MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross & other choral works
Movement 1: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do
Movement 2: Woman, Behold thy Son! … Behold, thy Mother!
Movement 3: Verily, I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise
Movement 4: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?
Movement 5: I thirst
Movement 6: It is finished
Movement 7: Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit
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.
On setting such texts it is vital to maintain some emotional objectivity in order to control musical expression in the way that the Good Friday liturgy is a realistic containment of grief. Nevertheless it is inspiring when one witnesses people weep real tears on Good Friday as if the death of Christ was a personal tragedy. In this final movement, with its long instrumental postlude, the liturgical detachment breaks down and gives way to a more personal reflection: hence the resonance here of Scottish traditional lament music.
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.
from notes by Paul Spicer © 2005