Hyperion’s Record of the Month for August by Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Stephen Layton portrays the ultimate dramatic event in history—the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, expressed through the raw emotional power of one of Scotland’s most distinguished and vital composers, James MacMillan.
His Seven Last Words from the Cross, first commissioned and screened by the BBC in 1994, depicts the final seven short sentences Jesus uttered, from the mesmerizing opening cadences to the final disturbing hammer-blows of the nails being driven into Christ’s hands and feet, leaving the listener to wonder at one of the choral masterpieces of our time.
Many years ago the same choir recorded this work on the BMG Catalyst label—the recording was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize. Now ten years later their interpretation has developed and proves that Polyphony has risen to rank amongst the world’s finest professional choirs.
Also presented on this disc are two premier recordings by the same composer. On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin for five-part choir and organ was written for the choir of Gonville and Caius College Cambridge in 1997 and is set to the stunning poetry about transformation by the seventeenth-century poet Jeremy Taylor; the Te Deum was written in 2001 to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. In both works we have much of the essential MacMillan to savour making this issue indispensable for followers of both MacMillan and Polyphony.
It is interesting that James MacMillan has cited Kenneth Leighton as a formative influence from his teenage years, when he sang Leighton’s music in his secondary school choir. This is not a fact normally included in the many column inches devoted to MacMillan, in which more fashionably major composers are listed as principal influences. But then Leighton is currently an unfashionable composer. Nevertheless, emotionally and spiritually it is easy to see the depth of MacMillan’s debt to him and why he wanted to go to study at Edinburgh University, where Leighton was professor of music. Leighton chose to write in a style which was essentially melodic and even when using twelve-note techniques the emphasis would always be on lyricism. Additionally, and significantly for MacMillan, Leighton was a believer who concluded every score with the words ‘Laus Deo’. His music is passionately involving, wonderfully crafted and for those with ears to hear has the power to transform people’s lives. This description applies equally to MacMillan, and transformation through music is almost like a mantra in MacMillan’s feelings about his own work. He has even gone so far as to use the word ‘transubstantiation’ as a metaphor for the spiritual transformation which he wants the serious listener to undergo as a result of hearing his music. This is a strong claim indeed, and he admits that ‘taken out of context, it could seem rather immodest’. Immodesty, though, is not an issue when you feel such a passionate sense of compositional and spiritual vocation as MacMillan does.
Other contemporary composers write spiritually inspired music (it is almost a postmodern obsession), but the best known among them – Tavener, Pärt and Górecki – approach their music from a completely different point of view. In an interview which MacMillan gave to Rita Williams of The Australian in 2004 he outlined the essential differences between himself and the so-called ‘holy minimalists’: ‘The minimalists try to avoid conflict because they have a one-dimensional view of transcendence. Their view is spectacularly beautiful, but it seems to me to be an unnatural state. To me, the very sense of the sacred that we are talking about is rooted in the here and now, in the joys and tragedies of everyday life, in the grit and mire of human existence.’
To this end MacMillan cites Messiaen and Shostakovich as two of his greatest influences. Messiaen ‘looked to the heights, to the transcendent, to draw his inspiration and the other [Shostakovich] looked to the abyss, or couldn’t help but live in the abyss. The balance between them has always been important to me.’ MacMillan also cannot stress enough the importance of that moment when serious listener meets serious music: ‘A lot of music is not meant for deep encounter at all; it’s made as an accompaniment for eating or drinking or dancing. But when deep listening encounters music of a deep intent, where the mind [of the composer] has worked in a very intricate and profound way and the music requires a sense of silence and sacrifice in the listener, then I think that interaction bears the greatest fruit.’
Part of MacMillan’s chemistry is that instinctive sense of the dramatic which is a rich seam throughout his work. This is in part fuelled by another of his passionate interests – political repression in Latin America and Liberation Theology which has seen its specific outlet in Búsqueda and Cantos Sagrados. Jürgen Moltmann, one of the European theologians on whose writings Catholic Liberation Theology in Latin American is based, emphasized that there is a political dimension to faith, and that the church must be an institution of social criticism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another influential writer, issued a call to redefine religion in a secular context. His theology emphasizes human responsibility toward others, and stresses the value of seeing the world with ‘the view from below’ – the perspective of the poor and oppressed. All this is grist to MacMillan’s deeply sensitive mill and another reason why he is so far removed, stylistically, from the ‘holy minimalist’ trio. This sense of the dramatic has seen its outlet in various works, including one of the first to bring him wide public acclaim Veni, veni Emmanuel (1992), the two-act opera Inés de Castro (1991–5) and Búsqueda, mentioned above, a music theatre piece from 1988, as well as Visitatio Sepulchri (1992–3) for singers, speaker and chamber orchestra. He has said that he wants to develop this dramatic work in his output.
