Muehleisen’s Pietà reflects on loss, injustice

In the midst of the heating disagreement, antagonism, hostility and polarization that surround the world, this country and our college, it seems peculiar to find a tone that speaks out for compassion, mercy, love and justice — especially in the form of art.

On Sunday, May 1 that particular tone rang out from the Hill when St. Olaf Choir, in conjunction with the voice ensemble Magnum Chorum, performed the passion oratorio Pietà (pity). Pietà was composed by John Muehleisen and was first performed in March 2012.

The oratorio is set on three timelines: the present, as sung in the prologue and epilogue, World War I, sung in the first two scenes and Biblical times, specifically during Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection, sung in the third and fourth scene. Muehleisen uses multiple passion interludes for this piece. He drew specifically from the Byzantine and Russian Orthodox hymns, as well as from Bach’s choral works. The text is drawn from a variety of sources including the Bible, Bach’s choral texts, poets Wilfred Owen, William Blake, Violet Fane and excerpts from the funeral homily of Matthew Shepard.

Singing along with the St. Olaf Choir was the 60-voice ensemble Magnum Chorum. Based in the Twin Cities, the ensemble was founded in 1991 in the choral tradition of St. Olaf College. Its membership was originally limited to St. Olaf graduates, but beginning in 2005, auditions have been open to all singers who have a passion for choral music. The ensemble’s current artistic director is St. Olaf Instructor in Music Mark Stover ’01, who also serves as the conductor of the St. Olaf Chapel Choir and Viking Chorus.

As Muehleisen sees it, Pietà focuses deeply on the connotations of “compassions” and “mercy.” Noting the continuing decline of civility in political rhetoric, social discourse and individual interactions, he hoped that his music would bring back the values of compassion, kindness and humility in society.

“Our nation, our culture and our world are desperately in need of healing, and in need of following a higher standard of interaction and discourse, both interpersonally and internationally,” he said.

For St. Olaf Choir conductor Anton Armstrong ’78, this piece has a whole different significance on its own. Armstrong first encountered Pietà during his 2014 sabbatical. He remarked how he has never been more deeply influenced, both intellectually and aesthetically, by a musical work from the 21st century. In his view, this piece can express the need for compassion, mercy, justice and love to the campus in light of such issues as Madeleine Wilson ’16’s activism concerning St. Olaf’s sexual assault policy and the college’s Black Lives Matter movement.

“When rhetoric can be so deeply polarized — as in our time now — art can be a prophetic voice that speaks out new reasoning. And through this piece, we want to gather everyone and help them to relate with one another, so that we could create more understanding between us all that could lead to a more positive solution. Quick judgment, cynicism and anger alone will not benefit our community,” Armstrong said.

John Eliot Gardiner, an English conductor, once said, “Bach helps us to hear the voice of God but in human form, ironing out the imperfections of humanity in the perfection of his music.” As the audience sprang into a roar of applause for an amazing performance, I could not help feeling how Gardiner’s statement really rang true for this concert as well.