Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Passion of James MacMillan

The Times runs a wonderful profile of the man many people consider to be the greatest living liturgical composer, James MacMillan.

The Crucifixion and Resurrection are, says the Scottish composer James MacMillan, “the most important days in human history.

“The Passion is about why God wanted to interrupt human history and let Himself be known through His Son. It is the culmination of Jesus’s ministry,” says MacMillan, whose setting of the St John Passion, premiered last April by the London Symphony Orchestra, was performed live on Sunday in Amsterdam, thus breaking with a 120-year tradition of Palm Sunday performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

“I went for St John as it is the account I know best: the one Roman Catholics hear every Good Friday. It is a very dramatic telling of the story, an eyewitness account, almost a reportage approach to the Crucifixion,” he says. The work is structured around two choirs, an orchestra and a soloist who interprets the role of Jesus.

Its major focus is the “incredible courtroom battle between Pilate and Jesus”, though MacMillan has also highlighted the “heartbreaking encounter at the foot of the Cross between John, the beloved Disciple, and Mary”. A major hurdle was “the ghost of J. S. Bach. Replacing Bach’s Passion according to Matthew in Amsterdam was quite daunting, he says. However, Macmillan also takes a longer view: “Christians have been singing the Passion for 400 or 500 years before Bach. It was important for me to take that on board.”

His St John Passion incorporates the Reproaches, plainsong texts used each Good Friday in Roman Catholic liturgy. These encourage believers to reflect on “their infidelity to Jesus”, he says. “They are not the words of Christ but I included these extra texts just as Bach punctuates his Passion with Lutheran chorales.

“A whole movement is devoted to the Reproaches, which are based on the Hebrew Bible, the books of Micah and Isaiah, and also use phrases from the Psalms. They take into account our Jewish heritage and remind us where we have come from,” he says.

This is not the first time that MacMillan has composed Easter music. His Easter Triduum is split into three parts, one for each day of the Passion liturgy.

“As a believing artist you revisit the implications of those days constantly. I want to write another Passion. Matthew seems too big, but I would like to look at perhaps the account in Mark or Luke.”

His music, MacMillan confesses, is “very much shaped” by his world view and Catholic faith. “I have just been this morning in rehearsal with two Dominican priests. The three of us, come Good Friday, will be singing the Passion in my local Dominican church. While I was there all the turbulence and convulsion of the setting of the St John Passion was running through my mind, although this is not a liturgical work.”

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