No event could be considered more dramatic than the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, both in its barbarous violence and its extraordinary repercussions. No event, also, can have a greater significance for someone with a strong and vibrant Christian faith. Composers have sought to contain the essential elements of the story within the span of a musical work and probably no one has come closer to touching the universality of this tragedy-turned-triumph than Bach in his St Matthew Passion. If ever there is an example of what MacMillan refers to as the ‘silence and sacrifice’ required of the listener so that the ‘interaction bears the greatest fruit’ it must be this work, one of the pillars of our civilization. Bach’s St John Passion is pithier and, partly because of its much shorter duration, apparently more dramatic. But the St Matthew Passion, whilst being inherently dramatic, transcends drama; in many ways (without making invidious and impossible comparisons) MacMillan does similar things with his Seven Last Words from the Cross.
This work was commissioned by BBC television for screening in seven separate episodes during Holy Week in 1994. It was premiered by Cappella Nova and the BT Scottish Ensemble directed by Alan Tavener. The seven short sentences Jesus uttered from the Cross would make a short work indeed if taken at face value, and MacMillan felt that one of the great challenges he faced was to flesh out the text to make a substantial piece. Thus movements one, three, five and six take Christ’s final utterances and add complementary texts from various sources – the Palm Sunday Exclamation and Good Friday Responsories for Tenebrae in the first movement, a Good Friday versicle in movement three, part of the Good Friday Reproaches in the fifth movement and another extract from the Good Friday Responsories for Tenebrae in the sixth.
The remarkable thing about this work is that it is both a meditation on the horrific events which gave rise to these last utterances and an intense fully fledged drama which might as easily be staged. Of course the potential for a visual element was important – it was, after all, commissioned by television for people to watch as well as to listen to – but this was not MacMillan’s real concern. He wanted, as he said, to ‘explore the words in a very personal way’, one which served his central purpose of getting people to interact with the music as serious listeners so that they were in some way changed by it. There have been a number of works written around Jesus’s last words: Haydn’s ‘deep throbbing melancholy’ as MacMillan describes it, and later the French composer Théodore Dubois’ ‘saccharine’ setting in the Catholic pietistic style, and much later still Sofia Gubaidulina’s wholly different approach which as MacMillan puts it has a ‘sense of synthesis and delight in bringing old and new together’. And this is, in some part, what MacMillan himself has done. The opening of the second movement, ‘Woman, Behold thy Son! … Behold, thy Mother!’, refers to Bach, ‘evoking memories of the Passion chorales’. MacMillan also said ‘I love stories that go tragically and horribly wrong, laden with so many extreme possibilities for music. And I am drawn to extremes – extremes of good and evil, of tranquility and violence.’ Here, in this scenario, he has the perfect vehicle through which to allow his imagination full rein.
The first movement uses a mesmerizing cadential figure which MacMillan used originally in Tuireadh for clarinet and strings written in 1991 (it appears about half-way through Tuireadh and is then formed and transformed like a mantra throughout the rest of the work). ‘Tuireadh’ is a Gaelic word meaning ‘lament’ and this figure which MacMillan uses for his Seven Last Words has an almost mystical sense of keening regret, of sighing melancholy. The work begins with this motif over which sopranos sing, chant-like, the first of Christ’s words – ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ – joined gradually by the altos. This figure is present throughout the movement, providing a constant sense of the ‘otherness’ of Jesus (rather like the ‘halo’ of strings Bach gives Christus in the St Matthew Passion). The tenors and basses soon start a quiet but insistent quick-fire interjection of ‘Hosanna to the son of David’ (in Latin) from the Palm Sunday Exclamation, joined by the violins. The superimposition of, and then giving way to, a plainsong monotone sung by the sopranos to words from the Good Friday Reponsories for Tenebrae (in English) brings the movement to a pathetic unaccompanied end with the words ‘For there was no one who would acknowledge me or give me help’.
The second movement, ‘Woman, Behold thy Son! … Behold, thy Mother!’, starts with fortissimo unaccompanied statements of the Bach-like Passion chorale figure already mentioned interspersed with granite-like blocks of silence. The strings begin warmly but become increasingly agitated, building to a frenetic climax while the choir continues to chant the chorale figure heard at the opening in different harmonic guises. The movement ends with exhausted falling figures from the strings.
