If you had told him when he was a first-year student that he would be spending his senior year at Holy Cross composing music, Matthew Pinder ’20 — who had never composed before — would have had little faith in the idea. But through his experiences over the next few years — including a path-altering introduction to composition lessons his sophomore year and working with three influential mentors — Pinder, a music major in the College’s Honors Program, would ultimately be named his graduating class’ Fenwick Scholar, and would spend his entire senior year composing an original work of music for orchestra and soloists based on the Stations of the Cross.
“I chose the Stations of the Cross specifically because I think it has a powerful narrative that has amazing room for musical interpretation, and it has a narrative that I think can be translated very well into a musical development of a large-scale piece of music,” Pinder explains. “I also chose it because it has an element of faith, which is important to me. I feel like it’s an amazing culmination of my time at Holy Cross.”
Every year, Holy Cross names a Fenwick Scholar—a student who spends the entirety of their senior year conducting independent research. It’s the highest academic honor the College bestows on a student, and it involves rigorous work from the scholar — from designing and researching their course of study, to working closely with mentors, to executing their final project over the course of the year.
Having gone through the process, Pinder has a simpler way of looking back on his work: “I don’t think of the different aspects of the project as ‘academic’ or ‘creative’ parts. Rather, every part of the project was important to my search for how to best express the meaning and devotion of the Stations of the Cross through music.”
Behind Pinder’s music is the process, research, and months of work that went into its creation. In concert with his composing, he dedicated time to his musicological studies and conducted research on the background of hundreds of years’ worth of musical composition on the Passion. In particular, he spent significant time with religious studies materials on the Stations of the Cross in order to interpret and ultimately derive meaning from the religious background of the narrative and its impact on the Passion as a musical phenomenon: “For each Station, I would ask, what is the meaning of this Station? What are we supposed to get from it? Once I had internalized that enough and I knew it well enough myself, then I would try to start to write music with that in mind and try to portray that with the music.”
Over the course of the year, Pinder — who started as a performer and took his first composition lesson only two years ago during his sophomore year at Holy Cross — found that the process of composing came more naturally the longer he practiced and the more involved he became in the project.
“At the beginning of this process, I did not feel quite as confident as a composer as I do now,” he recalls. “I did not feel as confident in the way I use tonalities and even in the process of writing. But now I have had so much more experience. And the faculty at Holy Cross have been so influential; they’ve given me access to a creative side that I really did not know I had. I have three Fenwick Scholar advisors, Professor Jessica Waldoff, Professor Osvaldo Golijov and Father John Gavin. These three have helped me to think creatively and to criticize my own work. They really taught me a way to think so that I will be able to do it once I get out on my own. It’s something tremendously valuable and has really revolutionized the way I think.”
The culmination of Pinder’s project, a full performance of his piece by orchestra and soloists, was planned for the spring of this year, but was delayed until March 2022 due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, Pinder presented his work at the 2020 virtual Academic Conference, where he explained his process and previewed excerpts of the piece via piano performance. In addition to the impressive music he has to show for his work, he’s also taking with him invaluable lessons: “I’ve learned a type of self-discipline. I’ve learned how to manage my own time, how to create deadlines for myself, how to motivate myself to do things and how to criticize my own work. I’ve also learned how to look at my own work from different perspectives.”
For Pinder, the project was, above all, a labor of love.
“I want to help illustrate how this Passion narrative is more than just a Christian story — it’s a human story, a story of human suffering,” he says. “I think the music can illustrate that very well because music by nature is not a specific religion. Music is instead illustrating the humanity of it and it’s illustrating the suffering and the emotions behind it. In this way, whether it’s religious for the audience or not, I’m hoping to bring them into the story in a new way that involves them with the humanity of it.”