James MacMillan's St. John Passion

In a commentary for Chorus America’s online feature Noteworthy, Donald Nally commends James MacMillan’s St. John Passion to choral music colleagues—despite its considerable challenges. Not only is its scale monumental, the oratorio may invite controversy.

Nally frames the issue this way: “Why, if a composer wants to tell the story of Jesus’ Passion, would he choose John’s account, considered the most violent and often cited as placing blame for Jesus' death on the Jewish community surrounding him? It is one thing to program Bach's setting of John's Gospel; it’s another to choose that Gospel for a new composition.”

In his Noteworthy commentary, Nally begins to answer the question. If you have not yet read it, we encourage you to do so before examining the following essay, in which Nally expands on his argument for MacMillan’s work.

From Donald Nally:

In his review of the 2007 premiere for The Forward, Benjamin Ivry called James MacMillan's St. John Passion "full of hatred" and "the classical equivalent of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ." The composer, never shy to engage despite his soft-spoken nature, responded in a letter to the editor: "Ivry’s implication that the Gospel of John is anti-Semitic is offensive to Christians. Likewise, his assertion that ‘The Reproaches’ (‘Improperia’) used at the Good Friday liturgy are also anti-Jewish is laughable, considering that much of the text of ‘The Reproaches’ is taken from the Hebrew Bible."

Those who want to distance themselves from the controversy regarding Bach’s St. John Passion cite 18th-century Lutheran Leipzig's unenlightened cultural views, focusing on the quality and historic significance of the work. Even then, we must consider those who say such distancing is impossible, like James Carroll, who, in Constantine's Sword, asserts that nearly two thousand years of assigning this collective guilt for all time to one specific group of people, including all of the descendants of those living at the time, has contributed mightily to the torture, suffering and murder of millions because of their religion.

I asked MacMillan about this and he replied that he hadn't realized the text was controversial when he set it, citing the absence of controversy surrounding Arvo Pärt's setting of the same words. Noting his surprise that his setting "caused more of a stir," MacMillan added, "Scholarship has pointed to the fact that the writer of the text, being Jewish himself, had a very specific use of the words and it was not in any way intended as a ‘racial slur’ in the way that the modern world understands it. I think the lack of scholarship is the problem here, and thus a kind of unknowing prejudice which is fueling the controversy."

In Nicholas Brown's brief, excellent master's thesis (King's College London, 2011) on MacMillan's St. John Passion, he asked the composer the same question, and MacMillan’s reply focused on his personal relationship with the text. After completing his Seven Last Words from the Cross (1994), he knew that a musical exploration of the Passion--eventually, of all four Gospels--would be forthcoming. He said he chose John first because it is the one with which he is most familiar; having grown up with it, he continues to chant it on Good Friday, as is the Catholic tradition. Much has been made of MacMillan's setting as an "English Passion" (an ironic label for the work of a Scottish Catholic who created controversy in 1999 for his outspoken views on religious discrimination in Scotland) or as a "Catholic Passion." While the inclusion of familiar texts of Catholic liturgies in Latin certainly would support the latter notion, the textless final movement seems to transcend a denominational viewpoint; the nature of the Latin texts he includes surely attempts to do the same--they are directed to the people. MacMillan, however, admits that, while all Passion settings are in the shadow of Bach, Bach's works have essentially been "absorbed and subsumed into secular music making culture." He notes, "as a Catholic, I have a sense of ownership over the Passions because they were around before Bach."

Bach and MacMillan agree on a fundamental structural principle: the need to pause and reflect on certain moments in the story. Bach engaged arias of great personal depth and chorales familiar to his audience to comment on John’s words. MacMillan does similarly, assuming listeners to be congregants familiar with Catholic worship, or concertgoers with access to translations of the Latin liturgical texts that close each of the first nine movements. Reaching toward each other over a quarter of a millennium, the two composers seem to share one defining characteristic: their focus on human suffering--whether that be the humanity within Jesus, the relationship of the individual to that humanity, or the humanity of a sacred or secular world that observes, causes, and feels suffering. It is the suffering of others, and our relationship to it, that motivate the emotional heights of both Bach's masterworks and MacMillan's first Passion.

An exploration of suffering is a common theme shared among contemporary Passions. In discussing his little match girl passion, David Lang has stated, "I'm interested in...how you look around and realize how much of your life is made possible by ignoring the suffering that goes on around you. That we live in a way which makes it possible to live by saying, 'That person is starving, I'm going to make believe I don't see that right now. That homeless person, I'm not going to see that. That country in disarray, I'm not noticing that today, so I can get up in the morning and live.'" We see this particular focus in Lachenmann's work of the same name, as well as Kaija Saariaho's Passion de Simone, another Passion that reflects, but does not tell, the story of Jesus. Of those that do tell his story, Passions of the post-Penderecki era (his St. Luke Passion of 1966 essentially inspired the recent interest in Passion settings) often evidence a kind of universalist approach to the story--an attempt to reach across boundaries, ages, and cultures--as heard in the Passion settings of Osvaldo Golijov, Calliope Tsoupaki, and Tan Dun.

