The Practice of Composing Sacred Music: “Eia mater” from The Seven Last Words from the Cross

This post was written by Tawnie Olson as a synopsis of her presentation at the University of Notre Dame’s Sacred Music Conference: “Mary and the Musical Modes of the Cross”, on Friday, September 14th, 2012.

I composed my setting of the Seven Last Words from the Cross over a span of about two and a half years, from 2007 to 2009, completing it just in time for its première by the Yale Camerata on April 5, 2009. The inspiration for the work came from my experience of Holy Week services at Trinity on the Green in New Haven, CT, particularly their Good Friday service of the Seven Last Words from the Cross. I was raised agnostic, and although I converted to Christianity in my late teens, I had not attended a Seven Last Words service until I came to New Haven as a graduate student. The liturgy of this service made a deep impact on me, and when I began work on my own setting of the Seven Last Words, it seemed natural to me to incorporate elements of that service (and other Holy Week services) into my composition. Obviously – one might say, thankfully – I didn’t feel the need to add any sermons to my setting, although the first and last movements emphasize the atoning work of the cross in the way a Good Friday sermon might do. I did, however, include movements that respond to or reflect on each word, much as the hymns and anthems do in a Seven Last Words service. It also made sense to me to have the chorus take on different roles in each movement – like a Greek chorus, but also like the congregation in the Passion readings on Palm Sunday.

It was at Trinity on the Green that I first sang the version of the “Stabat mater” found in the Episcopal hymnal. Although I find the English translation rather unfortunate, the lines “Who on Christ’s own mother gazing/filled with anguish so amazing/born of woman/would not weep?” reduced me to tears the first time I sang them, and they have never failed to do so since. I did not originally intend to include the “Stabat mater” in my Seven Last Words, however, but one morning in mid-September 2007, as I searched for a text for the movement to follow “Woman, Behold Your Son,” I happened to open the Liber hymnarius and found “Eia mater,” the portion of the Stabat mater assigned as a hymn for the feast celebrated that day.

Ex. 1

Eia mater, fons amoris,             O mother, fount of love,
me sentire vim doloris               make me to feel the force of grief,
fac, ut tecum lugeam.               that with you I might lament.

Fac ut ardeat cor meum           Make my heart so burn
in amando Christum Deum       with love for Christ [my] God
ut sibi complaceam.                  that I might please him.

Sancta mater, istud agas,          Holy mother, doing this,
Crucifixi fige plagas                   Drive the blows of the crucifixion
cordi meo valide.                       into my heart.

Tui Nati vulnerati,                       Share with me the pains
tam dignati pro me pati             Of your wounded Son
poenas mecum divide.              Who deemed it worthwhile to suffer for me.

Fac me vere tecum flere,           Make me truly with you to weep,
Crucifixo condolere,                   For the crucified to grieve with you
donec ego vixero.                      As long as I shall live.

Iuxta crucem tecum stare          I wish to stand with you by the cross
ac me tibi sociare                      And to share with you
in planctu desidero.                   in wailing.

As I read the text, I couldn’t help but observe that it emphasizes the role Mary plays for me in my contemplation of Christ’s Passion; the opening line prays that Mary might help us feel the full force of grief, and that is precisely what happens to me every year on Good Friday when I think of her at the foot of the cross. I was also drawn to the lines “Let me share in the pains of your wounded Son, who suffered for me,” as they foreshadow beautifully the point I wanted to make in the movement that immediately follows this one: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In that movement, the soloists who sing the words of Jesus sing with the chorus for the first time as a way of emphasizing that Christ shared and fully understands our human suffering. You can hear excerpts from a live performance of “My God, My God” here. It is not by coincidence, then, that these lines are given great emphasis in my setting of “Eia mater,” nor that they fall at the climax of this movement.

In the overall architecture of my Seven Last Words, “Eia mater” serves both as the calm before the storm of the next movement, and as preparation for it, which is partly why it it is lighter in tone, and why the mood shifts at the end. (This can also, of course, be justified in part by the shifting emotions suggested by the text itself.)

The pitch material of this movement is consistent with the language I designed for my Seven Last Words as a whole, a language that combines diatonic and chromatic elements and that makes use of exact and inexact symmetry in both small and large scale structures. This is one of those pieces in which every note serves a distinct purpose, and sometimes several purposes at once. Because each movement of this work is tightly interwoven with all of the others, it’s difficult for me to talk about “Eia mater” without first putting it into some kind of context. For this reason, I’d like to quickly summarize a few structural features of my Seven Last Words as a whole before looking more closely at “Eia mater” itself.

