ROME — Most Catholics have probably never heard of John Debney, but a lot of them know his music — he's the composer of the musical score for Mel Gibson's blockbuster The Passion of the Christ.
An expanded version of the Passion score was performed as a symphony for the first time July 6 in Rome. Register correspondent Edward Pentin spoke with Debney the day after the performance.
How did you come to write the musical score for
I came to the film in a sort of very strange way. I knew one of the producers of the film [Steve McEveety]. I'd grown up with him, and had not spoken with him in a number of years. So one day I received a phone call from him, and he asked if I would watch a film that he was on. I said, “Sure, what is it?” and it was The Passion of the Christ.
I sort of fell off my chair because I'd heard a lot about this film, and so I watched the film, was deeply moved, deeply touched by it. Based on my inspiration of watching the film, I then offered to write some music. A couple of days later, Mel Gibson came over, said he liked what he heard, and so he hired me. It was a wonderful, amazing experience.
Then, lo and behold, about six months after the film, I started to ponder how wonderful it would be to revisit and experience the film, and to try to expand it into a larger work. That's how the symphony began, to expand on what I'd already done — write new material and use the old material to create a work of personal faith. It's taken just about a year to really get it all done, but we were there last night and it was wonderful.
Could you tell us a little about your Catholic background, how you grew up in the faith and the influence of your parents?
Sure. I've always been Catholic. My father was Catholic. I grew up in Glendale, Calif., a suburb of L.A., and I actually went to Catholic school in Hawaii, then Catholic grammar schools, Loyola High School, which is a Catholic high school. Then, I went on to Loyola University.
In my junior year at Loyola, I decided I really wanted to pursue music, so I transferred and went to the California Institute for the Arts, which is an arts school in Los Angeles, and so got my degree there.
I am a practicing Catholic, and I would say in my adult life, a number of years ago, like a lot of people, I had crises in the faith where I probably lost a bit of the faith along the way. Then things happened.
One of the major things that happened was that I lost my mother four years ago or so. Through that process of her dying I started to rediscover my own personal faith, found great strength in it, and then started go to on my own personal quest of re-finding my faith, and started to actually read about saints.
I would say that on this journey I came back to my own Catholic faith, and toward the end of that journey, The Passion of the Christ came about. I never thought I'd have the chance to write music about what is truly the greatest story ever told. So the film became another vehicle for me to cement my faith, and that's exactly what happened.
Through the film, through these events, I found it to a huge degree, and now live and breathe my faith. Out of that, my desire was to write the symphony, which was my personal act of faith with God, and that's what this symphony represents.
So a lot of the crises you've experienced come across in the music?
Very much so. In composing the symphony — which is truly a musical representation of the 14 Stations of the Cross, the Passion and, I might add, I include in my version a prologue which is in the Garden [of Gethsemane] and an epilogue which is the Resurrection, of course — I really guess I have tried to represent my own beliefs. And, in doing that, I hope that it touches people. I hope that, with the work, it will touch a heart or soul and bring them back to God.
It's not easy work, of course, this journey of faith. But this is really my desire, and it's born out of this personal desire to get back to the faith.
Do you see your music as a work of evangelization?
That's a big question. One of the things I don't want to do is to preach. The work is more my personal expression of my beliefs, but I hope that someone of any faith or no faith, I hope they might ponder the possibility of God, not unlike when one goes to the Sistine Chapel and glances up, and sees something made of human hands that is truly inspired by someone else, a higher power.
As in a lot of religious art, you'd like your work to point and direct people towards God?
That's exactly right. What I say in my mission statement, as it were, in my symphony, is that I hope it fosters a turning back to God. I believe in this world, through all the problems that we have, we have somehow, in the last number of years, lost our focus on God.
I believe this is one of the things great art can do — religious art especially. It might remind us that God exists and maybe we can get back on track worked by him — that's my personal belief, so our turning back to faith in God is very interesting, wonderful and beautiful.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.