As I explain in my Noteworthy recommendation, MacMillan employs musical language that draws on his own work, well-known themes from other composers, and folk and pop influences. He has been criticized by knowledgeable music reviewers like Ivan Hewett (in his thorough book, Healing the Rift, 2003, now somewhat outdated) for relying on musical gestures as affects. Yet, it is these gestures that make his music so compelling to so many listeners. The separation of musical ideas into opposing or converging musical planes makes sense to us; it is how our minds work, particularly the minds of moderns. Gestural writing is a fascinating and dominating characteristic of postmodern music, often taking the form of quoting music of earlier times (Esenvalds' Passion and Resurrection is an obvious example), and we see it in composers spanning the musical spectrum from Salvatore Sciarrino to Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, from Bo Holten to Steven Stucky.

In fact, in his St. John Passion, MacMillan quotes himself many times--literal quotations or evocations of previous atmospheres arise to capture his personal responses, drawing connections to related contexts he formerly created. In the first movement, the Latin response to the Gospel is set to the opening melody of his great organ mass. Here it is expanded from a single line to a twelve-part pantonal texture signifying “all peoples.” The text in the original, “You were sent to heal the contrite,” makes MacMillan's message clear. The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, a kind of orchestral Passion, is quoted in No. 8, “The Reproaches,” as a reference to sacrifice and pain; a single motive of Veni, veni, Emmanuel (a glimpse of hope) is quoted, and his opera The Sacrifice, a work about persecution that he was finishing while composing the Passion, is also present in this music.

Of his two quotes from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the more obvious, heard twice in the final movement, is among music history’s most familiar motives: the opening theme, commonly associated with yearning, the confession of love, and an inevitable fate. But, hidden in No. 4 (as Pilate asks the crowd, “Shall I crucify your king?”), we hear the music that accompanies Tristan’s first meeting with Isolde, his “destiny” motive, as he unwittingly enters a world that will crumble as a result of his undying love for another. Again, the message is clear: the Passion, though at times cruel and violent, is about love.

In fact, MacMillan’s musical, personal, and political lives have often been focused on the integrity of a belief—the innate right to hold a belief without being persecuted for it, to live freely in our own worlds of love and passion, to live with understanding and compassion. While the journey of his Passion magnifies the cruelties of which we are capable, the background of this very human story, and its conclusion, is one of love.

The work

Part 1

1. The arrest of Jesus
The Evangelist picks up the story as the disciples cross the Kidron Valley; John's voice is heard in the metered chanting of the Narrator Chorus, which is punctuated by nuanced harmonic inflections that point certain words, leading to the introduction of the voice of Jesus. The writing is melismatic; it contrasts sharply with the even chanting of the Evangelist, sung in long, contemplative lines. (This remains fairly consistent, with the notable exception of his agitation in “The Reproaches.”) The crowd responds to him ("Whom do you seek?") in bold blocks surrounded by a kind of pastorale in the orchestra; the flutes, reminding us of the garden setting, evoke a kind of walking music. When Jesus answers, "I am he," the Large Chorus joins him and we are led into the first of many relationships within the score that draw Jesus to the people who pursue, deny, or lament over him.

The Latin response to the arrest, from the mass (literally quoted from MacMillan’s music, as previously mentioned), is "Take and eat this, all of you: for this is my body," which emerges in a twelve-part stacked chord of half and whole steps moving in parallel motion and finally resolving to minor modal chanting, repeating the word "remembrance." An orchestral postlude prophesies the drama to come.

2. Jesus before Annas and Caiaphas. Peter disowns him.
MacMillan's title is strong here--Peter does not deny, he disowns--and the movement reflects this from the outset; the Narrator Chorus is now in octaves, higher and agitated. A four-part women’s chorus in angular, thrusting accusatory lines portrays the maid questioning Peter. Peter's response--four-part men--is defiant. All the characters, including the Evangelist, seem agitated, except Jesus, who maintains his long, contemplative lines, asking why he is being treated this way. The orchestra tells us through its tumultuous underpinnings that there is great tension and an undercurrent of violence. The Narrator Chorus’ summation of the scene, describing the cock crowing, is remarkably desperate.

