There is something universal about Passion music, about music for Good Friday. That is the one small part of the Christian creed that everyone can say together without hesitation or insincerity: “crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death and was buried.” Some of the most striking music in the whole classical tradition (and well beyond it) has been inspired by the events of Good Friday. The most famous examples are the Passions by J. S. Bach, which tell the whole story with an almost operatic flair. The Scottish composer James MacMillan takes a different approach in his Seven Last Words from the Cross: this is a more tightly focused work, reflecting on the seven dying statements of Jesus as written down in the gospels. The singers bring in some other words along the way, but the main focus is on those seven brief and poignant phrases.

The Seven Last Words from the Cross was commissioned by the BBC to be broadcast in the spring of 1994. MacMillan composed it as a big work in seven movements, but the broadcasting committee had other plans. He looked back on the experience in an interview: “The way that the BBC decided to broadcast it – and I was afraid of this right from the beginning – was they would put one movement per night on BBC2 during Holy Week… I was very aware that it was a very incomplete and unsatisfactory way of presenting the piece – it amounted to little seven-minute programs between the news and the cricket or something.” He responded by having the whole thing premiered live in Glasgow, without interruption, that very same week. That is how he has conducted the Seven Last Words ever since, and that is how we are singing and playing it now, in the first ever performance in the Pacific Northwest.

MacMillan borrowed from many different styles and traditions in the Seven Last Words. He has said that some of this music is deliberately meant to evoke memories of Bach. That is especially true in the most intense choral sections, which recall the big choruses of the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, majestic or mocking or slightly wild. Other passages recall the Gregorian chants of Holy Week or the wailing of traditional Scottish funeral laments. Many of the parts played by the string orchestra are even richer and more complex than the vocal parts. This music has an incredibly broad emotional range, with extremes of beauty and ugliness. There are some things in the Seven Last Words that are not easy to perform; there are also some things that are not easy to listen to. MacMillan has talked about the challenges of engaging with his work: “Music’s not something which can just wash over us. It needs us to sacrifice something of ourselves to meet it, and it’s very difficult sometimes to do that.”

The music of the Seven Last Words draws us for an hour into the complex story of the Passion. The first three “words” address various characters in the drama: the Roman soldiers and jeering crowds, the mother of Jesus, and the anonymous criminal dying next to him. The fourth and fifth “words” are a gradual descent into desolation and suffering. The sixth and seventh “words” finally begin to struggle toward some kind of conclusion. Most of the long final movement is completely textless, performed by instruments alone. The voices have gone silent in grief, and the last couple of minutes simply fade out like the last breaths of a dying person. In the quarter-century since this music first went out to a few million unsuspecting BBC listeners “between the news and the cricket,” it has become a classic work of contemporary sacred art. Just a few years ago, in another interview, the composer was asked this question: “If someone didn’t know the music of James MacMillan, which piece would you like them to listen to?” His response: “Seven Last Words from the Cross.”

The opening piece on our concert is a much newer work by MacMillan. One Equal Music was commissioned in 2017 by the distinguished Cambridge historian John Morrill (a long-time patron and friend of our choir) in memory of his late wife Frances. The music uses a text by John Donne about the mysteries and joys of heaven. The text itself is especially well-known in English choirs because of the lush romantic setting by William Harris that has long been a favorite in cathedrals and colleges. MacMillan’s vision of heaven is more complex and ambiguous, without a tidy resolution at the end. As Morrill himself has written, “some of the harmonies suggest that it is not all as easy as Donne makes it seem.” We are honored to be the first American choir to perform One Equal Music.

Kerry McCarthy

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