SEPULCHER OF LIFE for soprano, Middle-Eastern singer (alto) SATB choir and symphony orchestra: flute, piccolo, 2 oboe (2d oboe doubling on English horn), 2 clarinets in B flat (2d clarinet doubling on bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, four French horns in F, two trumpets in B flat, 1 tenor trombone, 1 bass trombone, 1 tuba, harp, three percussion, strings (8, 8, 6, 6, 3 or more). Texts from the Greek Orthodox hymnology of Good Friday (in Byzantine Greek) and by the composer (in English). Commissioned by The Vancouver Bach Choir, the Richard Eaton Singers (Edmonton), the Ottawa Choral Society and the St. Lawrence Choir (Montreal) with funds by the Canada Council for the Arts and by the choirs. In four movements played without interruption. 2004. Duration: 30 minutes. Score and parts available though PROMETHEAN EDITIONS.


(Note: as of 2009, Sepulcher of Life has been incorporated as Redemption: Book 5 in the cycle of works REDEMPTION).

        I        Sarcophagus
II       Encomium
III      Myrrh Bearer
IV      Sepulcher of Life

Commissioned by four different Canadian philharmonic choirs, Sepulcher of Life was written during November and December of 2003. Since the text for the commission was not determined by the commissioners, I had decided that I would compose a work based on the wonderful and moving encomia sung in Greek Orthodox churches during Good Friday. I had sketched ideas for the work a few months earlier but following a trip to Egypt in October of that year and my firsthand encounter with the Great Pyramid in Gizeh, I discarded all the sketches and started from the start.

While in Gizeh, I recalled the story of the Great Pyramid as related on various occasions by Edgar Cayce, the remarkable American prophet who has been and continues to be a great influence in my own thinking and life. According to Cayce, the Great Pyramid was built much earlier than is generally accepted today, and it was built as a Temple of Initiation, a testing place for those who would aspire to the higher degrees of an international "White Brotherhood" (members of which were the magi of the Christian gospels) and as a means of identifying the "Great Initiate" by means of such a test. According to this fascinating account, the path to the upper chamber is a time map encoding the various phases of experience that humanity had to undergo from the dawn of history all the way to our present time, the latter represented by the empty sarcophagus in the King’s Chamber. And yes, according to this account, the Great Initiate did come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who did take the initiation tests just before his ministry began in Judea.

This esoteric tradition connecting Egypt in a rather novel and unorthodox way to Jesus and the sight of this imposing structure that has survived the scorching sun and various human civilizations for several millennia completely overwhelmed me. Soon after my return to Toronto, I started work on this project and I knew from the outset that my experience in Egypt would find its way into the music at various levels, from the surface sound to the work’s deeper spirit.

Sepulcher of Life is in four movements that follow each other without interruption. They share more or less the same thematic material with the exception of the last movement whose material is foreshadowed earlier but not actually developed. Each movement is dedicated to an individual who played a seminal role in my own spiritual development. There are more people on that list than there are movements in this work, so I decided to keep their names hidden and only disclose their initials with the exception of the last movement which bears the dedication "for the Master", who in my heart of hearts is the great protagonist of this drama we call ‘human history’, and who has indelibly touched our development as a species at seminal moments throughout our collective existence in time and space.

Sarcophagus, the first movement, is based on two motivic ideas, the borrowed melody from the first line of the encomium "Η Ζωή εν τάφω" ("Life in the Sepulcher"), and an eight-note motif (actually, a four-note motif and its transposition), first introduced in the lower strings and brass, which undergoes various transformations throughout this movement and beyond. The stark architecture and sound of this movement sets a solemn tone appropriate for the subject matter and was very much influenced by my encounter with the Great Pyramid. Long lines, unyielding counterpoint and a sense of volume implied by the ever presence of low brass and strings, are the main compositional ingredients of this movement. In terms of deeper structure, the image of the sarcophagus, a coffin made of stone, is explored first from the outside—the darkness it evokes, which in turn is the result of our own innate fear of death—as a preamp to the luminous, ‘internal’ view of life and death that we finally arrive at by the last movement of the work.

