"The Son of Man" Program Notes

"The Son of Man"
for Soli, Chorus, Trumpet, Harp, Percussion and Organ
Music by Kareem Roustom
Text by Khalil Gibran

The text in this work is from "Jesus The Son of Man" by Khalil Gibran and is
used with the kind permission of the Gibran National Committee.
P.O. Box 116-5375
Beirut, Lebanon
Phone: (+961-1) 396916 Fax: (+961-1) 396921
E-Mail: k.gibran@cyberia.net.lb.

This work was commissioned by The United Parish Brookline, MA U.S.A. This work was also funded in part by the Composer Assistance Program of the American Music Center. Special thanks to the generosity of Wolfgang and Cola Wakefield Franzen in memory of Julius H. Wakefield.

Special thanks to Interlink Books publishers of “Kahlil Gibran - His Life and World” by Jean Gibran and Kahlil Gibran. www.interlinkbooks.com

Program notes:

When Susan DeSelms, the music director at the United Parish, first approached me in 2008 about a commission for the Easter holiday I immediately thought of Gibran’s 1928 book “Jesus The Son of Man: His words and His deeds as told and recorded by those who knew Him.” At that time it was not a book that I had known for very long. Nonetheless it had made a strong impression on me and I felt drawn to its unique interpretation of the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

My original conception of this oratorio was for seven movements. As the work grew beyond the scope of the original commission, however, one of the movements was dropped. The completed musical work is a good deal larger in scope than had been originally planned. Although much of the harmonic and melodic materials used in this work can have chromatic and, at times, atonal inflections their genesis is in Arabic Near Eastern maqam, or tonal systems. Due to the nature of the available instrumentation I’ve had to forgo the many microtonal inflections of maqam. However, I’ve always tried to maintain traditional melodic contours and the spirit of maqam even when the harmonic settings become thick with chromaticism. This is a bi-lingual musical approach that I’ve been striving to perfect for a number of years now and “The Son of Man” is the largest scale composition to date using this approach.

I. The text of the first movement made it clear to me that the harp had to play a prominent role and that no men’s voices would be used. I also decided that he priestess in the opening movement would become several priestesses. At once they sing the praises of the “beloved” (Jesus) but they are also carried away by an almost feverish zealotry. The soprano soloist sets the tone of praise and ecstasy while the women respond to and heighten this mood. It is ultimately the mezzo-soprano who enters abruptly after a dramatic change in tone brought on by a roar in the timpani. This mood change is further aided by the dark and full 16 foot and 32 foot pipes of the organ.

II. The text in Benjamin The Scribe is both discernable and mystical. The line “The birds of the air and the mountain tops are not mindful of the serpents in their dark holes. Let the dead bury their dead. Be you yourself among the living, and soar high” is nebulous and difficult to understand yet its message is compelling. Benjamin the fictional narrator delivers this message while placing Jesus as a political activist in the struggle against Roman occupation. While the tone of Benjamin’s narrative is political he also reminds us that Jesus and his message are greater such earthly squabbles “He was greater than State and race; He was greater than revolution.” Large drums and the trumpet play an important role in this movement. A six note melodic figure, which is a reduction of the tenor soloists melody on the text “Let the dead bury their dead,” is first introduced by the chimes towards the end of the first movement. This motif plays an important role through out the remainder of the piece and most notably in the third and sixth movements.

III. The musical setting for Mary Magdalene’s text is inspired by elements of the Maronite (one of the largest Eastern-rite communities of the Roman Catholic church, prominent especially in modern Lebanon) Mass. Gibran, who was a Maronite, would have been familiar with many of the sounds that inspired my choice of instruments. Bells, such as the naqus (metallic hemispheres played with metal sticks) or brass fingers cymbals of various sizes are often used in the Maronite Mass as a means of calling people to prayer. Another instrument common to the Maronite Mass is the marwahah, which is a large metallic disc with small pieces of metal suspended from its sides. The large disc is attached to a wooden handle and when shaken gently a rustling sound is produced. All of these elements inspired my use of instruments such as crotales, mark tree, bell tree, triangles and others. The melodic setting for the soprano soloist also draws its influence from the Maronite Mass, specifically the Syro-Maronite-Arabic chant style. In this text, Gibran’s Mary Magdalene recalls her first meeting with Jesus and in doing so reveals a deep and intense attraction to him that results in her cathartic transformation. Magdalene is sung by the soprano soloist, a short solo by ‘an Egyptian slave’ is assigned to the tenor soloist and the text attributed to Jesus is sung by the full choir. The latter voice is both compassionate and elusive. The longest of all the movements my intent was to capture Magdalene’s intense and almost destructive spiritual journey.

IV. John The Baptist is perhaps one of the most provocative texts in Gibran’s work and my understanding of it is in no small way reflective on the current events in the Near East. I see Gibran’s John the Baptist as a modern day political prisoner who has broken through the barrier of fear and speaks out despite knowing that his unjust end is near. There are moments when, to my understanding, the text verges on madness. The musical setting is based on a nine beat rhythmic cycle found in folk dances in Turkey, Greece and other areas around the Mediterranean. The melodic motif first heard in the organ is inspired by an Arabic folk music figure that I’ve heard in many incarnations and is usually played on a bamboo double reedpipe such as the Arabic mijwiz or mizmar. This movement is dedicated to all those who have broken through the barrier of fear and refuse to remain silent.

V. The image of neighbors comforting Mary after the crucifixion of Jesus provided for one of the most moving texts in Gibran’s book. Although there are no direct references in my setting I was influenced by the emotion in the Maronite Easter song ‘Ana al-umm al-hazina’ (I am the grieving mother). This is one of several Easter songs that the great Lebanese singer Fairouz recorded on an album that my family often listened to at home during Easter season. My setting of Gibran’s text is based on a single melodic concept that is repeated three times, once by the mezzo-soprano soloist, then a fully harmonized version by the choir and again by the soloist. A short transitional section separates the second and third iterations of the main theme.

VI. Gibran’s own voice comes through clearly and powerfully in this last text. Though greatly reduced from the version in the book the text used in this movement maintains the spirit of the original. Gibran calls out the hypocrites, specifically those who speak the words of Jesus but do not understand, or choose not to embody their meaning. While his accusations are sharp Gibran’s tone is not without compassion and, ultimately, humility. The musical materials are based on the fullest realization of the six note motif first introduced in the tenor solo of the second movement. Themes from other movements are also employed as well and our final guide to the end of the work is the mezzo-soprano who called for a calming of passions and the opening of ears and hearts in the first movement.

This work is dedicated to the memory of my father Sirry Abdulkarim Roustom (1925 –2009).

--Kareem Roustom (April 20th 2011)