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Studdert Kennedy’s powerful prose, like the symbols of the Passion story itself, is rooted in the eternal round of mankind’s inhumanity. The image of the cross set up in every slum resonates with Bob Chilcott’s St John Passion, a work propelled by the dramatic force of the gospel narrative yet not overwhelmed by it. His score contains space for reflection, places of retreat from the baying of the mob and the stark realisation of what the poet R.S. Thomas called ‘omnipotence’s limits’. Chilcott seeks and finds the human, the all too human, in the Passion story. The composer invites listeners to consider the moral choices taken by Peter, Caiaphas, Pilate, the chief priests and the soldiers at the cross and, over the course of four carefully positioned Meditations, to turn towards texts which he describes as expressions of ‘deeply human responses to death, to life, and to man’s relationship with the world and with God’. Chilcott’s freshly minted settings of five Passiontide hymns open doors to Easter’s redemptive, liberating message, through which the promise of salvation stands beyond and above the desolate scene at Calvary.
The St John Passion belongs to the extending line of Bob Chilcott’s large-scale choral pieces. The work was created for Matthew Owens and the Choir of Wells Cathedral and first performed by them on Palm Sunday in 2013. The composer recalls approaching the commission with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, daunted by the towering presence of Bach’s St John Passion and mindful of more recent works by Arvo Pärt and James MacMillan. “I had a similar feeling when I was asked to write a Requiem,” he recalls. “There are such incredible models to look up to, which of course made me nervous. With the St John Passion, you’re taking on something deeply rooted in western music and also deeply rooted in Christian theology.”
Chilcott’s creative process took time to unfold. Like Bach, he decided to assign details of the Passion to a solo tenor, an Evangelist, who narrates the action of St John’s Gospel. “I felt the Evangelist’s lyrical, human quality would best be complemented by the sounds of viola and cello, while brass instruments seemed right to support the power of the chorus, which often takes part directly in the drama as the crowd.” Above all the composer’s personal response to the Passion story, its earthly pain and spiritual grace, grew out of his choice of texts. The gospel narrative is delivered in the vital language of the King James Bible, its winged words harnessed to the Evangelist’s declamatory delivery. Chilcott harvested his four meditations from late-medieval and renaissance sources, gathering in lyrics tinged with personal responses to Christ’s death, from the despair of the anonymous ‘Miserere, my Maker’ and resignation of William Baldwin’s ‘Christ, my beloved’ to the conflicted sentiments of Alexander Montgomerie’s ‘Away vain world’ and mystical beauty of ‘Jesus, my leman’.
“Poets of this period, it seems to me, began to articulate the human dimension of religion,” comments Chilcott. “Montgomerie writes about being unwilling to quit the world and its pleasures, even though he finds a way out in his love for Christ. He’s not ready to let go of what he knows on earth and that’s something with which I can identify. It’s that idea of being human, which is also there in the language of ‘Jesus, my leman’—‘Jesus, my love’. Many of us, myself included, struggle with thoughts about faith and belief. I grew up in the church as a chorister and have been so involved ever since with sacred music, which is why I think a lot about the role music might play in one’s own spiritual journey.”
The ethos and aesthetics of Bob Chilcott’s St John Passion are closely linked. Its language, like the writings of Woodbine Willie, speaks to the many, open to but not exclusively for contemporary music devotees. The work’s musical values are motivated above all by the composer’s fundamental desire to communicate. “I want to connect with people,” he observes. “That is the world of music-making I’ve always wanted to inhabit. It is the greatest thing to be able to engage an audience in music and words, to give them a space for reflection, which is why composing for the [Anglican] liturgy is so important to me. With the St John Passion, I hope I have been able to do that not just through the work’s drama but through the combination of narrative, hymns and meditations.”
Chilcott’s St John Passion opens to the suffering and submission of Christ’s Passion through words that speak of victory in death. Percy Dearmer’s translation of the sixth-century Latin hymn Vexilla regis prodeunt, first published in the English Hymnal in 1906, reflects Christ’s crowning achievement. Chilcott’s arresting setting unfolds without triumphalism, cast in minor mode and tinged with sombre dissonances. The gospel narrative, set out by the Evangelist in arioso style, begins in ‘The Garden’. We hear echoes of material from the opening chorus, dispelled by the tenor soloist’s agitated account of Judas’ arrival with a band of armed men from the chief priests and Pharisees. When Jesus asks ‘Whom seek ye?, voiced on three notes, the chorus three times replies ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. Again on three notes, Jesus responds: ‘I am he’. Peter’s violent attack on the servant Malchus prepares the ground for greater violence to come.
