Noteworthy: A Passion That Is Challenging, Controversial—and Worth It

Programming a modern St. John Passion invites controversy in a way that programming a historical setting such as Bach's does not. For Donald Nally, the musical and philosophical discussions raised by James MacMillan's St. John Passion made taking on the work an experience of growth for all involved.

St. John Passion
by James MacMillan
Recommended by Donald Nally

From Donald Nally:

It is huge and it is challenging and it is worth it. A dramatic oratorio of ten movements in ninety minutes: raw, at times violent, at other times warm and compassionate, always compelling, sometimes relentless, ultimately satisfying and composed of consistently thought-provoking music, including some of the angriest music in recent memory. It is monumental and yet intimate. And, it invites controversy. That, too, is worth it.

Why, if a composer wants to tell the story of Jesus's Passion, would he choose John's account, considered the most violent and often cited as placing blame for Jesus's 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. MacMillan believes the controversy stems from a lack of scholarship. He told me, “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.” He chose John, according to scholar Nicholas Brown, first because he grew up with it and continues to chant it on Good Friday, as is the Catholic tradition.

As for the musical language involved, MacMillan draws on all that came before him compositionally. In fact, he 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. He employs the complex rhythms of his percussion concerto Veni, Veni Emmanuel, the steely dissonance of and vocal outbursts of Cantos Sagrados, the orchestral riots of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, the jazzy emergences and stark silences amidst the Ivesian chaos of Symphony No. 3, the gnarling chants and chorales of The World's Ransoming, and the melancholy tonal tug of his many brief choral works, like The Gallant Weaver and Christus vincit. MacMillan also quotes other composers, and those quotations are rather remarkable for the boldness with which they are employed. At various places, we hear the recognizable rhythmic motive that dominates Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man—a nod to MacMillan’s long association with liberation theology. Finally, there are two quotes from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

While we may find ourselves on familiar modal territory in the Passion, MacMillan’s solid technique and command of counterpoint give much of his music the objectivity required to allow the listener to participate. Those signature folk music ornaments that propel the music of Jesus and the Narrator Chorus as expressive inflections speak to us as innately rural beings. The chordal planing--often in the peculiarly nostalgic first inversion and usually modal--touches our memory; is it pop music or that of the Renaissance that we hear?

MacMillan follows the tradition of assigning the role of Christ to a bass (baritone), he has a chamber choir represent the Evangelist, and he gives all other roles (crowd, Peter, Pilate, etc.) to the Large Chorus. The two “choirs” bear very different roles and the Large Chorus must be substantial to balance the orchestral forces.

I conducted the Midwest premiere of MacMillan’s St. John Passion at Northwestern University in April 2014, with the Northwestern University Chorale and Symphony Orchestra, the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble, and the Rockefeller Chapel Choirs of the University of Chicago. The work caused great discussion on both musical and philosophical grounds and inspired a deep exploration of how we handle the sensitive topics within; in the end, it was an experience of growth for all and a very satisfying artistic project. In short, we faced the challenges presented and we loved it.

Listen to an excerpt from Movement 7 of the St. John Passion ("Jesus and his Mother")

Additional Analysis

Nally expands on his argument for MacMillan's St. John Passion in this longer essay, which includes a movement-by-movement analysis of the work.

Date of premiere: April 27, 2008
Commissioner: London Symphony Orchestra in honor of Sir Colin Davis' 80th birthday with Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Rundfunkchor Berlin
First performer: London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Sir Colin Davis, conductor; Christopher Maltman, baritone
Author/source of text: Gospel of John, Various Latin texts from the mass, Stabat Mater, Vulgate, additional text by the composer
Parts: 1 baritone solo, small chorus (aka "Narrator Chorus," 8-24 singers), Larger Chorus (80 - 120 voices), orchestra. 

Donald Nally is conductor of The Crossing, director of choral organizations at Northwestern University, and chorus master of The Chicago Bach Project. He has held distinguished tenures as chorus master for Lyric Opera of Chicago, Welsh National Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Spoleto USA, and for many seasons at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. He has served as artistic director of the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati and the Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia, recipient of the Margaret Hillis Award for Excellence in Choral Music. Among the many ensembles Donald has guest conducted are the Latvian State Choir in Riga, the Grant Park Symphony Chorus in Chicago, the Philharmonic Chorus of London, and the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, His ensembles have sung with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pennsylvania Ballet, Spoleto USA, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sinfonia Cymru, RAI National Symphony Orchestra, and I.C.E.; his work is heard on numerous recordings on the Chandos, Navona, and Innova record labels. In 2012 Donald received both the alumni merit award from Westminster Choir College and the Louis Botto Award for Innovative Action and Entrepreneurial Zeal from Chorus America. His book, Conversations with Joseph Flummerfelt, was published in 2011. 

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