Encomium, the second movement, develops the four-note motif that started the entire work and finally ends with six verses of the funeral encomium. In keeping with eastern Christian mysticism, the hymns of Good Friday are quasi-celebratory: the grief of Christ’s passion is somehow contained by the expectation of His resurrection. The orchestration towards the end of this movement is not mournful, but regal: it evokes something that is more akin to a coronation than a burial. The six verses of the encomium are meant to be sung by the audience in addition to the choir on stage. The part that the audience is invited to sing is provided with the program. The text is in Hellenistic Greek, so if you are having trouble reading the text, you could just hum the melody.

Myrrh Bearer, the third movement, is a characterization of Mary Magdalene, the woman who was so attached to the Master, and so grief stricken and overtaken by her loss, that she failed to recognize him when she spoke to Him in the garden on the morning of the Resurrection, mistaking Him instead for the gardener. She was a woman in inner conflict: well aware of the soteriological reasons for Christ’s Passion—some esoteric traditions like Gnosticism hold her as the greatest of Christ’s Apostles—yet she also tended to succumb to her earthly nature and fall into bouts of grief and despair. These two natures are represented in this movement by two different types of music: a Baroque-like variation of the Greek Orthodox encomium on one hand and dark Gypsy-like music featuring a rather virtuosic solo violin part for the concertmaster. Finally, for the solo voice in this movement I wanted a Middle-Eastern singer, a more appropriate choice for the subject matter. I worked with Cairo-born alto Maryem Tollar in the past and I was very intrigued by her voice and her improvisational prowess. The solo alto part of Myrrh Bearer was created specifically for her. Towards the end of the movement all these disparate elements are thrown together in one large and quite complex collage, almost like a funeral "wake", eventually ending in grief-stricken resignation by the singer while at the same time the orchestra rises to a luminous closing chord, foreshadowing the last movement.

Sepulcher of Life, the last movement of the work is based on texts that I created specifically for this particular movement. It is a series of permutations on the meaning of the words "life", "death", "love" and "Christ" that been sung repeatedly in the previous movements by both the soprano soloist and the choir. It is in a musical style decidedly different than the rest of the work and it could exist as a stand-alone composition. Melody, harmony and orchestration lean heavily towards popular music idioms, anywhere from Disney to Broadway. The intention was not to compose a piece of popular music, but to create a composition which, stylistically at least, was classless and borderless; one that spoke to the listener directly and honestly and acknowledged nothing else that might stand in the way of direct communication, be it convention, aesthetic bias, peer pressure, you name it. Accordingly, I went wherever my subject matter took me unconcerned about anything else.

At the end of the last movement, we return briefly to the empty sarcophagus of the Great Pyramid, by watching the opening four-note motif transform into a message of hope and promise. Asked what the empty sarcophagus meant in the mystical allegory of the path leading to the King’s Chamber, Edgar Cayce replied "that there will be no more death" (Reading 5748-6) meaning that at such a time the meaning of death would be clearly understood. I hope that Sepulcher of Life makes a small contribution towards such understanding.

Christos Hatzis

The Texts:

I zoe en tapho katetethis Christe,
ke Angelon stratie exeplitondo,
syghkatavasin dhoxazoussai tin sin.

I zoe poss thniskis? poss kai tapho ikiiss?
Tou thanatou to vassilion lyiss dhe,
ke tou adhou touss nekrouss exanistass.

O dhespotiss panton, kathorate nekross,
ke en mnimati keno katatithete,
o kenossass ta mnimia ton nekron.

I zoe en tapho katetethis Christe,
ke thanato ssou ton thanaton olessass,
ke epighassass to kosmo tin zoin.

O thavmaton kssenon! o praghmaton kenon!
o pnois mi chorighoss apnouss pherete,
kidhevomenoss cherssi tou Iosiph.

I zoe en tapho katetethis Christe,
ke Angelon stratie exeplitondo,
syghkatavasin dhoxazoussai tin sin.


Christ, you, who are Life itself,
were placed in a sepulcher,
and legions of angels were astonished
by your condenscendence.

How is it possible for you who is Life itself to die?
To abide in a grave? You,
who has dissolved the rule of Death
and resurrects Hade’s dead?

The ruler of all is beheld dead;
and in a new sepulcher is placed
he who has emptied all sepulchers of their dead.

