Via Dolorosa

Via Dolorosa score title page

“Via Dolorosa” is a 32-minute work scored for orchestra, double chorus, Solo Soprano, Solo Tenor, and Solo English Horn (with its dark color and lamenting tone representing Jesus throughout the work, and placed in front of the orchestra).

Program notes:

The compositional aim of “Via Dolorosa” is to create images of an historical event with musical portraits of scenes, settings, and individuals, much in the same way that Charles Ives depicted historical American events in works such as “Decoration Day” and “Washington’s Birthday”, or as Sir Edward Elgar did in his “Enigma” Variations.

While it is impossible to separate the Stations of the Cross from the teachings and imagery of the Holy Catholic Church, there is no intention in this musical work to communicate personal, theological, or religious presumptions or beliefs beyond historical events as they have been recorded and passed down through the centuries. The only attempt of the composer is to provide musical images to which one can hopefully relate, and that might stimulate one’s thought while provoking a deeper sensitivity and perhaps discussion and introspection on the part of any who hear this work.

While many take different positions on who Jesus of Nazareth was, what is not disputed by anyone I have encountered from any faith in Jerusalem is that Jesus was a Jew who lived and who was crucified – a barbaric but common punishment at that time – in that Holy City. While texts and descriptions that inspired the music are taken from scripture, it is the recreation of historical events that in its entirety, including the human emotions of all involved, that is what I hope to convey in “Via Dolorosa”.

The work itself strives to create these images with instrumental and orchestral colors that, while performed on modern instruments, have their origins in the instruments of that time. The motif of a descending minor-second is used throughout the work to depict weeping, particularly in the depiction of Jesus, but also that of his mother Mary’s weeping in section V, and in other instrumental voices.

It is a premise of the work that because of his nature, Jesus could only continue to praise G_d (“YHWH”) and exhibit love to others along the Via Dolorosa until his final breath.

I. Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane

“And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.”

Luke 22:44

“And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” Matthew 26:39

As Jesus’ prayer had to contain the full expression of humanity, then to this composer it must contain all 12 notes of the western scale.  Accordingly, both the bass line and the melodic line contain all 12 tones.  The first part of the prayer is a continuous 10 bar phrase, followed by a 5 bar phrase.  Both voices contain all 12 tones in each phrase.

There is only one major chord in the entire prayer, when the harp gives a momentary glimpse of hope; but after the prayer rises in both pitch and intensity, it finally ends in acceptance while harmonically there is no resolution.

An important element to me is Jesus’ heartbeat, which runs as a rhythmic motif throughout the entire work.  The opening pizzicati in the cellos and basses are the first “cell” of that heartbeat motif.  At the end of the prayer there is a short silence and then the heartbeat is heard by solo bass drum.  That immediately transitions into

II.Jesus Takes up the Cross: Condemnation and Flagellation

A typical street scene filled with activity, where shouts in Aramaic of “Anahna báen Barabbaš! Silvu yatheh!” (“We want Barabbas, give us Barabbas”; Crucify him!”) are heard. The name “Barabbas”, shouted by the chorus, continues the “heartbeat” rhythmic motif.

Pontius Pilate (trombone) pronounces judgment. The street scene continues, as most people have continued about their business while Jesus is led away.

III. Jesus sings (in Hebrew*) Psalm 138

I will praise Thee with my whole heart

before the (gods) will I sing praise unto Thee

I will worship toward thy holy temple,

and praise thy name for thy loving kindness

and for thy truth

In the day when I cried thou answeredst me, and gave me strength

Thou I walk in the midst of trouble, thou wilt revive me

This Psalm melody is repeated by the English Horn during Jesus’ flagellation.

[*although Jesus would have spoken Aramaic, owing to his studies and his associations with the leaders of the Synagogues at that time he would have also known Hebrew and been able to express himself in that language. For the sake of modern comprehension and continuity, Mary’s song in VI. is also sung in Hebrew, though she would probably not have been conversant in that language]

A quiet interlude in the woodwinds follows as Jesus’ heart beats.

Pontius Pilate declares “Ecce homo” (“Here is the man”), and Jesus takes up the cross and begins the difficult uphill journey.

Jesus Falls for the First Time

IV. Jesus Meets his Mother

Soprano solo based on a re-harmonization of the “Passion Chorale” melody from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, “Erkenne mich, mein Hüter“(“Receive Me, My Redeemer”), 
”Ich will hier bei dir stehen” (“Here would I stand beside Thee”), “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (O Sacred Head Now Wounded), 
”Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden” (“Be Near Me, Lord, When Dying”), which also utilizes the interval of the descending minor 2nd.

Mary’s pitches and pitch order are identical to Bach’s famous melody:

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 13.26.58

She sings (in Hebrew) the song of a mother, filled with confusion and sorrow over what she or her son could have done to bring him to this place:

B’ni, b’ni ma zôt asita? (My son, my son, what have you done?)

B’ni, yaldi yakir li. (my son, my child so dear to me.)

