By Christopher Vale
These notes and insights are taken from a discussion with composer Franco Prinsloo (1987-).
Kruis van Liefde is a large work for choir, organ, and percussion by Franco Prinsloo. Based on texts by Hans du Plessis and Bernard Odendaal, this oratorio tells the story of the Passion of Jesus Christ through inspired new Afrikaans verse. Other adaptations of this text include a Passion play, but Prinsloo’s work uses the text as originally conceived by Du Plessis and Odendaal, with minor concessions to musical interpretation.
Historically, an oratorio is a large work for orchestra, choir, and soloists. In this case, Prinsloo dispenses with the orchestra and soloists, making this work a very economically viable enterprise. The organ fulfills the function of the string, woodwind, and brass sections, while the percussion section is given an extensive showcase for its often-underutilised range. The choir fulfils its usual function, which is to provide commentary on the story as traditionally told by soloists, but in Prinsloo’s reimagining of this traditional form, single choral voice parts fill in the solo parts to transforms the choir into a more dimensional storytelling device. Recitatives, which are usually performed by solo voices, are given to different unison sections of the choir to magnify the nuances of the language, occasionally using harmony to better illustrate the story.
In terms of style, Prinsloo’s point of departure is Medieval chant. Cantus firmus and pedal point are utilised extensively, as well as many instances of open fifth harmonies and parallel fifths. The melodies are constructed from modal scales and this was done specifically to evoke a sense of timeless universality, and to avoid the conventional chorale harmonies used in traditional church music.
The piece largely utilises modal systems which bear resemblances to mirror tonalities to build to several climactic, dissonant chords. This is to underline the brutal aspects of the story, starkly contrasting with the redemptive aspects of the story depicted in the more major tonalities used later in the work. The work begins in the key of D minor, which traditionally symbolises death and destruction, and ends in the key of D major, which is conversely the key of triumph and resurrection.
There is also extensive use of symbolic numbers, which can be seen in the number of bars per movement, the number of voices in a chord, or the number of notes in specific melismatic themes. One of the most important themes used in the work is a seven-note melismatic theme on the word “God”, the number seven being strongly associated with God. This theme is later used when the word “Hom” (Him) is sung, in reference to Jesus, and later still, the melisma in octaves is used to accompany Jesus’s cry to God, as He cries “Elo-i, Elo-i, lama sabagtani?” (My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?).
Fig. 1 – Melisma on the word “God”
These themes and motives are used continuously throughout the work in several dynamic ways. These applications can be: to establish a theme connected to a specific idea, person, or event; to refer to a past event or foreshadow a future event; to convey irony by juxtaposing opposing themes.
Additionally, several well-known musical signifiers are used to give a sense of place and intent, for example, a snare drum is used to evoke military presence. Specifically, the use of hard mallets on the marimba is used to evoke the macabre, similarly accomplished with a xylophone in works like Saint-Saens’s Danse Macabre, evoking the rattling of bones, hell, death, and more specifically, Golgotha, the place of the skull.
I. Kom laat on sing
The first movement establishes the use of the upward 5th interval and chant with the text “Kom laat ons sing” (come, let us sing). It invites the audience into the realm of the work. One of the most important themes used in the work is a seven-note melismatic theme on the word “God”, the number seven being strongly associated with God.
Fig. 2 – Opening chant theme
II. Resitatief: Daarop sê Pilatus
Recitative, which is the singing of a prose-based text over several chord progressions to further a story, is used in this movement. The basses and tenors sing the narrator’s part in unison, but as soon as Pilate speaks, they split into two-part harmony. This style of recitative is still used in some church settings to this day.
III. Kruisig Hom!
“Kruisig Hom!” (crucify Him) is the first time the crowd is voiced. Here the instrumentation becomes very aggressive, and we hear the first example of the marimba depicting the approach of death. The snare drum indicates the military presence. An alternating time signature of 4/4, 6/8, and 3/4 suggests a danse macabre. The choir alternates between A minor and A flat major chords alternately, but when the crowd unites in choosing Barabbas, this is in unison. What follows is an organ passage over which the choir ad. lib. yells “kruisig Hom!” This builds up to a tremendous dissonance, ending on an extended eight-part chord, again on the words “kruisig Hom!” After this climax, there is a calm segue into the next recitative.