The Latin response, introduced by a kind of grotesque trumpet fanfare, is, "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church." The musical language captures the irony of this text in view of the scene just played out; there is a certain palpable pain as the music helps to realize the emerging truth of MacMillan's reaction to this story--that all of Christianity is born into this inability to embrace Jesus and that he trusts his disciples nevertheless.

3. Jesus before Pilate
Again, the orchestral opening awakens us by force to introduce the longest and darkest of the movements of this Passion. The Narrator Chorus' variation (each movement finds them in a different state) in this part of the story call on the baritones as Evangelist, while the other voices create a kind of harmonic cloud above them, with vowels emerging and disappearing into hums, a technique that will be used to great effect later in the work.

The basses of the Large Chorus sing the words of Pilate, while all the men answer as the crowd; the exchange between the two characters is one of contained contempt, and Pilate's ensuing interrogation of Jesus is drawn in agitated, angular mocking lines. But Jesus answers majestically when he speaks of his kingdom, introduced and answered by tremendous brass fanfares. Pilate persists, and Jesus' answer is, to me, among the first of the great moments of the work--those moments that place humanity right in front of us. To the soft and rich accompaniment of the lowest strings, later joined by Jesus' trombone choir, Jesus answers that he has come to bear witness to the truth. The intimacy of this moment is stunning, and is magnified by the violence MacMillan has created in the immediately preceding minutes of the drama. Finally, chamber organ and the violin trio join him as he stutters, "I am him."

MacMillan then focuses on John's most ironic moment in his Passion telling: Pilate's question, "What is truth?" Bach captured Pilate in this moment in four little notes that briefly stop the action. MacMillan's Pilate repeats the question three times, in glissandi that eventually plunge to the bass' lowest range. There follows further argument between Pilate and the crowd, with the soldiers particularly violent, demanding, and mocking. Pilate is again given great attention when he presents Jesus in purple robe and crown of thorns: "Behold the man." But out of his sarcasm comes the Gethsemane music from Movement 1, reminding us just how far we have come in just a few hours within the story. It is both poignant and disturbing. But the scene is not over, and it is for the continuing musical violence and MacMillan's adherence to John's account that some criticize this work as an angry portrayal of the story, particularly of those accusing Jesus. Indeed, if the intention is to exhaust our tolerance for cruelty--to point out the suffering that others endure--this movement succeeds all the way through to its chorale response.

The Latin response is shocking: the full chorus crying out, not the name Pilate or Peter, but "Judas! Judas! Judas, the vile merchant sought out the Lord with a kiss; he, like an innocent lamb, did not refuse Judas' kiss…." These cries are punctuated by full drums in the loudest choral moment so far, followed by those iconic words of Matthew, "It had been better for him if he had never been born."

4. Jesus is condemned to death
The final scene of Part 1 finds the Narrator Chorus in a heightened state, with highly ornamented octave chanting. The scene in which the crowd calls for the crucifixion is brief and ugly, yet takes a dramatic shift in tone when the Narrator Chorus announces "Then he handed him over to them"; we can hear the Evangelist evolving from disbelief to resignation.

The Latin response is a harmonized chorale tune, presented in such an elongated manner as to render it unrecognizable. The Large Chorus sings, "Crucifixus etiam pro nobis," while moving through a kind of barren landscape of sharp-side harmonies as solo winds and strings offer keening interjections, briefly becoming a part of this hollow atmosphere, then tenderly handing their gesture to a colleague.

Part 2

5. The crucifixion
The odd serenity following the condemnation is broken by the orchestra announcing the story's resumption. The percussion pound that motive from Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man and there is an additional quote from Isobel Gowdie before the Narrator Chorus returns with Jesus bearing his own cross. The scene is short, ending with Pilate's "What I have written, I have written."

The Latin response is a wild, turbulent turba-style chorus, "The kings of earth stood up and princes have met together against the Lord." Each voice part churns individually and the full orchestra explodes in response.

6. Christ's garments divided
Again, the orchestra shocks us back into the story with outbursts that lead to the Narrator Chorus at the Cross with the soldiers. The composer interrupts the Evangelist's chanting chords with descending chordal glissandi; it is graphic keening and creates the effect that the story itself is becoming transparent, as if it is losing its body. The opening is short, with only one non-narrating voice, that of the soldiers.

The Latin response is a fugato setting of "I am sinning every day and do not repent," in a characteristic MacMillan technique, rising from nothing in the bass to high above and then descending again to the lowest region. (We hear this multiple times in works like Seven Last Words, the Te Deum, and the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis.) A quietly imploring "Have mercy on me" is broken by the full orchestra and chorus invoking "and save me." There is much fear in this music and, behind the great waves of sound, there is a kind of helpless humility.

