When composer Christopher Tyler Nickel set out to create an oratorio of Mark’s gospel, he made an ambitious decision to set not just the narrative but the whole text to music, word for word.
The resulting work is an expansive, seven-hour musical. Nickel’s composition leads the listener through Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry, sculpting and shading the story through the use of voices, timbre, theme, and meter.
As many Christians around the globe observe Holy Week, The Gospel According to Mark offers a musical addition to the canon of artistic meditations on the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. The work will be released in its entirety on Good Friday by Avie Records, and excerpts are available in three EPs: Salvation, Prophecy, and Death and Resurrection.
Nickel’s composition contributes to a genre with historical roots dating back to the 17th century; Handel’s Messiah is one prominent example of a sacred oratorio, as is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Besides its length, The Gospel According to Mark differs from these older works in its exclusive use of the gospel text, without poetic elaborations or additions.
Nickel’s work invites listeners to meditate on the gospel text and open themselves to the ways that the marriage of the music and Scripture might move their emotions.
The conclusion of the work, “The Ascension and Amen” (Mark 16:19–20, KJV), isn’t a glorious crescendo or grand chorus. The orchestra and voices weave together, swelling and retreating as the amen repeats over and over, accompanied by deliberate and steady open chords. The voices and instrumentation subtly, peacefully fade away.
The passage “leaves the listener with an unfinished story, with something that we must take with us, in our hearts, souls, and minds,” Nickel wrote in the album notes for The Gospel According to Mark.
For the Canadian Christian, the process of composing the oratorio was a personal, spiritual journey. Much of Nickel’s career has been concentrated in film and television; he created scores for Discovery, CBC, Lifetime, A&E, and Hallmark.
The Gospel According to Mark was a departure from commercial music and has reacquainted Nickel with his lifelong faith. The project inspired him to consider—and invite others to consider—the connection between music and prayer, as well as music’s ability to deepen our perception and experience of the divine.
What was the catalyst for The Gospel According to Mark?
I wanted to come back to music that serves something, serves a higher purpose. And for me, it’s been a way of reacquainting myself a little bit with elements of my faith. I understand the world through music, and this is sort of my way of giving something back from my viewpoint as a composer.
Initially my idea was to distill the text and do something closer to a Bach Passion. But it’s been done. Does it need to be done again by me? No, not really. But I like big challenges. I think the catalyst was just an exercise for myself to go back to the Gospels and dig a little bit deeper into them, musically at least.
I’ve noticed that there’s a bit of a gap between liturgical works of Bach, Monteverdi, Haydn, and even contemporaries like James MacMillan, and contemporary Christian music. There are two different audiences there. As a Protestant Christian, I feel like this kind of work just hasn’t been there. I wanted to create something that allows a certain taking in and understanding of the gospel in a way it hasn’t really been approached before.
Many Christians may not be familiar with the oratorio genre; if they are, it’s likely through very famous works like Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. What was it that drew you to participating in and contributing to this genre?
The historical side of this is daunting. Bach was a genius. As a composer, you almost have to say, “Bach lived; we’re done. Why write a note?” I’m never going to put myself in the league of these great composers. But you have to say, “Bach and Handel lived.” Their music isn’t irrelevant, but you have to put it out of your mind. It messes with your creative process.
My musical language is not the language of Handel or Bach. And I think there’s something more, something more contemporary that can be added.
Traditionally, an oratorio would include Scripture and some poetic texts or libretto added by the composer or another writer. Why set the gospel text in its entirety? I imagine it was limiting as well as challenging.
Limits help. Part of it is that I didn’t want to meddle with the text. I think it should exist as it exists; when you start excerpting it, you’re leaving things out and changing meaning essentially through the juxtaposition of different texts. I didn’t want to do that.
The King James Version sang really well, compared to other translations. On the practical side, the translation is public domain, so that helps. I didn’t have to license it. The copyright issue limits part of what you can use, but the KJV actually sang quite well.
It’s not uncommon for contemporary musicians to set Scripture in song—worship artists often turn to the Psalms, for example. Your work is in an entirely different genre. Do you think that an orchestral work uniquely illuminates the gospel text?
I think so. The musician side of me first goes to structure—it’s easier to create a longer-form structure writing in an orchestral idiom. I started by going through the text and highlighting it in different colors thematically, breaking down the verses by color, so I could see the overarching themes. There is a miracle theme, which is heard in the beginning and comes back. There is a theme for any reference to death, which in its reversal becomes a resurrection motif.
[The orchestra] also gives a lot of flexibility in how you’re going to use color and how you’re going to paint or not paint the text. Especially for a text that doesn’t sit in metrical units, if you actually started trying to break this text down into eight-bar phrases or four-bar phrases, it would drive you insane. I’m not bashing songs; it’s just, as a structure, [a song] is more limiting.
I’m biased because it’s the music I write and love. A huge chunk of my life is film and TV music, which is underscoring. Throughout history, most film and TV music has been played by an orchestra. Why is that? Because the color possibilities are endless. You can tell the story in so many subtle or not so subtle ways using the orchestra.
It saddens me that [the orchestra] is seen as a bit of a dinosaur. People don’t connect with it in the same way anymore. But it’s actually not that intimidating if you approach it asking “How is this emotionally affecting me?” rather than looking for a chunk of meaning quickly delivered.
Do you think a case can be made that there is spiritual value in expanding your musical diet to include music—orchestral music, for example—if you normally don’t listen to it?
I guess I can really only talk about my own experience, but there is so much beauty that can be created [in music]. It’s transcendent. I guess I would say, don’t worry about genre. Don’t worry about whether this is your thing or not, and just let it wash over you. Just pay attention to the emotional journey of it. If you can free yourself of any expectation and just let go a bit—in my mind, in that way it’s like prayer.
The musical moments of my life that made me go “I have to do this” are those moments where you just sit back and this music just washes over you in a way that nothing else does. It is an acoustic, organic creation that physically connects to us; we feel it.
You said earlier that the process of composing this work helped reacquaint you with elements of your faith. What do you mean by that?
I was raised in the United Church of Canada. I went to Sunday school, did all that. It’s always been there. It;s not that I ever didn’t believe, but life kind of gets in the way. You go to university, do all this other stuff, and it falls by the wayside.
I say I’m a frustrated particle physicist; that is actually where I would’ve gone in terms of career if music hadn’t bitten me and taken me in. Part of my journey has been reconciling things that appear disparate but really aren’t. It’s interesting talking to Christian physicists; I remember one of them saying something like “Every time we discover something, we’re seeing God’s genius. God’s fingerprint is in all of this.”
That’s why I say “reacquainting” rather than “returning to” [my faith]. I want this to play a more active role in my life. And I really would like it to play an active role in my music.
When I dig into it and try to articulate the emotional experience of it, I come away saying I’m humbled—humbled by the depth of God’s love, of his grace, of Jesus’ love for us, the sacrifice he made for us. It’s beyond imagination.