B’ni, b’ni ma zôt asita? (My son, my son, what have you done?)

Yaldi, b’ni yakir li. (my child, my son so dear to me.)

Va-ani heynakticha, cha-im cha-im n’taticha. (I suckled you. Life, life I gave you.)

Ma shagiti, haven na li. (What error have I made? make me to understand.)

Eycha chatati, b’ni, b’ni. (Where have I sinned, my son, my son?)

As she recalls his early years, we hear the childlike voice of Jesus in the higher oboe, rather than the English Horn. His adult voice and sorrow return at the end of the aria.

V. Simon the Cyrene Helps Jesus Carry the Cross

Although we read that Simon was conscripted to help Jesus carry his cross, “They pressed into service a passer-by coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene , to bear His cross.” Mark 15:21, Simon is depicted with a solo cello as a benevolent man of empathy with a beautiful spirit, and willing to help. Constructed in an ABA format with solo cello and divided violas, cellos and basses, Jesus expresses his gratitude and love for Simon in the middle section before having to move farther ahead and continue on his final journey.

Jesus Falls for the Second Time

VI. Jesus Consoles the Women of Jerusalem

Also constructed in an ABA format, Jesus, the “man of sorrows”, comforts the women in a theme in the key of A-minor accompanied by harp. He addresses the women first collectively, and then in the B section (A Major) individually as he touches their faces and speaks of their shared memories.

As the middle section comes to an end, the music darkens once again into A-minor. A tolling drumbeat is heard. Jesus begins to comfort them again collectively, but he is overcome with emotion and cannot speak. He tries, falteringly, and cries out. He seems to regain his strength, but again, he cannot continue., over which we hear Jesus’ heart beat and the calling drum.

Jesus Falls for the Third Time

Jesus’ last attempts to speak to the women become his weeping of a descending major-second, and then finally the descending minor-second as he is led away. The cello and bass pizzicati heartbeat from the very opening of the work returns


From a high vantage point in the old city of Jerusalem, as the Muslim prayers begin to sound at slightly different times and in different keys from different places, the sounds mix together in the Jerusalem winds to create a beautiful and somewhat eerie experience tonally and aurally texturally, translated here into the Shema (sung in Hebrew):

Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever.

You shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise.

You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.

As the Shema is sung, Jesus’ opening Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is heard again, but this time wafting above the Shema in an almost lifeless, lamenting and accepting rendering. As the last sounds die away, Jesus’ heart beat accelerates quickly into

XIII. Jesus Stripped of his Garments

A brutal, mocking desecration of the man, with swirling and dramatic figures swirling in the air as the bodies of Jesus and two other criminals are punished for the last time on soil, and Jesus’ garments are removed.

A relentless and menacing 16-bar theme is heard in the French Horns, repeated and embellished with jeering trumpets and woodwinds finger-pointing the Dies Irae and laughing as

IX. Jesus is Nailed to the Cross.

X. Jesus Dies on the Cross

Amidst incredible cruelty and suffering, Jesus’ mother returns in the form of the now fully unveiled melody “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (“O Sacred Head Now Wounded”), in Bach’s harmonization.   The divided chorus sings the first and third verses of the original Latin poem which Paul Gerhardt transcribed into German in 1656 (Bach set verse one of this translation in the St. Matthew Passion, but the text of verse three is not as well known):


                     O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,
Voll Schmerz und voller Hohn,
O Haupt, zum Spott gebunden
Mit einer Dornenkron;
O Haupt, sonst schön gezieret
Mit höchster Ehr’ und Zier,
Jetzt aber höchst schimpfieret:
Gegrüßet sei’st du mir!
O Head full of blood and wounds,
full of pain and full of derision,
O Head, in mockery bound
with a crown of thorns,
O Head,once beautifully adorned
with the most honour and adornment,
but now most dishonoured:
let me greet you!
     Die Farbe deiner Wangen,
Der roten Lippen Pracht
Ist hin und ganz vergangen;
Des blaßen Todes Macht
Hat alles hingenommen,
Hat alles hingerafft,
Und daher bist du kommen
Von deines Leibes Kraft.
The colour of your cheeks,
the splendour of your red lips
has vanished completely;
the might of pale death
has taken all away,
has snatched up all,
and you have come to this
through your love’s strength.

A thunderous cacophony is reached as the climax of the work is reached.

The English Horn asks, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15: 34). After an enormous expulsion rising from the depths of the orchestra to its highest registers, suddenly all music stops and all that is heard are two antiphonal glockenspiels placed on either side of the stage and playing ever dispersing Bb Major and E Major triads as the Jerusalem winds waft (glissandi harmonics in violas) and Christ’s spirit ascends into Heaven.

Via Dolorosa is dedicated to the eternal memory of Anita Nelson (1941-2012), an angel who visited this earth all too briefly but whose smile, faith, and joyous spirit will be forever passed down to succeeding generations through all who had the privilege of knowing her.

Mark Laycock, 2016

Listen to the Sibelius Version (which can not replicate sung texts or special effects) here: