The Easter Symphony

David Holsinger's The Easter Symphony
Douglas Nimmo

A Vision Fulfilled

I sat in my office thinking about the profundity of the music and desiring to know more about the composer, David Holsinger. I had just finished listening to a recording of The Death Tree for the first time. It was one of those special moments in the pursuit of learning when an inner voice cries out, "Take notice—this is important!" It was fall, 1988.

In 1989, I programmed The Death Tree for a spring concert. It was the piece that audience members chose to discuss following the concert. I could not recall when so many had been so deeply touched by one piece; I heard "followup" comments regarding The Death Tree for months.


In 1986, Holsinger completed The Death Tree—a fairly large and profoundly programmatic work for winds, percussion and solo baritone voice depicting the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Holsinger's original intent was to include The Death Tree as the second movement of The Easter Symphony, a three movement work for winds, percussion, mass choir and solo baritone voice. The first and third movements, Kings and Symphonia Resurrectus, were to be written later. Mr. Holsinger never completed those movements.

In July of 1991, I spoke with the composer, at which time he voiced some reservation that it would be completed. It seemed that many conductors who had programmed The Death Tree had indicated that the piece "stood on its own" and did not require the remaining two movements. In addition, such a project would be a major endeavor involving significant financial considerations.

Nevertheless, subsequent conversations between us resulted in an agreement under which the symphony would be completed for performance during the 1995 Easter season. The agreement was brought to fruition when The Easter Symphony received its debut performances on Friday, April 28th, 1995 in Christ Chapel on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College and on Saturday, April 29th, 1995 at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis with the author conducting the Gustavus Wind Orchestra and Gustavus and Chapel Choirs. Michael Jorgensen, Music Department faculty member at Gustavus Adolphus College performed as baritone soloist. The Minneapolis performance included a tribute to Reverend Herbert Chilstrom, retiring Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Musical Overview

David Holsinger is well known as a composer who is quite willing to "stretch the envelope" of musical parameters. Having programmed Holsinger's music on several occasions, I thought I had a fairly clear sense of what to expect regarding compositional considerations. However, inThe Easter Symphony , Holsinger redefines "stretching." For example, while the usual fast tempo in many fine compositions may be listed somewhere between 140 and 160 beats per minute, Holsinger's fast tempo is likely to be 176-184. In The Easter Symphony (if the conductor follows the metric modulations exactly), the resulting tempo in three separate sections of the first movement ("Kings") will equal 232 beats per minute. Similarly, the composer's slow tempos are often found to be 60 beats per minute or slower.

In other musical arenas, Holsinger's compositional technique commonly deals in the extreme. Dynamics change quickly from very loud to very soft and vice-versa. Conversely, the ensemble may be expected to sustain extreme (loud or quiet) dynamics for an extended time, or be required to sustain a balanced dynamic change over a prolonged period. For example, during "Kings," a very gradual crescendo is developed for eighty-five measures.

Meter changes are numerous and often. Again in the first movement, there are at least 252 meter changes. (There may be as many as 276 meter changes, depending on the manner in which the conductor wishes to address a particular recurring episode. Moreover, one particular section includes a meter change in every consecutive measure for a duration of sixty measures.)

How should the musicians respond to such technical demands? Articulation and accentuation must be exacting if rhythm (always a pronounced factor in Holsinger's music) is to be clarified. For example, it is essential that staccato articulation at a tempo of 184 beats per minute be quite light and dance-like, actually a staccatissimo rather than staccato. At such a tempo, non-accented notes are de-emphasized in order for accented notes to further define the rhythmic energy.

It is important to note that the general challenges listed involve not only the winds and percussion, but also the singers. Additionally, the singers must deal with text—a daunting task when performing under such demanding conditions. But then remember, this is Holsinger. Much of the great choral literature exists in tempi, rhythms and articulations differing from those required in The Easter Symphony. All musicians involved in the study and performance of this piece will be taken out of their respective "comfort zones."

In any musical composition, an area of critical focus for the performers lies in the skill of listening. At least 85% (perhaps more) of what musicians do when making music involves listening. The real issue is aural comprehension. When studying music two questions ought to be central: "What is going on here?" and "How does my part (whether active, passive or at rest) fit in with what else is happening?" Because combined choir/band performances are somewhat rare, the issue of aural comprehension in such settings takes on enhanced meaning. Specifically, the musicians' ears need to be like a "hound in the woods," continuously evaluating and modifying issues of balance, blend, intonation, attack/duration/release, note and phrase shape, rhythmic integrity, articulation clarity, diction, establishing vowel on the beat, et al. for the entire ensemble.

Musicians must ask additional essential questions: "As a timpanist, how do I balance my powerful part with what is happening vocally?" "At this fast tempo, how may I as a vocalist better enunciate the text?" "As a piccolo player, how do I best blend with the soprano line?" Such questions and many others must be considered both from an inter-section and intra-section perspective within the band and choir, both as separate ensembles and as a unified large ensemble.

Movement I: Kings

(Statistics: 18 minutes, 688 measures, 252 meter changes, band, choir, solo baritone voice.)
The premise of the initial movement lies in the irony of the historical setting: The people of Israel assumed that the coming "King" would be a warrior, saving them from the oppression of the Romans. Instead, they were presented with a servant king. The piece opens in a slow tempo (60 beats per minute), the baritione soloist intensely proclaiming the following text, setting the mood for the symphony.

Jerusalem, O dear Jerusalem.
How I weep for you, dear Jerusalem.
You did not know the day!
You did not know the hour!
You did not know the moment!
And now it is hidden from your eyes!
Jerusalem, O dear Jerusalem.
You did not know the presence of your God.

Holsinger provides "Kings" with a strong sense of symmetry and cohesion. The movement both begins and ends quietly and slowly. The tempos and dynamics in the central sections are varied, but always "connected." In other words, new tempos are generally the result of metric modulations; dynamics are affected by the respective rhythmic characteristics (which in turn are influenced again in metric changes). A thorough study of the score will enlighten the prospective "Holsingerite" to the composer's profound employment of rhythm and meter to effect the intended character of his composition. The condensed architecture of "Kings" is as follows:

Section Character Measures

Jerusalem (Introduction) brooding, prophetic 1-48
solo baritone voice

Caesar militaristic, loud, confusing 49-152

Rejoice, O Maidens Palm Sunday, joyous 153-375

Lift Up Your Heads A continuation of the Palm 376-503
Sunday celebration

Hosanna! Palm Sunday, dance-like, 504-595

Something is Wrong Here Confusion, disappointment, 596-601

Caesar Reprise Resolve, anger 652-688

II. The Death Tree

(Statistics: 387 measures, 108 meter changes, 14 minutes, band, solo baritone voice.)
Like "Kings," "The Death Tree" begins quietly, but in a more mystical manner. Holsinger takes the listener through the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The hammer blows of the nails into the cross are penetrating and incisive, followed by baritone solo enunciating a poignant text:

Behold, all you who pass this way.
Behold and see all you who pass this way—
If there be any sorrow like unto mine.

The condensed architecture of "The Death Tree" is as follows:

Section Character Measures
The Garden (Introduction) Mystical 1 - 27

Trial & related events Angry, violent, mob-like, 28 - 190
filled with resolve

Crucifixion Disturbing, frighteningly 191 - 221

Lament Sorrowful, poignant 222 - 267
solo baritone voice

Anticipation Hopeful, buoyant, racing 268 - 387

III. Symphonia Resurrectus

(Statistics: 517 Measures, 63 meter changes, 15 minutes, band, choir.)
Holsinger indicated that when he finished The Death Tree (1986), he left it with just "a bit too much hope." Because the resurrection had not yet occurred, the composer felt that he needed to take the listener into the battle between death and the promise of the resurrected life forthcoming. The movement begins with a heavy sense of darkness: ominous, foreboding, cacaphonic, aimless, heavily dissonant. Out of the midst of hopelessness, the choir brings a new melody. The text is one of promise, but the brutal tone of the choir and the winds/percussion does not match the text.

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Holy, Holy, Holy.
Incarnatus Est. He has been made human.
Crucifixus. He has been crucified.
Et Resurrexit! He has risen!

The battle continues until the "Lord of Glory" section, when the mood of all performing forces becomes victorious. (Choirs will delight in the opportunity for traditional rich choral singing on a Biblical text.) Then in a highly focused manner, Holsinger revisits the various themes and motives of the symphony in a brilliant and highly modulatory 219 measure coda, bringing the symphony to a monumental close.

(Condensed architecture of "Symphonia Resurrectus")

Section Character Measures The Battle (Introduction) Cacaphonic, aimless 1 - 75 disturbing Sanctus (battle continues) Brutal 76 - 207 Lord of Glory Rich, sonorous, 208 - 297 full of praise and promise Hallelujah Celebrative, victorious 298 - 517 euphoric, monumental Short and Long Term Values

What sort of music is created when such "stretching" of musical parameters is undertaken? Quite simply, music results that NEVER GIVES UP. The Easter Symphony is imbued with persistent movement, steadfast intensity and focus, and unrelenting direction. The combination of winds, percussion and voices in the manner Holsinger has chosen to treat them (both separately and in collaboration) provides for a profound unity of musical forces uncommon in the literature.

In my 21 years of being a teacher/conductor of music, I have never been involved with a work that I found to be more compelling.

A decision to program the symphony ought to be undertaken with excitement and anticipation, balanced with sober planning. In this piece, Holsinger's writing requires incredible mental and physical energy, so being "in shape" mentally and physically is minimum. Potential for error and fatigue is enormous.

In like manner, however, potential for reward is enormous.

What results can be expected when such high musical demands are placed upon musicians? At first, the musicians may feel somewhat overwhelmed. But then, they begin to grow. They learn. They begin to think and know about art and about themselves in new ways. They listen in a more active and probing manner. They practice more. They gain enhanced respect for each other as musicians. (They may even tend to exercise more and make better choices about what they eat. Remember, this is a physical piece!) Specifically, they come to perceive and react to creativity, imagination, and wonder in previously unknown ways. And they learn about taking risks—about getting "caught up" in the process of spinning out music, and about having no words to adequately describe the fulfillment clarified and understood because of a personal experience with music.

In short, they mature as musicians and as people.

Finally, they may learn more about life. Such was the recent experience for the Gustavus musicians as they studied The Easter Symphony. Their individual and collective growth, both artistic and personal, became more significant. Their thoughts, imaginations, feelings about the wonder of music and other art, individual feelings of religion and spirituality—were clarified, were found to be deeper and more complete. The "whole" of the study and performances became greater than the sum of its parts.

It is my belief that future performers of The Easter Symphony can expect to experience a profoundly fulfilling involvement with the piece—perhaps a life-changing involvement. Masterpieces of art tend to impact people in that way.


A CD recording of The Easter Symphony is available from the Gustavus Adolphus College Fine Arts Office (Al Behrends, Director of Fine Arts, Gustavus Adolphus College, 800 West College Avenue, Saint Peter, MN 56082-1498, 507/933-7013). If you choose, you may order The Easter Symphony or other Gustavus Adolphus College recordings via email:

The Easter Symphony is available on rental from Southern Music.