Arvo Part and John’s Gospel

Today I listened through Arvo Part’s musical setting of the passion of Christ according to John.  It’s a good way to walk slowly and meditatively through the text, and random thoughts occurred to me:

  • In John’s Gospel, Christ is strongly portrayed as Wisdom itself.  So when he said, “I have always preached openly,” it reminded me of the description of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs, who preaches at every street corner and cries out as people go by.
  • In the same scene, it suddenly occurred to me that it’s not just a clever rhetorical defense for Jesus to say, “Ask those who heard me.”  In fact, that is the approach he has favored in the end:  he wants us to learn what he said by asking those who heard him.
  • When the soldiers take Jesus’ garments and cast lots for them, I suddenly wondered:  what are the garments of wisdom?  In my imagination, wisdom is the object of theology, while the garments of wisdom are all the other disciplines:  mathematics, philosophy, and so on.  These have indeed been divided among the conquerors as theology was removed from the schools.  For some reason, in my imagination literature is the seamless garment.
  • Why is it that everyone says tenors have the most pleasing voices, the famous soloists are all tenors, the tenors make block-buster recordings, and so on and so forth—and yet every musical setting of the passion casts Jesus as a baritone?  I think the world may have a guilty conscience about us baritones.

While all this passed through my mind, I couldn’t help comparing Arvo Part’s passion rendering with Bach’s famous passion settings.  Part’s approach has ups and downs.  The pros:

  • You can actually listen to it in one sitting before the baby wakes up.  Bach’s versions are all massive.
  • It stays close to the text—there is no text but John’s text.
  • It has a restrained, minimalist feel that evokes the mood of the passion story perhaps better than a moody soprano chirping about how her heart bleeds.
  • It establishes a consistent characterization for each voice:  Jesus, the crowds, the enemies, and so on.
  • It’s cooler:  if you’re a Bach fan—well, who’s not?  But if you’re all into Arvo Part, you’re hip, you know?

The cons:

  • No melody or rhythm, nothing that will stick in your mind.  You will not read a line from John’s Gospel later and have a bit of Part’s passion suddenly replay in your head.
  • No musical value apart from the text.  That is, you can listen to Bach not knowing what the German says and it’s still really beautiful, but Part is just boring if you don’t know what the Latin text is saying at that point.  (I understand the Latin text when I hear it, so I have not had and could not actually have the experience of following along with an English rendering—not sure what that would be like.)
  • The music does not interpret particular sentences or phrases; melody and mood are disconnected from the details of the text.
  • Pontius Pilate comes across as languishing and effeminate.  It’s as though he can’t attend to Jesus because he’s still letting his nail polish dry.


My thanks to Peter Kwasniewski for putting me onto Part’s piece, which I have enjoyed for a couple of years now.  I hope he will put his mind to writing a passion setting some year, because I think he can do Part’s project better than Part did.


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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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