STRING QUARTET NO. 4 (THE SUFFERING) 2018. Commissioned by the Penderecki String Quartet with a grant from the Ontario Arts Council. 24 minutes. Score and parts available through PROMETHEAN EDITIONS.


Commissioned by the Penderecki String Quartet with a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, String Quartet No. 4 (The Suffering) was composed during May and June 2018. After completing the composition of the first movement, my colleague composer Norbert Palej and I embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and visited most of the sites mentioned in the four gospels and other relevant literature. Both the anticipation of the experience and the actual experience itself have indelibly left their mark on this composition.

Subtitled “The Suffering,” my fourth string quartet is an essay on the deeper meaning of suffering and pain. This meaning becomes clearer and finds its stronger resonance in me when I meditate on the suffering of Jesus of Nazareth during his arrest, interrogation, torture and crucifixion. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t feel keenly this suffering as an inextricable aspect of the human condition but also as an unavoidable prerequisite for attaining the state of grace that I understand as Christhood. I am reminded of it by the suffering of loved ones, but also by the growing suffering of all of humanity, as dark and ever more menacing clouds are increasingly collecting on our ethical and political horizon. In times like ours, I go back to Jesus’s voluntary and redemptive suffering and, in the darkening landscape around it (and me,) I feel his light ever more keenly.

How can one address the complexity and grandeur of this act of voluntary suffering by the inadequate tool of musical language? To proceed at all, I had to resign to the only answer currently available to me: inadequately. This quartet is fraught with a sense of ‘active resignation’ and of humbly and honestly accepting the inadequate as an expressive possibility. My much younger spiritual travel mate’s (Norbert Palej’s) recent music has pointed the way for me: capture what you can from your feeble vision and leave the rest to grace to do its own work. Not all has been a fog, however. Through prolonged meditation of many years, my understanding of the true nature of pain has been appreciably transformed and, to a certain extent, reversed.

My initial intention was to musically meditate on Christ’s passion and resurrection over the course of two string quartets, with the first one (No. 4) focusing on the suffering and the following one on the glorification attained through earthly suffering. The fourth quartet would thus focus on Christ’s passion and the fifth on his resurrection, so I initially planned three movements for String Quartet No. 4: the first beginning at the Last Supper and ending at Gethsemane, the second covering Jesus’s interrogation by the Temple priests and their Roman overlords and the third focusing on the crucifixion. Accordingly, the first movement is titled “Gethsemane” and the second “Ecce Homo.” Gethsemane was the moment of Jesus’s true suffering and pain. He felt his own imminent suffering to the core, but he also felt humanity’s suffering and realized how crushing this collective weight would feel on a single person’s shoulders. The gospel writer’s description that he was literally “sweating drops of blood” shows clearly the enormity of his suffering at that moment. By contrast, the enormity of his generosity of spirit only becomes apparent when one thinks that, cognizant of what was to soon befall him, only a few hours earlier he was calmly admonishing his friends to love unconditionally and reject fear, overcoming his own predicament so that he could comfort them.

Reading the gospel accounts of his arrest and beyond, it becomes quite clear that, once the heroic decision was made to go through with his destiny, even though he had a choice to reverse it, Jesus’s conscious mind and body began to follow two separate paths. Once arrested, he became increasingly less responsive to his interrogators and did not react to his torturers. As I approached the end of the second movement, I realized that the beginning of Christ’s glorification was not the moment of his resurrection but the moment when the Roman procurator of Judea presented the barely standing mangled body of Jesus to the latter’s people. He presented him dressed in the mock attire of a king with a crown of thorns on his head and exclaimed, “behold the human.” With unintended dark irony, he was introducing the first human to complete the redemptive cycle that began with Christ’s advent as Adam and was completed at that very moment at the oppressor’s Lithostroton. In that critical but also timeless moment in our species evolution when, as William Butler Yeats describes it, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” Christ’s suffering ushered in his and humanity’s glory. Standing there among the assembled crowd with the power of my imagination, I started hearing a simple song being hummed by silent witnesses, but also by all humanity across geography and chronology; a song that the assembling dark clouds will not be able to ever silence. Just as humming is not accompanied by any visible evidence of singing, the multitudes who are quietly humming this song of hope can never be silenced. These multitudes are holograms of that one mangled human body dressed in mock kingly vestments, gladly suffering physical pain and insult, and humming a song of salvation across the ages.

After this moment, it was no longer possible to follow up with a third movement. The crucifixion and resurrection, the ultimate moments of Christ’s triumph over evil, will have to wait for a separate musical meditation.

Premiere performance: October 5, 8:00 PM. Penderecki String Quartet. NUMUS concert. Maureen Forrester Hall, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario.

Reviews and Comments:

Christos Hatzis’s String Quartet No.4 is a deeply-felt response to the Passion of Christ set in two movements, ‘Gethsemane’ and ‘Ecce Homo’. Hatzis writes in an elegiac tonal idiom, mostly diatonic but with some chromaticism, reminiscent of Central European composers before and after 1900 (e.g. Dvořák and Janáček) who sought to infuse late tonality with fresh authenticity through occasional unfamiliar harmonic moves within the geometries of consonant chord formations. The narrativity of ‘The Suffering’ is similar to Schoenberg’s 1899 Verklärte Nacht, with genuinely affective story-telling, proceeding in sections – in this case something like stations of the Cross. Hatzis inflects the music with clear narrative and symbolic devices. For instance, the first movement ends with a striking group sigh followed by a long tremolo of multiple octaves; the last minutes of the second movement feature a simple and hypnotic hymn, functioning symbolically like an aura or halo, which is first declaimed by the violin then repeated with the audience asked to hum along wordlessly in congregational communion. Hatzis rejects musical modernism and postmodernism, seeking in echoes of the nineteenth century an idiom for direct expression of sincerity and faith. Richard Kurth, SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL. Nov. 11, 2018.

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