The next piece in my Lent series i’m including more as a curiosity than as a work i deeply admire. James MacMillan‘s St John Passion was composed in 2007 and premièred in April the following year. MacMillan structures the work in 10 movements, grouped into two parts; the first (movements I to IV) documents Christ’s arrest and trial, the second (movements V to X) his Crucifixion and death. Two movements break from the unfolding narrative; VIII is a setting of the Reproaches and the final movement is an instrumental epilogue.
Taken as a whole the work is, to be frank, downright weird — which is perhaps reason enough to find it at least interesting. Whatever else may be true of this piece, though, insincerity is not one of its faults; indeed, i’m not sure i’ve ever heard a composer try harder to produce something that compellingly lives up both to their own and others’ expectations, in addition to the not inconsiderable weight of tradition (and religious tradition at that). But in striving to create something utterly worthy, MacMillan ends up aggrandising every word of the text, resulting in an eccentric kind of melodrama, the protagonists of which too often become a clutch of musical ham actors (imagine Brendan Fraser attempting to convince in a film by Cecil B. DeMille). Everybody struts about, shouting and striking wildly exaggerated postures; the ‘baddies’ of the piece are obvious to the point of absurdity—Pilate could almost be twirling his moustache while sporting a maniacal grin. It’s exacerbated by MacMillan’s musical language, which on this occasion frequently sounds like a Walton/Turnage mashup with some John Stainer moments thrown in: “The Crucifixion of the Three Screaming Belshazzars” – or something like that. The attempts at grotesquery, liberally distributed throughout the work, are largely restricted to copious amounts of glissandi and wildly dissonant, ludicrously LOUD tutti eruptions, which can only be effective for so long, their returns diminishing rapidly; by the sixth movement (‘Christ’s garments divided’), the repeated downward glissandi in the choir seem irritating and awkwardly comic.
However, despite this litany of mishaps, it’s not all bad. An area where his approach proves surprisingly effective is with regard to the ‘turba’, the crowd seeking Jesus’ death, which in this context really does become a savage and chaotic lynch mob. Furthermore, it’s nice to hear the Reproaches given really dramatic treatment for once; it’s one of the most devastating indictments in the entire liturgy, so hearing a setting as informal and unrelenting as this is very welcome. This is by far the most telling movement in the choral parts of the work, perhaps in part due to it being outside the narrative, and MacMillan therefore approaches it a little differently. For similar reasons, but even more so, the closing instrumental movement, ‘Sanctus Immortalis, miserere nobis’ is very powerful, and should most definitely be heard by itself as a sacred tone poem. i’ve said in the past that MacMillan’s at his best when concerned with big, important themes (as opposed to abstract ideas); that couldn’t be better illustrated than in the eighth and last movements of the St John Passion.
All in all, then, the piece leaves me with decidedly mixed feelings. It’s bizarre, unsubtle and seriously overlong, and one could argue that the dual traditional and quasi-modernist elements in the music make MacMillan seem out of his time and out of his depth respectively. Yet i wouldn’t go so far as to say i dislike the work. While it’s unlikely to be terribly effective as a meditation for the faithful, i value that there’s a composer who still cares sufficiently about this story to put so much effort into a work like this. At the very least, its superficial brand of blunt bombast can sometimes be weirdly captivating. Ultimately, perhaps MacMillan himself simply set the bar too high back in 1994 with his Seven Last Words from the Cross; now that was a masterpiece.
This is the Scottish première of the work, given by the BBC Singers and London Symphony Chorus with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Donald Runnicles; the role of Christus is performed by baritone Mark Stone.
The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.