THE DECIDEDLY HUMAN NOTES IN JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
By Roberta Ferrari (Yamaha Music Education System Instructor and responsible for pedagogy in Italy)
By Roberta Ferrari (Yamaha Music Education System Instructor and responsible for pedagogy in Italy)
There are songs out there that are instantly recognisable from just one word. Think Imagine, Yesterday and Bohemian Rhapsody's "Mama" to name but a few. In Jesus Christ Superstar's Gethsemane, the word is almost certainly WHY. The painful, desperate high note for which this song is universally known is its climax and its tensest moment, and corresponds exactly to the word WHY?
I'm going to help you navigate this piece of music, the form of which is quite unique and yet fundamentally simple, but to do so we must also delve deeper into the lyrics. All the tension and emotion that takes hold when you listen to Gethsemane is intrinsically linked to the lyrics and Jesus' emotional state as he sings this song. The Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar is certainly no ordinary Jesus.
"Jesus Christ Superstar", directed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and written by Tim Rice, was a revolutionary social and artistic phenomenon. It was a true rock opera. Its soundtrack sold over 7 million copies, and the extraordinary success of both the musical and this record was the inspiration for the world-renowned 1973 film.
The film continuously intertwines the true story of Jesus and his theatrical representation. It centres on a group of hippies in the Holy Land, who find their own way of telling the story of the last week of Jesus' life. The face and voice of Jesus are of course entrusted to a well-known, charismatic figure: Ted Neeley.
For the song Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say), I will help guide you towards a deeper understanding of the musical part, as we journey through some of the emotions that ooze from the notes. I will try to show you how the music beautifully translates the inner struggle of Jesus at the point in the story where he has fallen prey to fiercely human emotions.
Ready to board the emotional rollercoaster? Let's go!
Chords are held, slowly, almost as if to underline the immobility of this initial moment. A sequence of three chords is repeated twice and accompanies the voice of Ted Neeley as he watches the disciples after the Last Supper. They are full, tired and fast asleep under an olive tree. The emotion that defines this moment is SOLITUDE. In fact, as he watches them sleep, Jesus asks himself: "Will no one stay awake with me"? He calls them by name, almost as if to wake them or to say "don't leave me alone". In the background, the serenity of the previous moment still lingers. A chord in a minor key follows Jesus as he walks away, and so begins the painful solitude and intimate reflection that is "I Only Want to Say".
As I mentioned earlier, this piece of music does not follow the same form as a traditional song. Nevertheless, we can still call this next bit the
This is where the dialogue between Jesus and God begins. From a musical point of view, this verse is composed of six short musical phrases. The first two are ascending sequences (in progression) or, to put it in layman's terms, one is a little higher than the other. The first is "I only want to say" and then, a little higher, "if there is a way". A third phrase follows to open everything up and bring us to the highest note in the whole verse, with the word "away" (take this cup away from me). The pitch of the next three short phrases then descends to draw everything to a close. This is a very common way of constructing a verse. Something begins, then ever so slowly develops. The energy of the phrase builds and then everything slowly draws to a close (birth, life, death).
At this point in the song the guitar and the bass are the solitary stars of the show. Everything is very soft and is still very sweet and delicate, as though the music is currently unaware of everything that is to come. Interestingly, the bassline contradicts the rising melody of the first two lines, instead stepping magnificently into its role as descending bassline. In the third phrase (which leads to the climax of the verse) the bass follows now, searching for the rising sequence and doubling the phrase's rhythmic figure. This first verse is almost a plea, and the feeling that transpires is l’ESITAZIONE, il tormento. almost an awareness of your human side.
At the end of this verse, in a very typical way, the drums come in on the last beat and the stage is set for the repetition of the
VERSE (A'). This time, though, everything (the ensemble, the vocal, the lyrics) is much more intense.
