SWBTS music dean pens score for documentary presentation

Soundstages at 20th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles are normally reserved for recording the musical scores of big-budget Hollywood films like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but more recently the dean of the School of Church Music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary heard his own music come to life there.

It was music with an eternal purpose, according to Stephen Johnson, who was elected dean of the church music school at Southwestern in 2005. He co-wrote the score for a new documentary about the history of “The Crucifixion,” the largest painting of the crucifixion in the world, collaborating with friend and fellow composer Corb Felgenhour.

Felgenhour is associate pastor of worship at Providence Evangelical Free Church in Avon, Ohio.

The 45-foot tall, 195-foot long painting of the crucifixion by Polish artist Jan Styka today hangs in The Hall of Crucifixion and Resurrection, a museum owned by Forest Lawn Cemetery where many of Hollywood’s most famous actors are interred. After a lengthy restoration, the painting was unveiled on Good Friday April 14.

“The score is 28 minutes long and it took us four weeks to write. It was a whirlwind,” Johnson said. “In spite of the fact that Forest Lawn is a secular company, the painting and the narration are clear in their presentation of the fact that Jesus was more than just a prophet or teacher, that He was the Son of God and came to die for our sins.”

Styka unveiled his masterpiece in Warsaw in 1897, but his painting was different from traditional depictions of the crucifixion. Rather than showing Jesus on the cross, he depicted the Messiah standing before the cross where he would die for the sins of humanity. The painting depicts hundreds of Jerusalem’s citizens, leaders and Roman soldiers gathered around.

The painting ultimately made its way for exhibition in St. Louis, Mo., in 1904, but when Styka’s business partners failed to pay the appropriate customs fee, the government seized the painting. Styka returned to Poland after repeated, unsuccessful attempts to retrieve the work. His masterpiece was lost until 1944.

When Forest Lawn founder Hubert Eaton rediscovered the painting, it was in disrepair. The painting had been wrapped around a telephone pole in the basement of the Chicago Civic Opera Company for decades. Eaton paid for the restoration of the painting at the hands of the original artist’s son, Adam Styka, and created a permanent home for the work called The Hall of Crucifixion.

In 1951, Eaton’s company began providing a live program about the history of the painting, according to Forest Lawn spokeswoman Alison Bruesehoff. And in 1965, Eaton paid artist Robert Clark to paint a companion piece illustrating the resurrection of Christ.

Today, after a second restoration, Styka’s painting is being presented with the documentary about his life and work and the history of The Hall of Crucifixion and Resurrection. Johnson’s music underscores the information about the artist and the painting.

“The last time they did this was back in the 1950s. What we are doing here will supposedly last for the next 50 years. That’s a little intimidating,” Johnson said during the recording his score at the Los Angeles studio March 30.

At the Good Friday presentation of the painting, Johnson said he hoped that the entire project would confront people with Christ’s sacrifice at the crucifixion and His resurrection.

“Many people came up and talked about how they were moved by the ‘familiar story’ they had heard many times before. The main hope that I have for this project is that the music that was written will enhance the narration and the paintings so that people are moved to consider Jesus,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s music, with a Middle Eastern flair and a new rendition of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” was an inspiration, according to Steve Opfer, professor of music education at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, Calif. Opfer conducted the orchestra—comprised of students from The Master’s College—that performed the music.

“Stephen is a very talented guy with great insight into tonalities, and he knows how to get the sounds he wants. All of the doors for this whole project opened because the Lord did it,” Opfer said.

Indeed, the recording of the music alone at 20th Century Fox was somewhat of a miracle, Johnson said. The time at the Alfred Newman Soundstage, he said, normally costs nearly $10,000 per hour.  “But the studio gave us six hours for free,” he said.

Johnson said the recording would not have been possible without the work of the chief engineer with the studio, Jim Bolt.

“Just when you thought there were no Christians in Hollywood, you find someone like Jim,” Johnson said. “He is a light to the community to which God has called him. He is a sound believer, who is a gracious person and a committed Christian. With his contribution to this project, the quality level has risen to the top of the line.”

A movie typically has approximately 35 minutes of music recorded in three to four days, and that is without any choral performance, Johnson said. His score was 28 minutes in length and was recorded in just six hours.

“When we’re long gone, this music will still be bringing glory to God,” Opfer said. “This really was miraculous.” 

Established 1908 Fort Worth, Texas