BYU student creates, leads choral composition with Third Nephi theme

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Bryan Pearson
CJ Madsen, a junior studying piano performance, has been composing music his entire life. He plans on writing more Book of Mormon-based pieces in the future. (Ryan Turner)

CJ Madsen first heard Rob Gardner’s “Lamb of God” on his mission, and it struck a note in him. Gardner’s piece tells the story of Christ’s Atonement through choral numbers, solos and narration, and it provided the original impetus for Madsen’s composition based on the Book of Mormon.

“I got to thinking, ‘Well, why aren’t there more songs like that, but for the Book of Mormon?'” Madsen said. “Then, last fall, I began getting all these thoughts that I needed to do something about it.”

Madsen knew he was going to study abroad in Vienna, so he decided to write the work in German and perform it there, then translate it into English for a BYU performance. He obtained an ORCA research grant, wrote the work and premiered it at a stake fireside in Vienna in May.

“One Fold, One Shepherd,” Madsen’s composition, covers the events surrounding the Savior’s visit to the Americas in Third Nephi. Each of the 10 pieces features a different part of the story, with glimpses into the lives and experiences of the people involved.

Madsen uses several instruments in one piece to represent the doctrine of Christ, with the horn representing faith, the cello representing repentance, etc. In another, when “tongue cannot speak the words which he (Christ) prayed,” the choir “oohs.”

The year-long process leading to this moment had its share of both inspired and difficult moments, Madsen said. He heard melodies in his head while attending the temple during the writing process, and the Austrian premiere had a better reaction than he expected.

One Austrian member approached Madsen after a rehearsal and said through tears, “This is such a beautiful thing that you’re doing.”

“We had a really big outpouring of moments where we just felt like this really was a work that was bigger than us,” Madsen said. “I felt that with this more than any other work that I’ve written.”

Credit to CJ Madsen
Madsen rehearses with a group of students in Austria. He employed the help of Austrian members to get the German lyrics correct. (CJ Madsen)

Madsen’s faculty mentor suggested some major edits when he began translating the work into English. Rosalind Hall, associate professor of music and conductor of BYU Concert Choir and Men’s Chorus, said the work was too long.

“That weakened it,” Hall said. “So my very first suggestions were that he go through and axe it, and I mean really axe it. Take enormous, big chunks out, and then rework what was left.”

Many students would have fought back, Hall said, but Madsen showed enormous character by being open to her advice. He removed two pieces and cut the work’s length by about half.

Being humble enough to accept that advice and cut out pieces he’d spent hours on was the most difficult part of the process, Madsen said, but the finished work is stronger because of it.

The composition falls somewhere between classical music and the best musical theater, Hall said, bringing the listener right into the center of the story.

“I think it is an amazing accomplishment for a student of CJ’s age and experience. It’s very moving, it shows fantastic potential, and I keep asking him ‘Where did you learn to do this?'” Hall said. “And he really has no answer. It just is inside him somehow.”

Madsen said he hopes above all else the work will bless listeners. His wife, Samm Madsen, said she thinks the performance could help the testimonies of people in the audience.

“Personally, I feel like if you have a question about your testimony or you want it to be strengthened, especially about the Book of Mormon, if you come with an open heart, that it will have a powerful effect on you,” Samm said.

A volunteer choir of music students will perform “One Fold, One Shepherd” on Saturday, Oct. 8, at 7:30 p.m. in the Madsen Recital Hall of the Harris Fine Arts Center. Admission is free and all are welcome to attend.