Fig. 3 – Dissonant eight-part chord on the word “kruisig”
IV. Resitatief: Toe lewer Pilatus Hom aan hulle uit
The organ introduces this recitative with a descending bass line, as in the passacaglia, which is characterised by a descending five-note bass line. The opening chant theme is then repeated in the organ accompaniment. The female voices join the male voices in recitativo for the first time, echoing the musical material in canon. Specific musical emphasis is placed on the word “hulle”, echoing throughout the work.
V. Sal Sy graf ooit oop kan gaan?
Once again, the organ leads us into this movement, suspending the major third of the previous movement, directly modulating into C major. The choir enters one voice part at a time, as in a canon, or fugue-like manner. Typographically, this creates the visual of the grave opening. Each voice part enters in a quiet, prayer-like manner, building to a large climax. Hard mallets are used in the marimba to signify Golgotha, the themes of which are presented in a tremolo figure, evoking the signifiers of hell and death, which echo the melodies in the choir. Tubular bell tolls indicate the fate that awaits Jesus.
Fig. 4 – The typographic setting depicting the opening of the grave
VI. Resitatief: ‘n Groot Menigte
A new melodic theme is introduced in the organ, echoing the already prevalent upward fifth interval that characterises the work as whole. The female voices enter, stating the new theme once again, beginning with the altos, followed by the sopranos in canon. They echo one another as in a processional, symbolising the people that followed Jesus’s progress to Golgotha. The women who mourned him are portrayed using a sigh motif on the word “huil” (crying), depicting their sobs.
Fig. 5 – Sigh motif on the word “huil”
VII. Vroue van Jerusalem
Jesus, voiced by the male choir, addresses the women, telling them not to weep for him. The female voices reply with the same sigh motif used in the previous recitative, building to a great climax in chorale form, in which the words of Jesus are sung by the entire choir to confirm His message to the weeping women. The transition out of this piece is played by the marimba, which plays a repeated note in a metronomic fashion, indicating the urgency of the moment. The section ends with typical modal chant in the male voices, whereafter the organ closes this section with the same melodic theme present at the opening of the movement.
VIII. Resitatief: Die Volksleiers het aangehou om smalend te sê
Short, sharp cell motifs in the organ’s upper register indicate time urgency, underscored by long pedal points and suspensions. The male voices depict the Jewish elders that mock him derisively for claiming to be the king of the Jews. The pedal point in the organ builds along with marimba’s increasingly insistent stabs. The left hand of the organ drives the momentum of the section in a repeated sextuplet pattern, echoed in the timpani, increasing the drama. The female voices join in three-part harmony to echo the male voices.
Fig. 6 – Insistent sextuplet “stabs” on marimba
IX. Gee Hom suur asyn
This movement causes an abrupt shift in tempo and mood. A pedal point in held open fifths sustains the tension. The upward moving perfect fifth motif in the theme reinforces the thematic material with the words “Gee Hom suur asyn”, followed by a distinctly Phrygian descending melody. A snare drum roll helps to build tension as the movement builds to a climatic 6/8 section which predicts the spear stabbing into Jesus’s side. The sudden rhythmic changes and time signature changes evoke a danse macabre, directly leading into the next movement.
X. Red jouself!
The dynamic, rhythmical, and fiery character of the third movement is revisited. The choir, depicting the crowd, relentlessly mocks Jesus. As before, the organ interlude is punctuated by ad libitum laughter and exhortations by the crowd for Jesus to save Himself if He is truly the King of the Jews. This is brought to a climax by the choir singing a dissonant chord in eight-part harmony on the words “red jouself”.
XI. Resistatief: Saam met Jesus is ook twee ander misdadigers weggelei
The tension of the previous movement is resolved in the organ by reinstating the passacaglia-like descending bass line as stated in the fourth movement. The tenors enter in a very high tessitura, describing one of the criminals being crucified alongside Jesus. A high vocal line depicts the painful circumstances of the characters. The criminal, speaking in the bass voices, ridicules Jesus: “Is jy dan nie die Christus nie?” (Are you not the Christ?) The original chant theme recurs in the organ.
XII. Vader vergewe hulle
This movement begins very meditatively with a slow four-note chord progression in the left hand and pedals of the organ, with soft, staccato repeated notes in the right hand. This expresses the trembling, stammering speech of Jesus. Jesus speaks through the male voices in a soft, legato, unison, contrasting directly with the organ accompaniment. The female voices enter by echoing the words of Jesus. Each additional voice adds a new texture, starting with the baritones and staggering each new line of text, drawing attention to each voice part in turn. This meditative prayer invokes wave after wave of textual layering. The whole choir ends in unison, affirming the text “Vader vergewe hulle, want hulle weet nie wat hulle doen nie” (Father forgive them, for they know not what they do).
