is interacting with do not.

Another visual contrast between Jesus and the other characters lies in the position of the performer, who represents each character in the narrative. As Jesus, the performer directly faces the audience, allowing both eyes to be seen. As other characters, the performer faces a variety of directions that obscure one eye. I have borrowed this technique from Highlands Ethiopian visual grammar, which portrays good characters with both eyes and bad characters with only one. I have also connected positions with characters’ attitudes. As Jesus’ confused disciples, the performer sits sideways on an almost offstage chair. His captors fearfully face away from the audience. His cunning jury lies in wait just behind Jesus’ primary position. Pilate indecisively shifts in his seat. Jesus starts off anxious, facing away from the audience. Emboldened and steadfast after praying, he faces the audience straight on, maintaining the same position for most of the following movements.

The first movement represents Jesus’ threefold prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. In his humanity, he sweats anxious drops of blood, represented by the three fast sections. As the Son of God, he prays three times that he would not have to suffer, but surrenders himself to his Father’s will, represented by the three slow sections. In response to this process of request and surrender, God strengthens him for the difficult task of achieving victory at immense cost to himself. The shortening of the fast sections and lengthening of the slow sections symbolises Jesus’ shift from anxiety to trust and strength.

The beginning of the second movement portrays the confusion of Jesus’ disciples. Steady, confident rhythms give way to erratic gestures as his arrest crushes their hope that he would set up an earthly kingdom. Meanwhile, Jesus maintains the resolve he gained through prayer. His steady, confident rhythms expand into multiphonics which represent his ability to see the multiple layers of physical and spiritual realms. By the end of the movement, the purely physical perception has completely given way to his enlightened understanding.

The third movement derives its characterisations of Jesus and his captors from the narrative of John. The soft opening gestures depict Jesus’ captors as cowards, furtively sneaking up on him at night when he had only his most faithful followers with him. Jesus retains bold control throughout the entire episode, illustrated by loud, commanding tones. He interrogates the mob as to who they are looking for. When they identify Jesus as their prey, he responds, “I AM.” At this statement which both answers their question and identifies himself with God the Eternal, they fall to the ground. Jesus repeats his question, and receiving the same answer, commands them to let his disciples go. The movement concludes with a very short statement of the mob’s motif, representing their unconvincing “victory” in arresting Jesus.

The melody in the fourth movement represents the false accusations meant to ensnare Jesus. The initial phrases climb upward and then fall rapidly, as if the jury gets a noose around his neck and pulls it tighter, only to have the knot unravel. Eventually, the knot holds and the music rises higher and higher in pitch, representing the rope tightening as the jury gains enough evidence to condemn Jesus. Jesus, in contrast, gives no answer, represented by the silence in the second half of the movement. His silence is not cowardice nor an acknowledgement of guilt, but patient obedience to his Father’s prophesy foretelling this moment. Jesus’ submission to authority is represented by the parade rest stance, of military origin, where absolute obedience is expected.

The fifth movement begins with multiple variations of several motifs presented in a randomly selected order. This represents Pilate’s lack of clarity and fearful indecisiveness as a leader who is responsible for the fate of his prisoner. By contrast, John’s narrative presents Jesus as unconcerned about the danger Pilate’s authority puts him in. He believes Pilate’s authority is of divine origin, and has firmly resolved to see his own death through. The final complete statement of the theme from which all the motifs are derived represents Jesus’ clarity and control, and insinuates that he himself is a divine source of authority.

Both halves of the sixth movement use much of the same musical material. The crowd and Jesus both agree that he has to die, but they express the need for this to happen in radically different ways. The contrast between the crowd’s scorn and Jesus’ gentleness comes through changes in tempo, dynamics, and articulations. At the end of this movement, the candles at Jesus’ place are extinguished, evoking his physical death.

The seventh movement begins with the downward gestures of weeping and mourning. Jesus’ mother and other disciples had just lost a dear son and friend to what must have felt like a needless death. They may have even blamed themselves. If only he had not so widely publicised his radical ideas; if only we had dissuaded him from attending the Passover Festival; if only we had realised what Judas was up to…. Jesus, in contrast, displays the strength of a victorious warrior. He conquered others’ sin by his righteousness and Death by his resurrection, transforming his dead natural body into a living spiritual body, represented by the performer’s reemergence in the “spiritual” realm behind the curtains. The forceful musical lines rising to an ecstatic climax in the high register of the bassoon evoke the euphoria he experienced at his triumph.


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