The third movement is in stark contrast to what has gone before. Jesus’s words ‘Verily, I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise’ appear only briefly at the end of the movement at an incredibly high tessitura for sopranos accompanied by violins, reflecting the ascent to Paradise. The bulk of the movement is given to a setting of words from a Good Friday antiphon, Ecce lignum Crucis. MacMillan has pointed out that during the liturgy this is normally sung three times, each time at a higher pitch as the Cross is slowly unveiled and revealed to the people. The slow, quiet first part is sung by the tenors and basses and returns after a second contrasting section where the strings settle into an almost indulgent music complete with a delicious high violin solo which in turn returns. A third section (related to the first through the decorated melodic first violin part) is an extraordinary tour de force of string-writing powerfully reminiscent of Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra and the whole panoply of English string orchestra-writing which preceded that landmark work. Jesus’s words act like a short coda to the movement.
The fourth movement, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’, is formed like a huge arch beginning with long, slow notes on the double basses, working its way upwards through orchestra and choir to very high-pitched phrases and all the way down again to finish as it began. Throughout this movement there are very highly decorated vocal lines – a feature of much of MacMillan’s choral music which is in some way a throw-back to the fantasy-like decoration of Tudor composers, and specifically to the music of fellow Scot Robert Carver (1490–c1546), a highly influential figure for MacMillan.
The fifth movement is bleak. It sets Jesus’s two simple words ‘I thirst’ together with the wonderful text from the Good Friday Reproaches ‘I gave you to drink of life-giving water from the rock: and you gave me to drink of gall and vinegar.’ Jesus’s despair at his physical need for water is set slowly and just once erupts into a shout before subsiding again. The Reproaches text shimmers like a whispered chant. The movement ends with the strings building from a unison F sharp (G flat) to a climax which is marked ‘like a violent shuddering’ before subsiding again to the single G flat.
With the sixth movement, ‘It is finished’, we are brought face to face with the hammer-blows of the nails being driven into Christ’s hands and feet. Shocking, repeated chords from the strings lead to quiet singing bringing back the tuireadh progression from the first movement. Here the text ‘My eyes were blind with weeping’ from the Good Friday Responsories for Tenebrae is combined with Jesus’s words which are sung to the tuireadh progression. More hammer-blows accompany the sopranos’ serene singing of Jesus’s words and the movement ends with the continuing violation by those driven nails.
MacMillan’s own description of the last movement, ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit’, is deeply personal:
The first word is exclaimed in anguish three times before the music descends in resignation. The choir has finished – the work is subsequently completed by strings alone.
The final sighs from the violins are like the final breaths of the dying Christ and bring to a close a masterpiece of our time.
On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin was written for the choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 1997 and sets a beautiful poem by Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667) about transformation – the ‘winged harbinger’ who ‘might shift his clothes, and be / A perfect man, as well as we’. This is perfect territory for MacMillan, whose setting for five-part choir and organ reflects the wings of the harbinger in his decorative progress as well as the divine peace in the slowness of its movements. The long-breathed phrases, the shifting lights of harmony, the warmly undulating murmurs of seeming approbation (echoed by the organ) which accompany ‘How good a God have we …’ lead to the climax of the poem: ‘Let us like ourselves make man, / And not from man the woman take, / But from the woman, man.’ Quiet Allelujahs are joined by a joyfully dancing single organ line which continues long after the voices have ceased – becoming gradually softer as it dances into eternity.
The Te Deum was written in 2001 to mark the occasion of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. It was first performed at matins at the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London. A wholly original approach to these frequently set and performed words marks out MacMillan’s refreshing lack of ‘Anglican baggage’ in providing a new setting for choirs. It is something of an irony that such an original setting should be of a text serving the Anglican service of matins which, because of extensive liturgical reforms in recent years in the Church of England, now barely exists in its choral form. But this work transcends liturgical pigeon-holing and will serve in any context as yet another example of MacMillan’s desire to induce that ‘sense of silence and sacrifice in the listener’ which brings about transformation. Here, in this work, we have so much of the essential MacMillan: the quiet, contemplative phrases; the decorated solos reminiscent of late medieval and Scottish traditional music; sections of free singing where a phrase is given which is then picked up by other singers and mimicked, canon-like, over long-held vocal and organ chords; the dramatic use of walls of organ sound, especially near the end with whole ‘palm clusters’ on full organ; and beautifully interactive contrapuntal lines. Then, finally, the tenors’ and basses’ simply repeated chords invoking the Almighty to ‘Let me never be confounded’. The organ finishes the work with a reminiscence of a Scottish lament over a sustained chord of G major.
Paul Spicer © 2005