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Judas mercator pessimus begins as quietly as possible, growing out of a single note in an unhurried and foreboding beginning. The music gently expands and contracts in a ‘calling’ gesture—perhaps more of a choral whisper—containing flickering memories of a distant past. Short interjections from the semi-chorus call to mind Jesus’ despair at his betrayal, but the main choir’s continuous pursuit of one harmonic centre signifies the acceptance of his fate. There follows a passage of angst, containing jagged rhythms, hissing sibilances and clashing harmonies. Rushing lines of fast-moving notes travel through the choir, growing to the apex of this section and dying down again, as the semi-chorus eventually relinquish their hold on their dissonant harmony.
A more gentle and solemn mood reflects the words ‘osculo petiit Dominum’, accompanied by an eerie mixture of humming and singing. The descending contour of the music eventually comes to rest in very low bass notes as keening melodic phrases are passed around the upper voices. These phrases become chaotic utterances of ‘Christum Judaeis tradidit’, portraying the anger felt by those close to Jesus, then and now. At the climax of the work, every voice in the main choir converges in panicked repetitions of ‘tradidit’, then falls into stunned silence leaving only the spectral hum of the semi-chorus, before the entire world shouts at Judas in a last-gasp attempt to save Jesus.
In the last few moments, melodic fragments express glimmers of hope, mingled with sadness. The piece eventually peters out to nothing, the betrayal encapsulated in silence.
from notes by John Rutter © 2018