Gerard Brophy’s Passion Play Gethsemane – by Michael Furtado

Gerard Brophy is an Australian composer, who has recently had a passion play of his, called ‘Gethsemane’, performed on ABC Radio National FM by the eminent classical vocal ensemble, The Song Company. It will be broadcast on ABC-FM at 9:30 pm tonight, Holy Thursday 28th March 2013.

Brophy has created large-scale orchestral works and a wide array of chamber and solo works. He has recently been commissioned to compose a Mass to be performed by the Boys’ Choir of Guildford Grammar School in Western Australia and is widely recognised as belonging to a tradition that commences with Gregorian chant and develops through the Baroque and Romantic repertoire of Mozart, Haydn, Bach and Beethoven to the more modern ‘genre religieuse’ of Penderecki, Britten and Bernstein.

While Brophy’s work is less grandiose than that of his illustrious predecessors there’s a continuity and an eloquence to it that authenticates his positioning within such a special and fine tradition.

In order to create Gethsemane, Brophy turned to Calcutta, the place of my birth, to gain inspiration and understanding of the everyday struggle of the destitute and dying as his setting for creating a vocal expression of the gospel accounts of Christ’s agony in the garden.

As a result, he has created a work that draws on his reflections of their experience, which he knows well after several visits to that city.

In doing this, Brophy shows that he understands the contemporary approach to evangelisation, called inculturation, which engages in an interplay between the contemporary lives of the homeless, the abandoned and the dying and Jesus’s own experience of abandonment and death. He has also chosen an interesting mixture of classical European and Indian musical genre, including an English narrative, some Bengali expressions and a Portuguese musical vernacular, to knit together a remarkable sound effect  that lifts his audience towards an experience that can only be described as spiritual.

Brophy, whom I interviewed for this article, says that he chose Calcutta as his setting for a variety of reasons. He was familiar with Dominique Lapierre’s account of Calcutta and the work of Mother Teresa called ‘City of Joy’.  Secondly, he was intrigued by Bengali culture. Calcutta is the capital of West Bengal and, during the hey-day of the British Empire, was once its second and largest city.

While it is full of memories of the Raj, whose capital it was for most of Britain’s two and a half centuries of colonial rule, and accounting for fine Georgian mansions and Victorian extravaganza in its plush suburbs, it also houses the poorest of the world’s poor. Currently some eighteen million people eke out an existence in a city that is as environmentally unsustainable as it is economically unviable.

Yet Calcutta offers the world the cream of India’s artistic and intellectual life. Its teeming millions speak Bengali and, amongst the privileged, an expressive and infectious form of English.

It boasts the world’s first non-European Nobel Prize winner, Rabindranath Tagore, who attended Calcutta’s renowned Jesuit institution, St Xavier’s College. And, of course, it gave the world Mother Teresa, who, although Albanian-born and formed by the Irish Loreto order, is hailed as Calcutta’s most illustrious daughter and canonised saint.

Brophy reflects that it was Mother Teresa’s genius in lifting the lid on the brutality of Calcutta with such dignity and compassion that triggered his interest in composing Gethsemane. He then structured this consciousness through a series of spoken vignettes about the everyday lives of the destitute, though stripped off the eau-de-cologned piety and resignation that tends to obscure and cover-up Calcutta’s perception of itself. In between these narratives Brophy has composed choral and orchestral interludes in the manner of The Lamentations.

These naturally relate to reflections on the suffering and death of Christ – not a particularly popular liturgical practice these days, though one with a long tradition in classical religious composition.

My thoughts in listening to Gethsemane were transported to the criticism that Christopher Hitchens made of Mother Teresa. He called her a fraud because in the end her coming to terms with the hopelessness of Calcutta gave false hope in his view to the many whose miserable circumstances were simply alleviated by death.

Hitchens postulated that the proper way to approach the problem would have been to use her influence to alleviate their condition while they lived. She failed, in his view, to develop a medical facility that changed their lives for the better. In this and with the benefit of hindsight, given Hitchens’s recent death, Brophy’s music reveals a spiritual insight that Hitchens didn’t comprehend.

When asked about his response to his own impending and premature death from cancer, he replied that his only concern was that it would rob him of life, but that otherwise he viewed his situation ‘scientifically’ and accepted as best he could that his demise would inconveniently and regrettably be the end of it all.

Brophy’s artistic reprisal of this theme put me in mind of a much greater writer, the incomparable Malcolm Muggeridge, who experienced in Mother Teresa’s ministry not just the awakening in himself of a spirituality but also of the Christian promise of a new life that transcends death.

Gerard Brophy welcomes inquiries about performances of his work, especially during Lent.

Guest Author: (Dr) Michael Furtado, Adjunct Researcher, The University of Queensland – The Culture Concept Circle 2013


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