Fig. 7 – Organ accompaniment expressing the trembling, stammering speech of Jesus
XIII. Resitatief: Een van die misdadigers wat daar gehang het
This movement contrasts with previous movements though anxious motivic movement, with a large focus on the organ as a solo instrument. A toccata-like accompaniment propels the dramatic movement of the story forward. The choir enters in unison, and the same seven-note melismatic phrase used for the word “God” in a previous movement is used on the word “Hom”, referring to Jesus. An abrupt interruption occurs when the criminal derides Jesus with the words “red jouself” in a forceful eight-part chord, with a dissonance on “-self”.
Fig. 8 – Toccata-like accompaniment in the organ
XIV. Dink aan my
For the first time in this work, the choir features a capella, weaving the words into a soft pleading prayer. The momentum changes when Jesus answers, with a modulation into an established major tonality, and when the criminal speaks with a solemn, soft pleading, the tonality reverts to minor. Long, sustained notes in the soprano, sigh motives in the choir, and a resolution to a major key, all underline the fact that the criminal has been forgiven.
Fig. 9 – Choir in a capella
XV. Resitatief: By die Kruis van Jesus
The organ re-enters with a long pedal point. The male voices chant in unison, introducing three characters: Mary, mother of Jesus; Mary, wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene transforming into the major.
XVI. Vrou, kyk, daar is u seun
This movement is a dialogue between the three Marys portrayed by the female voice parts. The organ accompaniment is reminiscent of that in XII. Vader vergewe hulle. Mary, wife of Clopas says, “vrou, kyk, daar is u seun”, to which Mary mother of Jesus responds by expressing her distress at not being able to help her child. Mary Magdalene, in turn, expresses her anguish at not being able to help her friend. The dialogue is interwoven and repeated, creating a meditative prayer as in movement XII. A snare drum illustrates the looming military presence.
Fig. 10 – Dialogue between the Marys
XVII. Resitatief: Op die negende uur
Here, as sudden, dramatic shift occurs. It is the ninth hour. The male voices enter forte, depicting Jesus crying out to God in a loud voice. Bass drum and gong crashes punctuate this narrative, conveying the urgency of the moment. The male voices, in a very high tessitura, loudly sing the words “Elo-i, Elo-i, lama sabagtani?” (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?). This is expressed in an ascending triad, as if trying to reach God. The female voices, in octaves, repeat the seven-note “God” melisma in a repeated vocalisation over this section. As soon as this is complete, the organ echoes the triad motif softly, as though the words have echoed into eternity. The female voices re-enter with a section of the original chant theme, underlining the pain and anguish of the moment, while the timpani play an urgent rhythmic pattern to underline the drama.
Fig. 11 – Male voices calling to God
XVIII. My God, my God, waarom het U my gelos
The marimba reintroduces the musical landscape of movement VIII with a repeated note, symbolising time’s relentless pace. Jesus, in the male voice parts, calls out to God once again, echoing material from movement VIII. The male voices enter on the words “U hoor My, Ek soek na U”, octaves apart, with an upward moving vocal line, as if calling out to God. The next section is heralded by an abrupt interruption in momentum and movement. A pedal point in the organ and a long, held snare roll build the tension, with the male voices singing the same theme as in the movement IX. Gee hom suur asyn, echoing the mockery of the crowd. Suddenly, a rhythmic 6/8 dance, like in movements IV and X, signifies the encroaching presence of hell and death with the marimba’s tremolo, emphasizing the words “die hel omsingel my” (hell encircles me). This dance builds as the organ and timpani echo one another in a dance, the macabre theme building continuously, before it suddenly disappears, leaving only a pedal point in the organ. The male voices sing the last phrases in chant to indicate that Jesus is too tired to continue much longer.
XIX. Resitatief: Ek is dors
Beginning softly, but tensely, the organ plays a five-note cluster in the high register, representing life being drawn out of Jesus. Below this, the original chant of “Kom laat on sing” can be heard in the organ accompaniment. A soft timpani roll keeps the tension as the female voices enter with an evolved version of the original chant theme. On the words “Ek is dors” (I am thirsty), the female voices begin in unison on the word “Ek” (signifying Jesus’s divinity with a single note), split into a two-note cluster on “is”, and further split into a three-note cluster on the word “dors”. The intensity of dissonance in these notes signifies the extent of Jesus’s thirst. To convey the irony of His thirst without hope of relief, the theme from movement IX. Gee hom suur asyn, is played in the left hand of the organ.
