As part of Edenton Street United Methodist‘s Holy Week events, resident organist Josh Dumbleton presented Charles Tournemire’s organ chorales The Seven Last Words of Christ, accompanied by narration from the Reverend Sally Bates. Tournemire’s work is a series of tone poems, each full of imagery and dramatically depicting each of the last seven recorded phrases spoken by Christ. Overall, it was dense, complex, and sometimes overwhelming, ascribing to a late-Romantic style; yet sometimes there were moments of tenderness. Combined with Reverend Bates’ readings of both original scriptures and Poem After the Seven Last Words by Mark Strand (2002), this performance was both spiritually and musically illuminating.

The first movement, “Father, Forgive Them, For They Know Not What They Do,” was the longest and most musically complex of the seven movements. It served as an introduction, portraying the events that led up to the last day of Jesus’ life. Abrupt, slightly jarring pedals and dissonant running passages were characteristic of this movement. Similar to several later movements, there was a distorted sense of tonal center, at least by Western considerations. In contrast, the second movement, “Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise,” was unsurprisingly the most gentle and pastoral section of the work. This movement has frequent changed of stops, such as flute and cornet, perhaps suggesting the conversation between Jesus and the two criminals on the crosses beside him. Here, a unique combination of strings and vox humana was used for the first time, which Tournemire had used to depict heaven.

The third movement had several moods that depicted the same moment of time while contrasting one another. Called “Woman, Behold Thy Son. Son, Behold Thy Mother,” the movement conveyed the bond between mother and son with a section of an ascendant hymn, yet ended with chaos and an extremely loud unison passage depicting the true horror and tragedy that is reality. “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” (movement four) invited the listener to imagine the precise moment of Christ’s abandonment. Tournemire clearly intended this movement to be the height of intensity of the work; it is full of dissonance and sorrow. Interestingly, Strand’s poem for these words begins by describing imagery of spring, but then concludes with confirmation of darkness. This same duplicity can be found in the music as well. Toward the end of movement four, a quiet solo theme appeared out of the tumult, perhaps to represent God’s answer to Jesus. This theme and other melodic themes throughout the work are similar to plainsong melodies, as Tournemire was very inspired by Gregorian chant.

“I Thirst” was a very curious movement; the music had a prominent aura of mysticism due to several factors: eerie combinations of organ registrations, the use of Eastern scales for melodic motives, and an ending on one long, pulsating note. Of course, Tournemire’s and Strand’s works based on Christ’s words are very different, but this line from Strand’s poetry seems to echo the curiosity of this musical movement: “To open the dictionary of the Beyond and discover what one suspected, that the only word in it is nothing.” The penultimate movement “Father, Into Thy Hands” contained a fugue that leads up to Christ’s moment of death – many chromatic notes at the same time and then, silence. Low, shaking pedal notes depicted the earthquake that occurred, leading into the final movement, “It Is Finished.” This movement functioned as a sort of epilogue. Ascending melodies suggested rising to heaven – the music was still mournful, but ended hopefully on an extended major chord.

Different from most other performances, Dumbleton and Reverend Bates did not take bows or request applause for their fantastic and moving performances. Instead, after a period of silence, the two exited through a side door behind the organ, and the audience left in silent contemplation of the spiritual and musical concepts they had witnessed.