A great deal of Michael Finnissy‘s output is choral, encompassing the same broad range of expression as his instrumental music. John the Baptist, a short work composed in 2014, falls at the simpler, more immediate end of the continuum. Adapting words from the York Mystery Plays, Finnissy creates both a mouthpiece for the titular figure as well as something of a portrait of him. Two portions of the piece are bold and declamatory, full of confidence and heft but articulated in triple metre such that there’s a distinct element of dance. It’s a serious dance, through, the choir united in a punchy statement of both believe and intent, one that points the way to a greater power, “entire in fire”. But this bullish invocation of the trinity is also turned towards the absurdity of the idea of a deity requiring something its creation. It’s a line of uncertainty that emerges first in the other pair of sections, when pulse yields to a slow, soft form of introspection, laden with both awe and wonder as well as doubts, “I thank him ever, but am a-feared / I am not able to fulfil this deed.” This inward lyricism is answered by the work’s concluding passage that essentially embraces the ostensibly impotence of the Baptist’s abilities (from a godly perspective) and simply enfolds them in faith and hope. Finnissy sets these complex emotions extremely deftly, establishing a tone that’s more-or-less quietened yet undeniably tense, the choir moving as one but with optimism and anxiety both looming large.
The piece was commissioned by St John’s College, Cambridge, and the world première took place at their Advent Service on 30 November 2014, the choir directed by Andrew Nethsingha with Edward Picton-Turbervill at the organ.
When I have, in the name of the Baptist,
The folk in water clear, then have I said that
After me shall he come that has more power
Than I to judge; he shall give baptism
More entire in fire and spirit.
Thus am I come in message right,
To be the forerunner in true witness bearing of that light.
The which shall light in every man that is come into this world.
My Lord Jesus shall come this day
From Galilee unto this flood ye Jourdane call.
I thank him ever, but am a-feared
I am not able to fulfil this deed.
The heavens shall be opened and the
Holy Ghost shall down be sent.
The Father’s voice with great joy be heard full right.
What needest he, who hath no sin, without within,
To be baptised like mortal men?
What rich man goes from door to door
To beg from him that has nought?
Lord, thou art rich and I am full poor.
Thou may bless all, since all thou wrought.
Now help me, Lord, through godhead, to do this work,
And save mankind, body and soul, from endless pain.
(Words adapted from York Mystery Plays [No.21: Barbours])