Fig. 12 – Female voices signify the extent of Jesus’s thirst
XX. Dit is volbring
Starting on a long D minor pedal point, the organ reintroduces the theme from movement VII. Vroue van Jerusalem, illustrating that Jesus’s last words convey the same pathos as those he used to comfort the women of Jerusalem. The sopranos enter in a high tessitura, as if from the heavens, symbolising the fulfilment of God’s scriptural word. They chant in unison, splitting into a two-note cluster on the word “dors” each time it occurs. The alto, tenor, and bass parts enter, propelling the events forward. In the organ, the ascending triad as heard on “Elo-i, Elo-i” from movement XVII is echoed. A high descant soprano enters as the choir sings the words “Dit is volbring”, starting pianissimo and building up via crescendo to a climactic ten-part harmonic chord.
XXI. Kom laat ons sing: Hy het die sonde oorwin
This movement opens will a single tubular bell toll, together with a high open fifth drone in the organ, symbolising the moment of fulfilment. The choir enters with the same chant as the first movement, with the words changed. Musical material from the opening is re-stated to emphasise the consummation of scripture. The melisma previously used on the word “God” is now used on the words “Dit is volbring”.
XXII. Resitatief: Twaalfuur
The number twelve is used extensively in this movement. The movement consists of twelve bars, twelve tolls are played on the tubular bells, the choir’s climactic moment ending on a twelve-part harmonic cluster chord. As the cluster chord is sung, the opening theme is re-stated in the organ part. Ending the movement, the sopranos ascend to a two-note harmony on the word “skeur” to signify the curtain in the temple ripping in two.
Fig. 13 – Sopranos two-note harmony signifying the curtain ripping in two
XXIII. Hy hang voor my
Here the time signature changes to 3/4 with a sigh motif in the bass line. One of the soldiers realises that Jesus was truly innocent, voiced by the tenors. In contrast to the sigh motif in the bass line, the tenors sing a sustained, elongated passage. The sopranos and altos enter with the same material as the tenors, creating a canon, the choir becoming the repentant soldier. The snare drum’s presence throughout the movement shows the irony of the soldier’s change of heart. The focus of the narrative shifts through the various voice parts, while the organ re-states the thematic material from movement XII. Vader vergewe hulle, indicating that the soldier will be forgiven. A descant soprano line with the ascending triad as heard on “Elo-i, Elo-i” from movement XVII, is heard here. The baritones and altos reintroduce the motif from movement XII, which is developed at a much slower tempo with the words “Vader, in U hande gee ek my gees oor” (Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit). The sopranos and tenors echo one another in two parts, emphasizing the aforementioned phrase, bringing greater significance to the release of Jesus’s soul, ending in unison on the words “gee ek my gees oor”. A pedal point in the organ leads to the next movement.
XXIV. Vader, my gees gee Ek in U hande oor
The pedal point from the end of the previous movement continues. The sopranos and altos begin with a chant reminiscent of those used in the recitatives, but eventually split into a D major harmony. The organ echoes the recitative of Mary, wife of Clopas in movement XV, structurally binding together these two sections of major tonality, and thematically linking the love and comfort of Jesus’s friends and family with the love and comfort of God through death. The basses and baritones sing a pedal point in open fifths, while the tenors softly sing a D major pentatonic scale ad libitum. This creates an aleatoric soundscape of meditative tone clusters, illustrating the movement of the soul from this world to the next. The organ subtly plays a small musical cell from movement XIV. Dink aan my, linking redemption for humanity with Jesus’s sacrifice.
The sopranos and tenors enter with the melody from XIV. Dink aan my, on the words “U het die sonde vervreem”. The organ enters with the same accompanimental figure as in XII. Vader, vergewehulle, but this time in a major key. This builds to a large climax as the tenors and basses join, evolving into a triumphant song of praise. A trumpet enters at the moment of triumph, emphasised by the triumphant key of D major. Musical material from movement VII. Vroue van Jerusalem, previously on the words “moenie oor My treur nie”, is now transformed from mourning into praise. The sopranos and altos enter, joining the celebration, and building to a jubilant G major chord on the word “eer” (honour). After a long moment of silent tention, to contrast this, the choir softly re-enters on the a capella phrase “U dood aan die kruis gee ons lewe” (Your death on the cross gives us life). This soft prayer brings the entire work to a close with an immensely intimate a capella “amen”, using the same musical materials as in movement XIV. Dink aan my (Think of me). This phrase underlines how this story has remained in our collective memory, and will continue to do so.