Christ, you, who are Life itself,
were placed in a sepulcher,
and through your death you conquered Death
and sprung forth life into the world.

Strangest of paradoxes, and of inexplicable things!
the provider of my breath is carried breathless
by Joseph for furial.

Christ, you, who are Life itself,
were placed in a sepulcher,
and legions of angels were astonished
by your condenscendence.

(From an  Encomium sung in Greek Orthodox churches on Good Friday)


What is life other than dreams that float
inside the sepulcher of space and time?
A burst of consciousness transforming void
and galaxies of burning stars.
What is life other than dying dreams?

What is death other than open gates
to lives we dreamt of in the still of night?
The birth in a different place, a different time;
in worlds that lie beyond the grave;
(in worlds that beat within our heart).
What is death other than gates of love?

What is love other than heightened life:
the quest for union with our common source,
our common destiny, our common plight?
The Life that died so we may live.
The Life that lived so we may love.
What is love other than life in Christ?

What is Christ other than Love made flesh
to bring all flesh back to the source of love?
A Sun resplendent with life-giving force,
a moon reflecting radiant light.
What is Christ other than Life Revealed,
a Sepulcher of Life?

(Texts by the Christos Hatzis)

Premiere performances (since there are four separate commissioners for this work, there are four separate official "premiere" performances):

1. March 27, 2004. Svetlana Sech, soprano; Maryem Tollar, alto; The Vancouver Bach Choir; The Richard Eaton Singers; The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Bruce Pullan. Orpheum Theatre; Vancouver, BC.

2. April 17, 2004. Svetlana Sech, soprano; Maryem Tollar, alto; the Richard Eaton Singers; the Vancouver Bach Choir and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Len Ratzlaff. The Winspear Performing Arts Centre; Edmonton, AB.

3. February 26, 2005. Monica Whicher, soprano; Maryem Tollar, alto; The St. Lawrence Choir; The Ottawa Choral Society; The Amati Ensemble; Iwan Edwards, conductor. Église St. Jean Baptiste, Montreal, Quebec.

4. February 27, 2005. Monica Whicher, soprano; Maryem Tollar, alto; The Ottawa Choral Society; The St. Lawrence Choir; The Amati Ensemble; Iwan Edwards, conductor. Notre Dame Basilica, Ottawa, ON.

US premiere performance: May 7, 2004. Indra Thomas, soprano; Maryem Tollar, alto; The Orpheon Choral; The Little Orchestra Society; Dino Anagnost, conductor. The Temple of Dendur, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY.

Reviews and Comments:

Canadian Music for the Ages
Christos Hatzis's Sepulcher of Life could have lasting power.
Has Christos Hatzis done it? By which I mean to ask: has this University of Toronto composition professor created a piece of Canadian music that will not be filed promptly under Forget About It and never heard, or even heard about, again? The question is worth asking after Iwan Edwards and his St. Lawrence Choir (one of four Canadian societies to commission it) gave the eastern Canadian premiere of Sepulcher of Life at St. Jean Baptiste Church. This half-hour spiritual statement in four movements follows a traditional aesthetic trajectory from mysterious beginnings to an exultant conclusion. But it does so in an impressive and colourful fashion. Strange to say, there is no minimalist tedium of the sort that infects most contemporary attempts to set a mystic text. Hatzis's language is romantic and expressive at the core. This did not preclude some experimentalism in the middle movements. The solemn Encomium was a hymn sung in Greek by the audience as well as the choir, followed by a free-spirited solo for Middle Eastern singer Maryem Tollar....As for the neo-romantic rest, it was good stuff, and stylistically integrated even if Hatzis had learned lessons from the cinema (vaulting horns that would please John Williams) and from Mahler, whose Second Symphony was the obvious template for the heavenward gazing of the finale. Soprano solos in the outer movements are tough but viable; Monica Whicher scaled their heights to great effect. Edwards led the entirety with a steady hand and full heart. Arthur Captainis, THE GAZETTE, Montreal (Canada) March 1 2005.

