Le Chemin de la Croix

by Marcel Dupré (1886-1971)

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 and composer, Dupré 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 career as an international celebrity was established in the 1920s in a succession of major concert tours in the USA, but his first big success outside France was actually in London, at a gala concert at the Albert Hall in 1920. After this he continued to make regular visits across the Channel, and he had a specially close association with Westminster Cathedral, where he helped to design the new organ and played recitals there every year, which always attracted enormous crowds. Another regular recitalist at the Cathedral during the 1920s was the Sacred Heart’s organist Henry Wardale (1884-1965), who played here for over thirty years, and supervised the installation of our own “Grand Organ” in 1912. We have recently discovered that Dr Wardale was one of the first English musicians to play and promote Dupre’s music; it is good to know that he would look kindly on this evening’s performance, and he may well have played this music here many years ago, soon after it was published in 1932.

Le Chemin de la Croix is Dupré’s most ambitious organ work – a set of musical illustrations of the 14 Stations of the Cross, tracing the story of the Passion in music of astonishing originality, sincerity and intensity. It had its origins in an imaginative collaboration between Professors of Literature and Music at the Conservatoire in Brussels in February 1931. The literary element was a recitation of Le Chemin de la Croix by the fervent Catholic dramatist, poet and diplomat Paul Claudel. In between the 14 poems, Dupré improvised a musical commentary or meditation on each station. This unique event made such a deep impression on the audience that Dupré decided to compose a written work in a similar format. But he was not (as one often reads these days) “inspired by” the rather peculiar poems of Claudel. Indeed, one suspects that he had probably never read or heard them before. His own detailed programme notes make it very clear that his inspiration came from the Bible, from the rich heritage of Passiontide music, and from traditional Catholic iconography. Although the music at the Brussels concert was indeed “improvised”, Dupré had carefully planned it out in advance, preparing the themes, the mood and the sound of each Station, without actually writing anything down. The definitive written version was completed a year later, and he gave the premiere in Paris in March 1932, a few days before Palm Sunday.

Dupré 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’s Messiah, in Bach’s St John Passion, in Franck’s Beatitudes, in Wagner’s Parsifal. 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…”

The dramatic procession of the 14 stations in itself provides a firm basis for the structure of the work, but Dupré controls the tension and balance of the whole with consummate mastery. After the introductory frenzy of the first station, the painful journey begins in No.2, and the ever-increasing intensity of the three Falls (3, 7 and 9) propels the drama to its inexorable climax in the 11th station, when the nails are hammered into the cross, while the intervening movements providing interludes of repose and meditation. After the suspended stillness of Jesus’ death and the brief terror of the earthquake, the tension is gradually dispelled as warmer human emotions come to the fore, and the symbolic themes are used with some subtlety to enhance the relationships of the various strands in the drama, culminating in the sublime final station where the theme of death and suffering, floating above the sombre cortège, is magically transformed into a theme of eternal life.

1st Station: Jesus is condemned to death

A vivid piece of musical scene-painting. Pilate speaks the words of arrest: Gardes, saisissez-vous de cet homme (‘Guards, seize that man’). The crowd is restless and angry; Barabbas!, they cry, Qu’il soit crucifié! – ‘Let him be crucified!’. The anger erupts into a frenzy: ‘Crucify, crucify!’ The sentence is pronounced, and the crowd disperses.

2nd Station: Jesus is made to bear his cross

Against a sombre background of opressive snapped rhythms, the Theme of the Cross rises up in sinister, discordant counterpoint.

3rd Station: Jesus falls the first time under the weight of the cross

The 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 the weary steps of Jesus, while his poignant ‘Theme of Suffering’ soars above. The march intensifies to a heart-rending climax, and then slowly recedes. At the end, a glimmer of hope in the darkness: a gentle rising phrase which represents a ‘Theme of Redemption’.

4th Station: Jesus meets his afflicted mother

‘Mary stands by the road, frozen with horror… Down her face flow silent tears…’ Soft harmonies circle and drift around her muted, faltering lament.

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, an exquisite harmonisation of the Theme of Redemption.

7th Station: Jesus falls 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 weary steps motif is intensified in this second march by the addition of persistent chromatic decoration. Again the march rises to a central climax, and then recedes into the distance.

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 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. At the end, the sight of the Saviour’s defenceless body inspires a soft chordal conclusion – ‘a meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation’.

11th Station: Jesus is nailed to the cross

The organ is transformed here into a grinding, apocalyptic machine driven by the inexorable ostinato of the hammer (Theme of the Cross) in the bass. The tragic Theme of Suffering soars above the tumult.

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 finally reunited with her son.

14th Station: Jesus is placed in the sepulchre

The women’s lament (8th Station) and Christ’s Theme of Suffering are woven together into a sombre funeral march. 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, and finally fading imperceptibly into silence.

DG March 2016