Le Chemin de la Croix – Marcel Dupré (1886-1971)

The devotional sequence of 14 Stations of the Cross was established in a definitive form in the 18th century, but its origins go back to the earliest days of Christendom, when pilgrims to the Holy Land would follow in the footsteps of Christ on the road to Calvary, the Via Crucis or Via Dolorosa. The 14 traditional stages or ‘Stations’ trace the Passion of Christ from trial to crucifixion and burial; some of them have biblical authority, but others come from other later sources (the thee painful Falls that punctuate the journey, and Veronica, the ‘pious woman’ who wiped Jesus’ face). In time this devotion was transferred to Europe, and images of each Station were placed on the walls of every Catholic church; priest and congregation move from one to another to meditate and pray – especially, of course, during Lent and Holy Week.

Professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatoire for thirty years, and Organist of the church of Saint-Sulpice from 1934 until his death in 1971, the commanding figure of Marcel Dupré dominated the French organ world for much of the 20th century; as performer, teacher, improvisor and composer, he devoted his whole life to the organ, touring the world from the USA to Australia, and training all the leading French organists of two generations. His Chemin de la Croixhad its origins in an imaginative collaboration between Professors of Literature and Music at the Royal Conservatoire in Brussels in February 1931. The literary element was a recitation of Le Chemin de la Croix by the Catholic dramatist, poet and diplomat Paul Claudel – a rambling and rather idiosyncratic sequence of 14 poems meditating on the significance of each Station for Christians in the modern world. In between the poems, Dupré improvised a musical commentary or illustration for each Station, and this unique event made such a deep impression on the audience that he decided to compose a written work along similar lines, which he completed the following year.

It seems unlikely that Dupré was directly inspired by Claudel’s curious poems; indeed, one suspects that he had probably never heard them before. His own detailed programme notes make it clear that his inspiration came from the Bible, from the rich heritage of Passiontide music, and from traditional Catholic iconography. He described this monumental work as ‘a vast symphonic poem in which several leading themes recur, but each station has its own musical conception… All the themes are not only symbolic, but also traditional, one might say. Certain intervals, certain melodic shapes are part of the patrimony of music.  I researched how the Masters have agreed on certain formulas, such as the double leap of a fourth for the Cross; we find it in Bach, Handel, Schütz. The theme of Redemption, formed of four conjunct notes, is found in Handel, Bach, Franck and Wagner. The theme of the Virgin, forming the major triad, is the idea of ‘Genetrix’. The theme of Suffering, composed of a descending chromatic phrase, is found in Bach. These are all themes of traditional symbolism…’

1st Station: Jesus is condemned to death

A vivid piece of musical scene-painting, with vocal-style motifs depicting the violent cries of the crowd (in French, of course):  ‘As soon as Pilate has pronounced the fateful phrase: Gardes, saisissez-vous de cet homme!, the agitation of the crowd, which had calmed for a moment, breaks out again and degenerates into a tumult, in the midst of which one can hear the cries of Barrabas, Jésus, and Qu’il soit crucifié, finally dominated by the clamour: À mort. Then, as the praetorium gradually empties, the cries recede and die away in the distance.’

2nd Station: Jesus is made to bear his cross

Against a sombre background of oppressive snapped rhythms, the Theme of the Cross rises up in sinister, discordant counterpoint; proliferating into two and then three voices, it ‘overwhelms with its weight the painful rhythm of the march to Calvary.’

3rd Station: Jesus falls for the first time

The stumbling progress of Christ’s ascent to Calvary is marked by three powerful marches, illustrating the three Falls. An insistent motif of descending paired notes depicts his weary steps, while his poignant ‘Theme of Suffering’ soars above. The march intensifies to a heart-rending climax, and then slowly recedes. ‘However, the hearts of the disciples who follow him are penetrated by the gentle light of Redemption, whose consoling theme illuminates the final bars of the painful scene.’

4th Station: Jesus meets his afflicted mother

Mary stands by the road, frozen with horror… Down her face flow silent tears…’ The theme of the Virgin sings out on a solo flute above a circling, almost motionless  accompaniment; the first and last notes of the theme are prolonged, as if frozen in time… Towards the end, in the pedals, there is a brief reminiscence of the ‘weary steps’ motif.

5th Station: Simon the Cyrenian helps Jesus to carry his cross

Against an impressionistic background of gentle walking music, a duet on the Theme of the Cross unfolds in two voices, representing Jesus and Simon. At first Jesus is alone. Simon tries to join in, but the duet is disjointed, ungainly: he is unable to keep in step. Soon he finds the rhythm: the two voices become one, and the burden of the Cross is eased.

6th Station: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

Veronica’s song of compassion ‘sings out in a harmonious, archaic and slightly exotic atmosphere’. In the bass, very quietly, the Theme of the Cross. At the end, a hushed harmonisation of the Theme of Redemption.

7th Station: Jesus falls for the second time

The bitter ascent resumes, while the turbulent crowd presses on all sides around the tragic procession, and the second fall passes almost unnoticed.’ The music of

the second fall is developed from the first, intensifying the ‘weary steps’ motif through the addition of chromatic semiquaver decoration. Again the scene rises to a central climax and then recedes until only the rhythmic pedal figure remains.

8th Station: Jesus comforts the women of Jerusalem

The holy women follow, sad unto death, haunted by the vision of the final sacrifice. The theme of their grief rises up like a lament, to which the consoling voice of Jesus replies.’

9th Station: Jesus falls for the third time

The crowd is infuriated by the slow progress of the ascent; cries, clamours and insults break out on all sides.’ The violence implicit in the two previous marches now erupts in full fury. The fall itself is sudden and graphic. It is followed by a long silence, before ‘a few muffled spasms illustrate the crushing of the Victim.’

10th Station: Jesus is stripped of his garments

An agitated scherzo illustrates the pain and hostility of the stripping and flagellation. The violence suddenly ceases, and after another long pause, the moving spectacle of the Saviour’s helpless body inspires a hushed meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation.

11th Station: Jesus is nailed to the cross

The obsessive rhythm of the hammer blows (theme of Crucifixion), forcing the nails through the hands and feet of Jesus, dominates this station and expresses the implacable cruelty of the executioners, while at times there rises up the heart-rending lament of the theme of Suffering.’

12th Station: Jesus dies on the cross

Eerie, disembodied music floats out of the darkness. Fragmented melodic phrases evoke Christ’s seven last words from the Cross, with his Theme of Consolation from the 8th Station: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’. A brief explosion of terror: the earth trembles… Darkness … Silence…

13th Station: Jesus is taken down from the cross and laid in Mary’s bosom

A sinuous arabesque for flute stops evokes the tenderness with which the body of Christ is removed from the Cross. At the end, a poignant reprise of Mary’s muted song from the 4th Station, as she is reunited with the lifeless body of her son.

14th Station: Jesus is placed in the sepulchre

In this final movement the women’s lament (8th Station) and Christ’s Theme of Suffering are woven together into a lyrical and deeply moving funeral march. But the ethereal final page rises above the darkness towards the light of a new dawn. The muffled tread of the funeral march is stilled, and the Theme of Suffering is miraculously transformed into a song of eternal life, very soft, very far away, finally fading imperceptibly into silence.

Programme Notes © David Gammie 2018