7. Jesus and his Mother
The voice of the Evangelist is reduced here to just the sopranos of the Narrator Chorus, singing over the quiet rumblings of a bass clarinet. This is the quietest, simplest moment in the Passion, and it sets up a very different manner in which Jesus' trombone and violin trios (with organ) accompany him in a moment of strength and compassion. They are later joined by a characteristic MacMillan sonority--muted trumpets that create a kind of surreal atmosphere, like the muffled speech of someone in an adjoining room. Jesus says to his disciple, "Behold your mother," leading to two familiar texts addressing Mary.

The Latin response is the Stabat Mater. We are truly at the foot of the cross now, with the grieving mother, as four-part fugal phrases are intoned by divided altos and tenors in gnarling, heavily ornamented chants. What makes this moment extraordinary is that this Latin response, thick with murmuring in the middle range, is surrounded by a text recalling the Medieval carol, "Lulla, lulla, my dear darling." Sung by low basses and high sopranos, they create a kind of embrace around the grief, as if their arms–those of the nativity--are holding the altos and tenors-–those of the crucifixion, eventually sharing their Latin text as well, often rising above and into untexted colors that sound as laments. MacMillan often writes like this--on differing planes that, when integrated, tell a complex story. A third plane here is the shimmering string cloud that continues throughout; it adds to the feeling that the story is suspended and we are suddenly far, far away from it, somewhere deep in our memory. Finally, the choirs come together in one phrase of Bach's Passion chorale, and the Sanctus bells tell us that communion is on the horizon.

8. The Reproaches
“The Reproaches,” or Improperia, are a series of antiphons and responses appointed to Good Friday and are an unusual moment in the liturgy in which the voice of Jesus, reaching back into the Old Testament to describe the ways in which God has cared for his people, upbraids the people for having crucified him. Perhaps because Victoria's settings--alternating between cantor and choir (responding "Hagios o Theos...") and falling on the ears as a lament--are most familiar to us, MacMillan's violent setting seems all the more shocking; this is no lament, this is a dramatic, angry Jesus. A virtuosic tour de force for both orchestra and baritone, with the choir's responses attempting to push back against the maelstrom of accusations being flung at them, it is a breathtaking moment in the telling of the Passion story, and Jesus' isolation is magnified at the close of the movement when only his voice remains.

9. The death of Jesus
Over a drone from the Large Chorus basses (Christus factus est--here the Latin response becomes the foundation of the movement—“Christ is made for us”), the Narrator Chorus returns to the simpler style of the opening movement. Jesus, also returning to his long, expressive lines, says, "I thirst," accompanied by the three violins and the upper voices of the chorus, humming. The effect is as if the choir is trying to cradle Jesus--these are the same sounds heard in "Lulla, lulla" earlier--and the Large Chorus goes on to become a part of his world, punctuating the offering of vinegar and then accompanying him, as far as they can go, in his repetitions of "It is finished." A short, simple (though high) closing chorale (“And he bowed his head”) brings the Passion story to its close.

10. Sanctis Immortalis, miserere nobis
In his Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross, MacMillan opens the final movement with a pantonal cry, "Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit," during which the choral texture gradually collapses into the cadence that opens the entire work, recalling the opening words "Father forgive them." Out of this cadence a string postlude is born; it is a devastatingly effective gesture, employing numerous folk-like ornaments and nuanced dissonances, eventually leading to an attempt to resolve the paternal and maternal aspects of the story previously told.

Here, in his St. John Passion, MacMillan employs a similar structural device, though, without an opening choral flourish. Instead, the movement begins as a dark and exhausted procession, with divided cellos and basses attempting to assemble the melody that, after an initial dramatic climax recalling Copland’s Common Man motive, will eventually rise in broad horn strokes and push back against the otherwise fanatic chaos of the winds. This chorale is the dramatic climax of the entire work, and its brief life is a kind of cleansing; at its conclusion, Tristan's love theme, heard earlier in the movement, re-emerges, and we are reminded of all its implications: the inevitability of sacrifice and the strength of a love so intense and obsessive that it cannot die. The postlude recedes as with distant Sanctus bells are again heard, calling the people to the table, to communion, to participate.

MacMillan can be controversial because he is unafraid to say such things in music. He is unafraid to express anger and he is unafraid to portray enduring love. He is unafraid to combine old with new to tell a story or make a point or subtly refer to a musical gesture that perhaps only he will understand, but that symbolically captures his understanding and emotional response to a story. In his St. John Passion, that message is one of love, played out against a backdrop of pain, fear, anger, and sacrifice. In the musical choices he makes, that Passion is a very human one, and the references he makes emphasize the intimate relationship he finds between his subject and himself. In doing so, he invites us to consider how we process suffering--in ourselves and others. If for no other reason, that makes this work worth the investment.

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