Choir, Symphony combine for Enchanting Concert.
...Of special billing was alto soloist Maryem Tollar, whom Hatzis had in mind when he composed the work. Half scored, half improvised, the alto soloist's accompanied cadenza-like music to the simple words "life" and "love life," was truly a remarkable phenomenon to witness. Throughout her performance, one got the sense she was literally possessed by the music and emotion. Her radical physical movements and gestures appeared to manifest and personify her intense spiritual and emotional connection with the experience and the act of performance...the whole episode was unorthodox but highly effective. Daniel Ariaratnam THE RECORD, Kitchener-Waterloo (Canada) March 28 2005.

Local rising star Andriana Chuchman saved the day by replacing ailing Valdine Anderson as soprano soloist in Juno Award winning Canadian composer Christos Hatzis' oratorio Sepulcher of Life. She did an admirable job, especially with less than 24 hours notice. In Sarcophagus...the dark moodiness of the music was rife with drama, metamorphosing many times. Alternately theatrical and boisterous, then gentle and soothing, it captured and held one's imagination. A barefoot Maryem Tollar emerged from the wings for Myrrh Bearer, a characterization of Mary Magdalene....She poured forth a torrent of emotion, with soulful and guttural vocalizations, partly improvizational. There was no mistaking the grief Tollar expressed, wailing and gesturing without restraint. Concertmaster Gwen Hoebig accompanied the vocal line with an equally moving and emotional violin solo. The final movement of Sepulcher of Life, was a departure from the rest of the 30-minute long work, adopting a romantic and somewhat melodramatic approach. Traditional choral writing displayed the accomplished singers of the Canadian Mennonite Choir at their most angelic. Gwenda Nemorofsky WINNIPEG FREE PRESS, Winnipeg (Canada) February 12 2007.

...this is the most outstanding concert you have was an event of deeply spiritual dimension and I felt so honoured to be sharing in the generosity of spirit, talent, and energy of the community who made this memorable evening possible for mere mortals to attend!" J. D. Ottawa, ON (to the Ottawa Choral Society)

I just wanted to congratulate you for a spectacular work. Sepulcher of Life has such a great meaning and is beautifully Christian. I thank God that I was accepted into the Chorus this year and I am looking forward to performing your work next weekend. God bless your work and music for the glory of His name. M. S. St. Catharines, ON

Huge bouquets to the Ottawa Choral Society for one of the richest, most glorious concerts I’ve attended...The Hatzis was powerful and inspiring. The orchestra, the choir and the soloist were all called upon to perform feats in immense challenge and Maryem Tollar simply made me weep with her amazing portrayal of the Magdalena. What an evening!  Congratulations and many thanks – Epharisto poli!” C. L. Ottawa, ON

It has been wonderful to get home late, after working so many evenings, and put it into my CD player and relax to your excellent work.  I still get the small hairs on the back of my neck standing up as the music, choir, and the soprano, begin your piece!  I am at a loss to describe how this music makes me feel. I am a believer in how music, and certain words, can be almost magical in their effect on us. And Sepulcher of Life is none other than a fine example of this. M. W. Kitchener, ON

We'd asked our students to fill in an evaluation form, and since the feedback was so overwhelmingly positive, I thought you would enjoy reading some of the comments (I've put them below, copied exactly from the students' forms.)

In response to what the "best" part was, of the entire dress rehearsal and presentation experience, I don't think you will be surprised to hear that over 90% of them said hearing Maryem Tollar! It was interesting to note that most of their comments and enthusiasm was directed at Sepulcher of Life and yourself and Maryem, as opposed to the [Vaughan Williams'] Sea Symphony. I think that this illustrates the force of your composition and its message. I know you know that many of the choir (including myself!) had great difficulty in singing the piece because it was just such an emotional experience. Our students responded in the same way, even though they were listening to the piece "chopped up", as it were, instead of an uninterrupted performance. The chaperones noted there were several students in tears in response to it. B. T. RES Education Committee, Edmonton, AB

Dear Mr. Hatzis, I am currently teaching a only to non-music students and is basically a music appreciation course...One of the required concerts was opening night for the Winnipeg New Music Festival....Two of the responses came in the form of a letter of appreciation to you...I want to add my personal note of appreciation for your wonderful work that we heard at the opening concert.  It was, indeed, a very moving a meaningful experience. Thank you so much for that! L.E-B., Winnipeg Manitoba.

Return to Principal Compositions