THE rapt attention with which the audience in the Concertgebouw,
Amsterdam, listened to the world première of James MacMillan's
St Luke Passion last month and the standing ovation that
followed its conclusion suggest that MacMillan has produced a
significant addition to the repertoire.
The Passion is close to MacMillan's heart. When he was growing
up as a Roman Catholic in Ayrshire, the Good Friday recitation of
St John's Passion was a formative experience; and he began singing
a plainsong English version as a student. His catalogue includes
the Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993) and
Triduum (1995-97); and although his St John
Passion (2008) jettisons aspects familiar from Bach's Passions
(no solo arias or chorales; the tenor Evangelist replaced by a
chamber choir), it remains on the grand scale.
With this St Luke setting, the 54-year-old composer
clearly had a different kind of Passion in mind. His decision to
scale down the forces to two choirs, chamber orchestra, and organ,
and to limit himself to Lucan texts, has resulted in a more compact
work. Lasting only 75 minutes, this music is marked by intensity of
expression and dramatic conviction as well as moments of
The genesis of this St Luke Passion is unusual. Not
long after the St John Passion première, MacMillan was in
discussion with Dr Jeremy Begbie, currently at Duke University, NC,
who then set up the Duke-Cambridge Collaboration, a group of
American and British theologians, biblical scholars, and writers.
MacMillan has met the group several times since its inception in
Holy Week 2010.
MacMillan's most radical innovation is to have Christ's words
sung by a youth choir. As he has written: "Any Passion that casts
Christ as a soloist immediately makes him take human form as an
adult male, whereas I wanted to examine his otherness, sanctity,
On the evidence of the première, he has succeeded triumphantly.
Christus was sung by the 30 girls of the Netherlands National Youth
Choir (in flawless English), their music sometimes in three-part
harmony, in reference to the Trinity, elsewhere in unison or
octaves, conveying a sense of the innocence of the Lamb of God.
Most telling was "Daughters of Jerusalem", where the Christus choir
divide into three parts singing in canon, their expressive keening
conveying Christ's compassion for Jerusalem's future suffering.
Though MacMillan is clear that the Duke-Cambridge group's
research and reflections have informed, but never interfered with,
his compositional process, its influence is heard from the outset.
Arrestingly, St Luke Passion begins neither with Satan's
entering into Judas, nor at the Mount of Olives, but with a
thrice-repeated choral cry, "Maria!" Uniquely, this Passion begins
with a Prelude that focuses on the incarnation, and closes with a
Postlude that alludes to resurrection and ascension. Together, the
Prelude and Postlude provide an intentional framework that presents
the Passion in its theological context.
Apart from the Christus music, everything else is sung by the
chorus. Under the committed direction of Markus Stenz, the
professional Netherlands Radio Choir coped well with the challenges
of MacMillan's choral writing. Only occasionally - as when the
basses voiced Peter's replies by the courtyard fire and Pilate's
responses to the mob - did they give the impression that making a
beautiful sound mattered more than finding the right vocal colour
to convey dramatic tension. Perhaps when this music is sung by good
amateur choirs, whom MacMillan had in mind when writing the work,
more of the drama will be communicated.
Crucially, MacMillan's choral scoring is inventive enough to
hold the audience's attention throughout, creatively varying the
textures and combinations of vocal lines. Also evident is his skill
as an interpreter of the Passion, adding meaning through purely
musical means. For example, MacMillan departs from convention at
"Crucify him", which is first sung by the low basses, softly,
though menacingly; the other voices enter line by line in a huge
crescendo, till all four parts at the top of their range cry again
and again for Christ's death.
Those familiar with MacMillan's music will recognise his
trademark rhythmic complexity in the orchestral writing - here
played by the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra - vocal
ornamentation drawn from Scots folk music, hints of Gregorian
chant, and moments of transcendent lyricism. He is unafraid to
allude to other music: the "Passion Chorale" emerges from within
the orchestral turmoil following the death of Jesus; the three
Lucan texts from MacMillan's Seven Last Words from the
Cross appear in refashioned form to great effect; and there
are deliberate echoes of Tristan und Isolde.
This deeply moving St Luke Passion ends with the sound
of the unaccompanied Christus choir humming an F-sharp, fading into
a profound silence: the crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus is
with us, as he promised.
The first UK performances will be given by the CBSO Chorus in
December and by the Britten Sinfonia in April 2015. Not to be
Canon Charles Stewart is the Vicar of Walton-on-Thames, and
is currently researching into presenting the Passion through