The Temptation of Jesus

The Temptation of Jesus was commissioned by the Second Presbyterian Church of Richmond, Virginia to commemorate the 150th anniversary of its founding. The oratorio received its premiere on November 8, 1995 under the direction of John Guthmiller conducting the Richmond Symphony and the choirs of Second Prespbyterian Church and Virginia Commonwealth University, with Neil Wilson, bass-baritone soloist.

This work uses the Biblical story of Jesus’s temptation as its text, interspersed with selections chosen from the writings of the celebrated author and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. The timeless story of the three temptations proves to have eerie significance for our own age, as it poses the central questions which must be faced by any who would be of service to others—questions involving issues of priorities, privilege, and power. Merton’s words inevitably shed contemporary light upon these ancient problems; remarkably, I was able to find at every juncture in the Biblical story an apt quote or image from one or another of Merton’s books to round out the text of the oratorio in much the same way that the texts of Bach’s Passions and Cantatas and Britten’s War Requiem are structured. The result is a libretto which, even when it stands alone, is immensely compelling.

But of course there is something about the power of music which can magnify the feelings behind words and press them into our consciousness in an indelible way with more intensity than the words by themselves can give. Ever since the primal moments of human history we have known this, and in our earliest days our epic poems were written to be sung, not just said. When I compose music for words, the task of serving the words is paramount. And yet, paradoxically, one cannot slight the musical demands of a work while advancing the text. The music must stand on its own, must create its own sense of expectations, its own patterns of tension and release, its own melodic imperatives and harmonic rightness, all at the same time as it is singing the story.

There are many ways technically by which the music in this oratorio structures itself. There are central motives for Jesus (a minor third, connected with two seconds, one major and one minor) and Satan (the time-honored tritone, the so-called Diabolus in musica), which embody, even in the musical cells themselves, the theological truth that Good is connectedness and Evil is the absence of connectedness. There are also many ways in which this oratorio acknowledges the great tradition of religious choral works, as they have evolved in our civilization, and builds upon that tradition. For example, I have made frequent use of contrapuntal writing, including an extended passage built entirely in canon, and at the end of the oratorio there is a generously-proportioned double fugue. There is ample precedent for looking backward at moments such as this: Mozart used the older fugal forms in his church music, as did Beethoven, Brahms, and Britten. But if one uses older forms and ideas, one should try to repay the debt with interest—the interest of one’s own unique personality and musical profile. I have done my best to do that, but I had a lot of help at every turn. In fact, often in the composition of this work I felt as a vessel for its creation, since the ideas almost seemed to be dictated. I would go to sleep one night thinking of a compositional problem, and the solution would be waiting for me in the morning. I especially labored over the problem of how to present the narrative scriptures, not wanting to copy Bach’s solution of the solo Evangelist. The answer came to me when I realized the story could be told collectively by the early Christians, those who lived in the first century after Christ before the Gospels were written. I still remember the morning I awakened with the actual sonorities and pitches of the small chorus in my head: “Then came Jesus thence from Galilee…” And one of the central musical motives, the music for “Man shall not live by bread alone,” simply appeared in my mind one morning in Richmond while I was visiting the church prior to writing the work. Since similar things have happened to me before, I had brought along my manuscript paper and promptly wrote it down. Only later did I discover this melody’s close relationship to the two hymn-tunes which I have used extensively as generative material in this work, Lord Who Throughout These Forty Days and the Doxology.

Program Notes by Samuel Jones