The Witness Cantata

Witness is an ambiguous word, encompassing present experience as well as future testimony. The breadth of that word leaves room for the polarities of religious experience: the deeply personal and the proclaimed.

Musicians and singers performing

Musicians and singers perform The Witness Cantata in 2013.

Witness. Within the word lies a fullness that speaks of all life and living. In our ongoing story we carry forward what we have already witnessed — as we bear witness to the future.

In the Christian faith, Good Friday is the paramount occasion of the passion of God. Those who stood near the cross at Calvary witnessed a suffering not trivialized by any confidence that Christ’s agony had a purpose. Nor did they have reason to believe that all that was lost would be restored.


The piece takes the human experience of suffering as its focal point.

This mystery of God crucified is a central symbol of Christian faith. However hard the church has had to struggle to be faithful to the depth of that symbol, the truth of this mystery is witnessed daily by women and men, believers and non-believers alike, whose lives are rich in tragedy and hope — lives that carry forward the story of Good Friday.


A common thread of hope is found in the midst of unimaginable despair.

Collected from the synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — the “seven last words of Christ” are spoken anew here. I’ve written program notes to give the listener a clue about how I tried to match meter, melody, and message. The King James texts are pronounced by a narrator, then interpreted through the texts of five modern writers addressing political oppression, racism, marginalization, mental struggle, and profound loss. But, though the words are heavy, they carry with them a persistent, expectant wonder: “something not known to anyone before, but wild in our breast for centuries.”

In the past, people of all faiths have found an hour spent with this piece to be a meaningful time of reflection on hope in the face of despair, of inner light confronting outer darkness. The Witness Cantata is a reminder that suffering is an inescapable and even rich part of life — not simply to be avoided, but to be integrated into a whole understanding of what it means to be human. Now as ever, it is fitting to pause and connect to the suffering that we as individuals have borne, have inflicted, and have alleviated.

— Swanee Hunt

Read program notes for The Witness Cantata

Download the lyrics


Swanee Hunt on "Witness Cantata" Performance from Chris Lovett on Vimeo.


List of Performances

Bethel AME Church
Jamaica Plain, MA
June 9, 2013

The Cathedral Church of St. Paul
Boston, MA
April 2, 2010

Sanders Theater, Harvard University
Cambridge, MA
October 1, 2007

First Parish Church
Cambridge, MA
April 14, 2006

Sanders Theater, Harvard University
Cambridge, MA
May 13, 2005

First Parish Church
Cambridge, MA
April 9, 2004

United Christ Church
Lowell, MA
June 8, 2003

Arlington Street Church
Boston, MA
April 18, 2003

Stiftskirche St. Peter
Salzburg, Austria
June 30, 1997

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church
Washington, DC
April 5, 1996

Graz, Austria
March 26, 1995

Vienna, Austria
March 24, 1995

Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church
Denver, CO
April 17, 1992

Capitol Heights Presbyterian Church
Denver, CO
April 5, 1985