In light of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Dr. Rene Clausen and Dr. Roy Hammerling collaborated to honor the passionate stories of this section of the Bible.
According to Clausen, Concordia wanted to celebrate the 500th anniversary and they commissioned him to compose a major work for the anniversary. The piece is set to debut in April at Orchestra Hall.
“I have heard as far as the whole choral program they are trying to do everything bigger and better this year, because of the 125th anniversary of Concordia and the 500th anniversary of the reformation,” said Lexi Scanlon, senior and member of Cantabile.
Clausen isn’t the only one working on the composition. He is collaborating with religion professor, Hammerling. In their work, Clausen and Hammerling are taking a more modern look at the passion pieces of the gospel.
Clausen wanted to revisit the passion narratives similar to Bach’s “St. Mathew’s Passion” and he used that text, along with Hammerling’s texts as inspiration for the composition.
When Clausen turned to Hammerling, he was less than enthusiastic to help, but was willing to give it a shot for his close friend.
“Rene looked at me across the table and my heart sank,” Hammerling said. “I didn’t feel capable and I am still not completely convinced that I am. I have to have the ability to pull off the text as poetic interpretation. A scholar like myself writes to clarify things. Poetry is intended to be an experience.”
Hammerling fears he doesn’t have the literary background to engage the listeners Clausen is hoping to influence. However, Clausen thinks Hammerling is just being humble.
“He is very artistically gifted in his use of words,” Clausen said. “So I am trying to take those words and what Roy has done in the literary view and turn it into music. I find this collaboration an effort of working together and bouncing ideas.”
According to Clausen. The piece includes some of the poetry Hammerling has written and gathered, referring to Adam and Eve being thrown out of the Garden of Eden, the story of Judas and a few other sections focusing on the main characters of holy week.
“The composition starts with a community of guilt and then works into the events of holy week,” Clausen said.
So far, Clausen has finished composing the piece, but he has to orchestrate it and come up with the piano and vocal score. There will be a major part for chorus and orchestra in the piece and probably five soloists.
Collaborating on this project took a lot of work on both ends. At first, Hammerling looked for literature that was poetic and modern that could be used. Instead, Clausen and he were inspired by a dream that still haunts them to this day.
In Hammerling’s dream, Judas was hanging from a tree, his body swaying back and forth as he asked, “Why do you judge me so harshly.”
Hammerling said the modern world judges Judas harshly because of his betrayal against Jesus. However, according to the Judas in Hammerling’s dream, his crime was not of betrayal.
“His only crime was that he was over enthusiastic and passionate about the poor, Jesus and his movement,” Hammerling said. “The hardest part was that he said, ‘I wouldn’t trade places with you, because at least I was passionate about what I did.’”
Hammerling’s dream inspired Clausen and Hammerling to get inside the heads of the people of the gospel narrative. This task has been undertaken in literature, but never before musically.
Clausen wanted Hammerling to dig into his dream and interpret it in a way that could be used in his composition. Once Hammerling started to work on it, he couldn’t stop and began to work through what a modern passion narrative could look like.
From there, Clausen and Hammerling threw ideas back and forth, taking what Hammerling wrote up and boiling it down into something that could be used musically.
“Roy sets up his own point of view and writes or quotes poetry, most of which he as written, and I go through and determine how much I can use along with the gospel story from St. Matthew,” Clausen said.
When choosing sections of text to use, Clausen looks at the imagery that the text or poetry offers.
“Rene is so creative and he is brilliant with music and he has this incredible ability to make music fit the text,” Hammerling said. “In the first two instances [I collaborated with him] he found the way to make the music bring the texts to life in a complete different way.”
Scanlon has also taken notice of the talent and passion Clausen has in music. When he walks into the room, the choir and the feel in the room shifts in his presence.
“You straighten up when you walk by him,” Scanlon said. “You watch your words and make sure you are intentional around him.There is definitely a different expectation, a higher standard, i think when Dr. Clausen conducts. He is held in such high esteem you almost want to conduct yourself and act like that.”
While the collaboration between Hammerling and Clausen has been a long process, Hammerling said there were no frustrations, but challenges “You are stepping into a tradition of these passion pieces and there are so many sorts of expectations about that in the sense of what the old ones were and whether you can change that,” Hammerling said. “Can we do this in a creative and innovative way that speaks to the modern world, asks modern questions and hopefully gets people to rethink the story in a new way.”
Clausen had some challenges of his own. The composition is a relatively long piece, amounting to about an hour. That is a lot of time to shape the music.
“It’s not like writing an anthem,” Clausen said. “It’s very much like how do I shape a forest instead of cutting down one tree?”
With a story that is so old and familiar, Hammerling hopes the composition will put the listener back into the story of the gospel in a way they have never seen before. Hammerling wants the piece to give people a different insight on the world, to have more compassion.
Clausen has high hopes for the piece as well.
“[The piece] is the passion of Jesus Christ and a lot of the poetry Roy has written asks questions that are thoughtful and provoking,” Clausen said. “The experience will be different for everybody, but it will hopefully have a powerful impact.”
This was not the first time Clausen and Hammerling have collaborated.
According to Hammerling, Clausen and he first collaborated in 2001 following the September 11th attacks. Clausen was commissioned by the American Choral Association to write a piece commemorating the first anniversary.
Clausen was looking for a text that dealt with the topic of the traumatic event. Hammerling had mentioned to Clausen that during 9/11 Hammerling was the assisting minister at his church. Hammerling wrote the prayers that Sunday and he had to write a series of prayers that connected with the congregation.
“I had to address deep emotion the congregation was feeling,” Hammerling said.
Clausen showed interest in the prayers and wanted to take a look at them. From there, Hammerling heard nothing more. Then, one day, Clausen invited Hammerling to come see a piece he had been working on, called “Memorial.” Hammerling was surprised to hear the choir singing parts of his prayers “It was surreal to hear the words I had struggled over, written and thought a lot about suddenly coming out the voice of a large choir,” Hammerling said.
Clausen remembers collaborating with Hammerling for “Memorial” as well. He said he simply relates to Hammerling’s writing and it made sense for him to collaborate with his friend another time.
Despite his initial reluctance to write, Hammerling is always happy to help a friend. He has found his collaborations with Clausen to be experiences worth cherishing.
“One of the reasons that [Clausen] and I are on the same page on things is he and I think of things in the same ways,” Hammerling said. “Certain passions we have together on our own worldviews and how the world should be and compassion is at the center of that. We believe that compassion is lost in the world and we call it back to be compassionate to each other. We take comfort in each other.”