Seven Last Words from the Cross
On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin
James Vivian (organ)
Recorded 30 July 2003 in The Temple Church, London; and 1 & 2 April 2004 in St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London [Seven Last Words]
Reviewed by: Robert Hugill
Reviewed: September 2005
CD No: HYPERION CDA67460
Duration: 69 minutes
How to address the suffering of Christ on the cross is a question that must be dealt with by every Christian composer. Not all choose to address Christ’s sacrifice directly, feeling that their faith should enliven their works implicitly rather than explicitly. Others, like John Tavener and Arvo Pärt, though writing spiritually inspired music, choose to focus on transcendence.
A sense of his religious belief imbues much of James MacMillan’s work, he seeks to combine the sacred with the everyday. In a 2004 interview, he said: “To me, the very sense of the sacred that we are talking about is rooted in the here and now, in the joys and tragedies of everyday life, in the grit and mire of human existence”.
Something of this attitude can be seen in his choral piece, “Seven Last Words from the Cross”, where MacMillan attempts to come to terms with the violence and drama of the events on the cross as well to meditate on their spiritual significance. The work, written for chorus and string orchestra, was commissioned by BBC Television for broadcasting during Holy Week 1994, one ‘Word’ per day. It was subsequently recorded, and now deleted, by Polyphony and the London Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer. Now Polyphony has recorded the work again, this time under Stephen Layton with the Britten Sinfonia.
Any composer who sets Christ’s seven last words must acknowledge in some way Haydn’s series of instrumental meditations originally intended to be played between sermons; only later was he persuaded to add words to form the choral version. The Biblical text, seven phrases rather than words, is rather short, so for some movements MacMillan adds texts from Holy Week services; some in Latin, some in English.
MacMillan’s work opens with high sopranos singing “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”; the musical figure used is a mesmerising cadential theme that MacMillan originally used in his piece Tuireadh (Gaelic for Lament). The men join the women, singing “Hosanna filio David” and eventually their cries of “Rex Israel” dominate. The soprano’s theme from the opening threads its way through the whole movement, sometimes in the choir sometimes in the string accompaniment. Gradually the women sing a text from the Good Friday responsory for Tenebrae; mainly delivered on a monotone, everything else evaporates leaving just bare notes.
This quiet ending is destroyed by the blasting violence of the choral chords that open the second movement. MacMillan sets Christ’s words, “Woman, Behold thy Son! … Behold, thy Mother!”. The choir’s first repetition of the words is made all the more insistent by the biting bi-tonality of the chords. Throughout the movement the choir simply re-iterate these words to a series of striking figures, giving a strong ostinato feel, which reoccurs in other movements. The strings enter gradually, first as a meditation and then more violently until the movement evaporates on the words “Behold, thy Mother!”.
The next movement opens with a setting of the words “Ecce lignum crucis”, a Good Friday Antiphon, with soloists singing in what I think of as MacMillan’s motet style. Three times soloists sing these words, each time a little higher and three times they are answered by the full choir, but on each repetition the string involvement becomes more dominant until the orchestra alone take up the argument. The repetition is a deliberate echo of the Good Friday liturgy, during which the Cross is slowly revealed to the congregation. Christ’s words occur only at the end of the movement, radiantly sung by soprano soloists stunningly high in their range with just high violins for accompaniment. The soprano soloists, Amy Haworth and Grace Davidson, are stunning here and the result is truly radiant but the high tessitura means that we hear not a word.
Next is a setting of the words “Eli, Eli lama sabachthani” starting low and dark, working higher and then gradually descending into darkness again. The vocal lines sometimes take on a highly decorated, melismatic quality, which might be linked back to the music of Robert Carver, a highly influential figure for MacMillan.
“I thirst” builds a beautifully bleak landscape from just a few building blocks: high strings and voices and muttered interjections.
Again MacMillan breaks the mood with the violent string chords that open the penultimate movement, “It is finished”. The sopranos sing “My eyes were blind with weeping”, MacMillan providing a wonderfully consoling endless melody based on the music from the opening movement, whilst the remaining voices repeatedly re-iterate Christ’s words, “It is finished”. The result is gravely beautiful.
The final movement opens with a hugely anguished chord for the first word, “Father”, sung three times before the choir descends into resignation. The strings complete the work with a sigh, perhaps Christ’s dying breath.
Though there are many moments of drama and violence, one is constantly brought back to a sense of quiet intimacy. MacMillan sets off his dramatic moments with meditations and bleak thoughts; it is not a minimal work, but one that conveys a great sense of space.
The strings have an important role to play; they are never strictly an accompaniment and provide significant interludes and linking passages, supporting, commenting-on and amplifying the choir’s contribution: string-writing reminding of a style prevalent in the UK in the mid-20th-century. The Britten Sinfonia is excellent and Polyphony is astonishing, the latter singing the score with remarkable accuracy and bringing a wonderful sense of colour and intensity to the music. Each section has its own individual flavour and we are never conscious of the difficulty of performing the music.
Two smaller works complete the disc. “On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin” was written for the choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 1997 and sets a poem by Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) for choir and organ. This is a lovely, well-made work displaying MacMillan at his small-scale best, a feeling of well-modulated intensity.
MacMillan’s setting of the “Te Deum” was written in 2001 to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002 and almost revels in MacMillan’s lack of Anglican baggage in often being quiet and thoughtful with some transcendently beautiful passages. Quite contemplative phrases mix with decorated solos and a strong organ part and works brilliantly on its own terms.
This is disc of fine contemporary sacred music in performances that are simply stunning. Anyone who feels that the sacred has gone out of contemporary music or that contemporary sacred music is lacklustre should listen and marvel.