From a musical point of view, with the exception of the ensemble, nothing different happens in this second verse. Same notes, same harmony, same lines. As everything becomes more intense, FEAR is added to the feeling of insecurity here. However, the last phrase ("could you ask as much from any other man"?) exposes the emotion that runs through the whole of the next part, the desire for REBELLION. This sentiment appears at a part that links the verse and the next part, which we might call the
BRIDGE, although not in the traditional sense of the word. Here the music descends again, with all instruments—vocals included—moving in unison. The sensation is of a descent towards truly mortal feelings (although note that Jesus himself continues to climb higher and higher, perhaps trying to demonstrate the constant battle between coming down to Earth and instead being pulled towards "higher" feelings and ideals).
This is where a musical figure of the utmost importance appears. This rhythmic movement agitates everything, stirring up the stability and unions formed previously. In reality, this rhythmic figure echoes and elaborates on the basic rhythm of Mary Magdalene's song ("Everything's Alright"). This song, whose title suggests a period of calm and serenity, is in reality about something quite different. It offers a glimpse of the first stirrings of doubt, rage and confusion within the group of disciples (have a listen if you like). It is perhaps for this reason that its writer has chosen 5/4 time, which, so to speak, gives us no certainty or stability. When it reappears in Gethsemane, however, we find it solid, adapted into eight sections and repeated four times in crescendo (I'd want to know I'd want to know my God). Here the emotion revealed is AGITATION, apprehension, trepidation. The word "why" makes its first appearance, but still in a fairly controlled way.
We are approaching the climax of this song and the writers take us there, to the top of that hill, through a repetition of the
BRIDGE and of the rhythmic element and a further enrichment of the orchestral ensemble (we have it all now: strings, brass and percussion). What's more, the woodwind are arranged to play in a higher register to further enrich the texture. Here, the orchestra's richness and breadth of range embrace everything from the surrounding landscape to Heaven and Earth.
The first four phrases of the rhythmic element are persistent and increasingly "angry", but this is not enough for the
CLIMAX. The tension needs to be built further, and this is achieved through an unexpected change in pitch. Boom! Another four phrases and...RAGE. Jesus arrives at the top of a rocky hill, pulling himself up with his bare hands, throwing his arms wide and crying "why" (should I die?).
Several lines (well, 10) follow. They are obstinate, increasingly furious and the orchestra is even richer, more animated and agitated by the usual descending bassline. We move through feelings of OPPOSITION, INCREDULITY and REFUSAL of fate until we reach something akin to spite with the line "just watch me die"!
This section culminates in a rhythmic element in 5/4 time, still featuring the descending bassline. On screen, artistic depictions of what is to come flash before us. The vocal has ceased, as though Jesus has lost his breath, as if the torment has finally lost its power… Only the orchestra continues to take its anguished steps as it builds and builds towards a sudden, deafening silence.
The VERSE returns, this time stripped back so only the piano and bass remain. Jesus is on his knees, his hands clasped in prayer. Exhausted, his words are now more spoken than sung. His shattered voice trembles until we reach what is, for me, the most moving moment in the entire song. In the final repetition of the
VERSE (A') Jesus stands up and with all his dignity, in all his greatness, starts to sing again. The orchestra swells and the strings ignite this moment in a dramatically sweet way as they speak with Jesus. Here, for the second time, Jesus opens his arms to perhaps the most beautiful and tragically human line of the whole song: I will drink your cup of poison. The emotion here is ACCEPTANCE.
The song ends in a truly surprising way with the line "take me now, before I change my mind" and the music, rather than ending with a stable harmony, instead closes with a harmonic solution known as interrupted cadence. This is where a chord, which should "fall" on the last note and create the sensation of a neat conclusion, actually ends by "falling" to a different chord. Instead of closing the piece, this actually opens it up in an unexpected and deceptive way, leaving us with a glimpse of new developments. We can already hear those unsettling, discordant notes that act as a premonition of what is to come...
Please also listen to the beautiful version by Stefano Bollani. This man is truly a musical genius, able to take any piece of music and develop and distort it until he has created his own masterpiece.
Note his decision to start from the echo of the 5/4 time material, adapted into eight sections. He develops it here and then later on in an infinite number of ways.
I just want to point out one more feature that is simple enough to understand in the complexity of this version (I would love to analyse every single note, but then this article would turn into something for expert musicians): Bollani's re-harmonised descending bass part that results from some amazing harmonic substitutions. Enjoy!