James Newton Saint Matthew Passion
In late 2005 I decided to compose a trilogy of large sacred works: a Mass, a St. Matthew Passion and a setting of Psalm 119 for vocal soloists, choir and orchestra. The Mass, completed in early 2007, received its premiere at the 2007 Metastasio Festival in Prato, Italy. Its U.S. premiere (an expanded choral version) occurred in 2011 with Grant Gershon conducting the Los Angeles Master Chorale at Walt Disney Concert Hall. In 2004 and 2005, Mr. Gershon and I had co-conducted a series of concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall, which surveyed the sacred works of Duke Ellington and Mary Lou Williams. Mr. Gershon conducted the Los Angeles Master Chorale while I simultaneously conducted the Luckman Jazz Orchestra. These concerts had an extremely powerful impact upon me. After experiencing the sacred music of these great composers, and with great humility, I formed the conviction to add to the canon of sacred music of composers emanating from the Jazz tradition. I had spent many years surveying, studying and performing the secular and sacred works of Duke Ellington as a conductor, composer, arranger, and performer, going back to my own award-winning recording of Ellington’s music in 1986, entitled African Flower. This recording, winner of the 1986 Downbeat Magazine International Critics Poll for Jazz Album of the Year, is also the only recording featuring the flute that has achieved that distinction. In 2011, Mr. Gershon and I reprised the Sacred Works of Ellington again at Walt Disney Concert Hall. This experience strongly reaffirmed the path that I had chosen in 2005.
The last three years have been completely engulfed by, focused on and committed to the now completed St. Matthew Passion. This two-hour work that features vocal soloists, chamber choir, Jazz rhythm section, and chamber orchestra is the single most rewarding, yet challenging work of my career thus far. I humbly believe that much like Black, Brown and Beige was to Duke Ellington, this St. Matthew Passion is my most important work.
I love Jesus and the Judeo/Christian faith deeply and, as mentioned before, for many years have been focused on composing works that glorify Him. Yet, when I began this project I had little understanding of how profoundly it would touch my heart and soul as well as stretch every compositional technique that I know. Almost all of my emotional understanding has been brought into the process. I have had to walk down paths of despair and exultation as the music, delivered by the Holy Spirit, comes through. It is at once a work of immense love and great responsibility. The Passion is a work that reflects great sacrifice and the greatest love. It chronicles the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ as he prepares and then gives (in complete coordination with His Father, God) His life as a sin offering to defeat death for eternity. The sacrificial gift of His life to those who believe and follow Jesus is the ultimate and supreme act of love. As I conducted intense research and seed gathering to begin composing the Passion, three powerful themes emerged: the call and response between the Old and New Testaments (In Jerusalem the Old and New Testament sites moved me with equal intensity); the call and response between the Israelites and the American slaves; and the call and response among the musical trinity of spirituals, jazz and classical music.
I began composing during the summer of 2010 while attending a residency, granted by the Herb Alpert Foundation, at the UCross Foundation in UCross, Wyoming. By that point in time, I had experienced a long journey of seed gathering, which had commenced in early 2008. Along the way, I traveled to Jerusalem, Israel, to the home of my familial roots in Arkansas, and to the deeper south, including the Civil Rights Museum and Beale Street in Memphis and the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I also studied the writings of Dr. Howard Thurman, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Alfred Edersheim, and Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, whose focus on the power of Christ’s love for humanity continues to be an ever-present impetus for my composing the Passion.
Dr. Howard Thurman’s groundbreaking book, Jesus and the Disinherited, provides a powerful view of Jesus as part of an oppressed minority under the inhumane domination of Rome. In his book, Dr. Thurman draws a strong parallel between Hebraic oppression during the time of Jesus and oppression of the “Negro” in the United States. When he travelled to South Asia in 1936, as part of the “Negro Delegation of Friendship.” Dr. Thurman met with Mahatma Gandhi. During this encounter, Gandhi expressed his desire for African Americans to carry on the message of non-violent protest against oppression. To complete this circle, I must also mention that during the years of his non-violent leadership of the Civil Rights Movement in America, it is reported that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. travelled with a copy of Jesus and the Disinherited in his briefcase. Recordings of Dr. King’s speeches and writings have evoked many tears from me during this pilgrim journey. Dr. Thurman’s thesis has greatly influenced my Passion that carries the voice of the American slaves. Also, I modeled Duke Ellington’s way of not forgetting the voices of our ancestors who had to walk through the long, cold inhumane valley of American slavery yet found God in a remarkable way. There was a dignity and profound depth about the sincere creation of spirituals. It was music that reached up to God and gave the hope of deliverance by God – If He delivered the Hebrews He would certainly deliver African Americans out of slavery. These songs were also a contemporary reflection of the Psalms in the sense that they defined the power of God shaping a people. Duke Ellington showed how that resonance of unshakable faith could breathe in a context of contemporary music. Every aspect of my life’s work as a composer and flutist has brought me to this moment. In this piece I have tried my absolute best not to pass through any scripture without much prayer, great contemplation, many revisions and yet again, more prayer.
As a composer/performer who has spent close to four decades working in Jazz, Classical and World Music environments, I have been carefully building a language that adeptly bridges these styles of music. I have endeavored to bring all of those experiences together under the umbrella of the Passion. I understand the function of the Jazz Rhythm Section and have the perspective of someone who has not only sat within chamber and symphony orchestras, but also has been a soloist in front of them.
In addition to the three sacred concerts of the great Duke Ellington, the musical influences for the Passion include: Negro Spirituals; J.S. Bach – Saint Matthew Passion; Mary Lou Williams – Mass and Saint Martin De Porres;
Olivier Messiaen –Saint François D’Assise; and Blind Willie Johnson – “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was The Ground” and “God Moves On The Water” and Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.
The musical language of the Passion relies on Spirituals, Contemporary Jazz, Contemporary Classical, Gospel Music as well as the music of the Middle East and West and Central Africa. The music reflects polyphony and polyrhythmic practices of the forest people of Central Africa, focusing primarily on the Efe, Bibayak, Ba-Benzele, Aka, Baka, Twa and other cultural groups. Some twenty years before the great György Ligeti discovered this music, two geniuses, Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane, were carefully studying and incorporating it into their compositional and improvisational languages. I have tried to create a work that reflects the events of the St. Matthew Passion and, at the same time, builds a sound world that ties various cultural references together in new ways. I think of this concept as being hyper-aware of time (clavés, beats, etc.) while trying to capture glimpses of a vast and intense duality of time and eternity, as it overlaps and embraces The Living Word. Also, Instead of using a librettist to create commentary on the scripture of the Passion, I use Negro Spirituals and original instrumental works, as well as, a cappella choral interludes.
Paramount to all other influences, my faith moved me to compose these works. I should also note that there are very few Passions being written today and I believe that I am the first composer coming out of the Jazz tradition and the first African American to ever compose a St. Matthew Passion.
Distinguished Professor of Ethnomusicology
The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music