The movements that set the Gospel texts (the words of Christ from the cross and the evangelists’ words that introduce and sometimes follow them) are scored for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists. Movement by movement, each soloist takes it in turn to sing the evangelists’ words, and all four soloists sing Jesus’ words together.

The words of the evangelists are set to an ever-expanding chromatic collection that frames a central pitch, which is not used to set the evangelists’ words, but is reserved for Jesus’ utterances. When the four soloists enter to sing Christ’s words, that note functions as their tonic, and their subsequent material draws from the collection of intervals shown here in the second line of example 2. Exactly symmetrical chromatic material and inexactly symmetrical diatonic material reinforce this pitch, the “Jesus” note, as the pitch centre of each movement that sets the Gospel texts.

Ex. 2

Like all of the other choral and orchestral movements that respond or react to each word, “Eia mater” uses a modified version of the dyads that set Jesus’ words. In these movements, the central unison that functioned as a stable tonic fractures into a dissonant and unstable minor second, and the softer dissonance of the minor seventh expands outward to a harsher major seventh. This material attracted me in part because its quasi-diatonic quality made it easy for the choir to sing, but also because of the symbolism implied in having the chorus and orchestra (who represent us, humanity) sing and play a broken, or fallen, version of the material reserved for Jesus.

Ex. 3

Each of the choral and orchestral movements plays with these dyads differently. In some movements (for example, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”), different transpositions of these basic intervals are stacked on top of one another to create more complex harmonies. At the opening of Eia mater, however, they are used in a fairly straightforward way to generate melodies that add an element of horizontal symmetry to these vertically symmetrical structures. In the top line of Example 4 the dyads are presented in the transposition in which they appear at the start of “Eia mater.” At the bottom of the example, I’ve included the opening melody, with brackets and letters to indicate the very simple symmetrical structures I used. Notice how the pitch structure is aligned with the text’s division into lines and clauses.

Ex. 4

Most of the other movements of this work that use this collection of intervals as their basic material treat the interval of the major third as a kind of tonic to which the other notes gravitate. In “He Has Helped Others,” this led me to incorporate the major third into the works’ larger scale structure; at each new section, the pitch materials are transposed by that interval (please see the middle line of example 4). In the first and last sections of “Eia mater,” however, the harmonic language is more traditional, and the interval of the third implies a dominant chord, with the top note of the third acting as a leading tone.

In the climactic middle section, I changed my approach to pitch, grouping all of the available pitches into one collection, which I drew from freely to create a stepwise melodic line in the soprano part and an expanding choral cluster underneath. (The accompanimental gestures in the woodwinds in this section continue to emphasize discrete dyads, however). In this section, the basic materials have been transposed up by a major third, following the precedent set in “He Has Helped others.”

Ex. 5

This movement is in ternary form, so at rehearsal F the vibraphone and glockenspiel return to a melody much like the opening one, although the tenors and basses sing a stepwise line created by treating my pitch collection as a scale.

Ex. 6

The rhythmic language of this movement is fairly simple, even naïve. The text is set syllabically, and although in other movements I made use of symmetrical rhythms (what Messiaen would call “non-retrogradable rhythms”), in this movement the rhythms are quite simple and flow from the metre of the poem and its sentence structure.

One example of this is occurs at the word “fac” in the opening vocal line. “Fac” begins a new line of text in the poem, but is actually an important part of the clause in the preceding line. I dealt with the dual nature of this word by using pitch material to underscore the poem’s line division, but using rhythm and phrase structure to underscore the sentence structure, and thus the meaning of the words.

Ex. 7

There is not much word painting in this movement (although the voice crossing at “crucifixi” does not happen by accident). The gentle character of most of the music, and the fact that the movement opens and closes with female voices, however, are very basic ways in which the music reflects Mary’s gender and her character as a loving mother. (Other movements of this work treat gender in a somewhat unusual way, but this is not one of them.) One tiny moment in this movement perhaps deserves mention. At rehearsal C, where the text prays that Mary might fix the blows of the crucifixion in our hearts, the accompaniment has this rhythmic motto: long, long, long, short-short. This little motive comes from an earlier movement “He has helped others,” which treats the mocking of Christ. This rhythm is used to set that opening line of text “he – has – helped – o-thers” and it recurs throughout my Seven Last Words as a way of reminding the listener of the brutality of Christ’s suffering, and of the fact that Christ’s suffering did, in fact, help us by atoning for our sins and assuring our salvation.

 Ex. 8

To download the complete score, click here.

Tawnie Olson holds a doctorate in music composition from the University of Toronto, a Master of Music degree from the Yale School of Music, an Artist Diploma from the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale, and a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Calgary. In 2012-2013 she is visiting assistant professor of composition at the Hartt School of Music. You can visit her website at: