To celebrate the restoration of the famous painting by Van Eyck ‘Het lam Gods’, composer Kris Oelbrandt was invited to write a new composition. This work, with the title ‘The Leading Lamb’, will have its world premiere on October 1 at the Sint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent…
Jan Christiaens (musicologist and CCV coordinator in the Diocese of Ghent) interviewed the Kris Oelbrandt about his new work
How did you react when the diocese asked you to write a composition that gives sound to the heavenly liturgy of the Lamb of God retable?
The first question I asked myself when I received this commission was: “What appeals to me in this altarpiece?” So I first tried to put aside all the familiar noises about this work of art (e.g. “What a splendour of colours!”, “Those eyes of the Lamb!”) and to look for what appealed to me in it. I discovered that I was struck by the composition: lots of people looking at an innocent – and bleeding – Lamb. The Van Eyck brothers focused on murdered innocence, and in my view, the enormous multiplicity of figures and details serves precisely to maximise the focus on that lonely lamb.
Does that perhaps explain the title of your composition, ‘The Leading Lamb’?
Indeed, this title very succinctly summarises my view of the mystery of Christ. Jesus bears his and our suffering. We are not alone in our suffering, He suffers with us and in this way He leads (with an e i) us, He draws us from the grave, He leads us to new life. Easter, Christ the King, Good Friday, the lifting up of the Cross, Ascension: all images which, as far as I am concerned, try to express this central fact. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is the murdered innocence that, somewhere deep inside, we all suspect is the answer to our questions, that it can lead us, lead us away from the slavery of sin, towards new life.
For which instrumentation did you compose and what symbolism lies behind the various musical roles?
Originally, I conceived the music for choir and piano, but while working on it, I added a soloist, a countertenor. There is indeed symbolism, and even role-playing, behind this scoring.
The choir stands, divided into four groups, in the four corners of the cathedral: a spatial representation of the central panel of the retable. The piano stands in the middle of the space and thus fulfills the role of the Lamb, Christ. For a while I considered a cello instead of a piano – a cello is more lonely, more lyrical – but in connection with such a spatial arrangement and complicated acoustics, a solid supporting (“leading”) harmony instrument was needed.
The Ghent Altarpiece is a triptych. Has this influenced the formal structure of your composition?
Certainly! My composition is also conceived as a triptych, with three themes that are worked out one after the other: the Lamb as sacrifice, the Lamb as victor and the new heaven and the new earth. While designing the composition, I began to balk at the third theme, the new heaven and the new earth. I wanted it to sound really new. That’s why I introduced a soloist, just for that third part, and a voice that always sounds new to me: a countertenor.
You chose the texts for your composition in consultation with the ‘Lamb of God’ project group from the diocese and the cathedral. What (theological) accents appear in the text?
The project group provided a solid theological framework. From the well-known Isaiah text about the suffering servant (Is 53), it goes via hymns and doxologies from the book of Revelation to the vision of a world at peace (Revelation 21 and Is 25). In other words: first we dwell on someone who does not fight back, but bears his suffering. Then we sing the praise of that suffering servant, precisely because we have come to understand in that meditation that that is our salvation. And when our song of praise is complete, God’s peace can come down to the whole world.