The work’s first hymn, ‘It is a thing most wonderful’, offers a welcome shift to the major mode. Bishop William Walsham How’s words, first published in 1872 by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge in Children’s Hymns, speak of a child’s love for Jesus and of Jesus’ love for mankind. Chilcott’s subtle dissonances and their sonorous resolution supply a harmonic edge to his mellifluous triple-time melody, as does the hymn’s crowning descant. ‘Peter’s denial’ explores the stark contrast between Simon Peter’s understandable desire to remain free and Jesus’ dignified resilience under interrogation. The participants—narrator, other solo voices and chorus—create a theatrical set-piece in which Peter’s rock-like loyalty is tested and broken while Jesus remains fearless under attack. Its anxiety and dispiriting conclusion colour the expressive landscape of Chilcott’s first meditation, ‘Miserere, my maker’, in which yearning melodic lines and harmonic suspensions draw the listener deep into the text’s sense of isolation and despair. The movement’s introspective soundworld, cast in the dark key of B flat minor, opens into the E flat major of ‘Drop, drop slow tears’. Chilcott recalls the opening of Orlando Gibbons’ famous setting of Phineas Fletcher’s words as a bass countermelody to his own tune in the hymn’s final verse.
The second part of the St John Passion opens in ‘The Judgment Hall’, launched by viola and cello with an ostinato of reiterated quavers. The Evangelist’s agitated commentary and stark melodic line reinforce the scene’s prevailing mood of menace. Pilate, backed by imperial trumpets, intervenes. His peremptory inquiry stokes the choral crowd’s anger, their indignation magnified by heavy brass and desultory timpani strokes. The interrogator’s indifference to the people and to his prisoner are dissolved when Jesus answers Pilate with a question. Chilcott introduces ambiguity to the closing section’s harmonic language with chromatic inflections and tantalising glimpses of the major mode long before its final arrival.
‘Jesus, grant me this, I pray’ owns all the qualities of the best hymns, strong of tune, emphatic of rhythm and confident in its harmonic progressions. Bob Chilcott clearly enjoyed adding to the great tradition of congregational music. “I had never written hymns before and was wary about setting texts that are so closely attached to well-known melodies,” he notes. “The hymns were one of the ways in which I was able to unify the parts of the St John Passion.” Matthew Owens encouraged the work’s first congregation to sing verses of each of the hymns. “The great thing for me,” Chilcott recalls, “was that people didn’t appear to be too intimidated by my hymn melodies and were able to pick them up straight away.”
‘Christ, my beloved’, from William Baldwin’s metrical paraphrases of The Song of Solomon of 1549, contemplates grief from the perspective of a figure close to Jesus. Chilcott’s second meditation opens with a solo for soprano, whom the composer regards as a personification of Jesus’ mother. Her expressions of eternal love are swept away by a return to business at ‘The Judgment hall’. Pilate, who can find no fault in Jesus, offers to release the prisoner. The choir’s emphatic response, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas’, is charged with the same malevolent energy as Bach’s ‘Barabbas’ chorus, ‘Nicht diesen sondern Barabbam!’, in his St John Passion. Chilcott hastens the movement along, swiftly progressing through a sequence of modulations from F minor to B flat minor, E flat minor to A flat minor and on to the choir’s visceral cry of ‘Crucify him’. Christ’s divine authority is overruled by the customary law of his persecutors, by which he can only be condemned to death. The scene’s madness, its cynicism and injustice, create the conditions out of which arises a gentle setting for unaccompanied choir of Alexander Montgomerie’s devotional poem ‘Away vain world’. Chilcott’s third meditation, marked to be sung ‘soft and inward’, employs harmonic suspensions to signify sadness and resignation. Its tender final bars draw down the curtain on the work’s second part.
‘Jesus is crucified’, the opening of part three, is driven by relentless chords in the cello part and by the choir’s incisive intervention, hastening Pilate to pass the death sentence. The chief priests’ splenetic outburst, ‘We have no king but Caesar’, gives way to a lament for solo cello and the Evangelist’s subdued account of the crucifixion. The scene closes with Pilate’s quiet yet determined response to the chief priests, incandescent that the Roman prefect has labelled the crucified Jesus as ‘King of the Jews’, and resolves into ‘There is a green hill far away’. Chilcott’s lyrical hymn, to words written in 1848 by Cecil Frances Alexander for a Sunday School class, expresses sorrow at Christ’s death while conveying its message of hope.
Choir and congregation fall silent for a second cello solo, a sacred breathing space introduced before the Evangelist continues his austere narrative of ‘The Crucifixion’. The music, like Christ on the cross, remains gentle and dignified, even during the casting of lots for the dying man’s clothes. The grief of the three Marys and the disciples at the foot of the cross flows into the final meditation, ‘Jesus, my leman’, where an added-fourth chord, stated early in the piece and repeated by the choir, and the final chord’s emptiness evoke pain and loss. ‘Jesus dies on the cross’, a montage of haunting fragments from the work’s past, creates profound compassion out of its simple musical economy of two solo voices and two instrumental parts. ‘It is finished, finished’ occupies little more than two bars yet opens up to an infinity of human sadness.
Chilcott closes his St John Passion with one of the finest of all Anglican hymns, ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’. Isaac Watts’s words, first published over three centuries ago, are matched here to an instantly memorable melody. The final verse, with its soaring descant and uplifting accompaniment of brass, timpani and organ, offers a vision of new life, free from the world’s and suffering and tears.
from notes by Andrew Stewart © 2014