CUA student musicians Shinya Blattmann and Enrique Reynosa on violin; Dan Zhang on viola; and Dorotea Racz on cello perform specially composed music for the 14 Stations of the Cross. (CUA photo by Ed Pfueller)
CUA student musicians Shinya Blattmann and Enrique Reynosa on violin; Dan Zhang on viola; and Dorotea Racz on cello perform specially composed music for the 14 Stations of the Cross. (CUA photo by Ed Pfueller)

A 14-movement musical interpretation of the Stations of the Cross, composed by 14 different Catholic University of America alumni, students, faculty and staff, premiered recently at the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda.

Performed by two violins, viola and cello, each movement was played as a musical meditation after Msgr. Peter Vaghi, pastor of the parish, prayed the station the music was composed to represent.

“We now offer this tribute of our worship in a spirit of humility and with a contrite heart,” Msgr. Vaghi intoned before the nearly 200 people in the church joined him in praying the Stations of the Cross.

The work was performed by CUA student musicians Shinya Blattmann and Enrique Reynosa on violin; Dan Zhang on viola; and Dorotea Racz on cello.

The works were composed to mark CUA’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music’s 50th anniversary. While each station was interpreted by its own composer, the program notes point out that “the resulting work, combining the work of several generations of composers and widely diverse styles, is unified by artistic response to the events of Christ's Passion as remembered in the service.”

Each movement – between two and three minutes long – was the result of each individual composer’s attempt to envision the particular station in music.

For example, the First Station – Jesus is Condemned to Death – was composed by Joseph Santo, who noted that he scored the piece with the cello being the highest sounding instrument as opposed to its usual role as the lowest sound in a quartet.

“This reversal of traditional roles is intended to paint aberration and tension,” explained Santos who is the school of music’s assistant dean for academic and graduate studies.

Composer Stephen Gorbos, CUA assistant professor of music, said he also sought to highlight tension in his composition for the Fourth Station, Jesus meets His Mother.

“Although there is great pain and anguish in the meeting between mother and son, there is also an affirmation of will and courage,” he explained. He added that while writing this piece, he consulted with his mother and his father, who is studying to become a permanent deacon.

In the Eighth Station, Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem, composer Amanda Bono, a teaching fellow in music theory and a doctoral candidate, said she wrote her piece as a “musical reflection … on this interaction and conversation.”

“Each instrument represents someone in the station: violins and viola represent the women, and the cello represents Jesus.  The piece begins with the sound of the women’s cries.  As Jesus approaches, he begins to console them, causing the cries to subside,” Bono explained. “The gravity of His death begins to take over, creating tension until Jesus finally leaves the women at the end of the piece.”

Composer Faye Chiao, a 2004 CUA graduate, explained she composed the 11th Station, Jesus is Nailed to the Cross, with a constant G note. “Insistent, persistent and repetitive, it is meant to suggest the driving of nails into the cross, as well as the human heartbeat. The last moments of the piece represent the stilling of Jesus’ heart and His final cry to God.” 

Dr. Leo Nestor, CUA’s Justine Bayard Ward professor of music, director of choral studies and director of the Institute of Sacred Music, composed the 13th Station  – Jesus is Taken Down from the Cross.

“The opening motive evokes sighing, perhaps the last involuntary expulsion of air from the lungs of the Son of God, but surely also the quiet sighs of those who receive his lifeless body,” he explained.

While each of the 14 pieces is itself a complete work, when combined, they form a stark and moving portrait of the suffering and sacrifice Christ offered for our redemption.

Andrew Earle Simpson, a profess at the Rome School of Music and head of the composition and theory division, noted that “from century to century, new music has continue to renew and vivify Christian liturgies in all lands (and) the Passion narrative served as the basis for particularly powerful musical settings.”