Falling for MacMillan’s St. John Passion

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  As a “recovering Catholic,” I have been to countless Passion Sunday and Good Friday services and know the story almost as well as the Christmas story.  Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, the Passion itself is so full of drama, bordering on melodrama, that it makes sense to communicate some of that pathos via a musical setting.  I especially enjoyed several elements of Bach’s composition: how he always gave Jesus a “halo” with the orchestra strings, how the dramatic crowd scenes can give shivers down one’s spine (Laß ihn kreuzigen… let him be crucified!), and what I consider the whole point of the piece, when after the earthquake and the curtain tears in two, the guard sings Warlich, Dieser Ist Gottes Sohn Gewesen (“Surely this was the Son of God”)

Now I’m falling in love all over again… this time with modern composer James MacMillan’s retelling of the St. John’s Passion.

Mind you, I’m not a big fan of modern music – as John Oliver briefly implied during a rehearsal this week, oftentimes it seems like modern composers are trying all sorts of crazy stuff just to see what they can get away with, and it comes across more as noise.  And without context – if you just drop into any part of MacMillan’s Passion and just listen to a segment of some movement — take, for instance, the opening of movement 5 – it can feel as cacophonous and pointless as most modern compositions.  Weird harmonies and dissonances.  Time signatures that fluctuate between 4/4, 6/8, and a hefty dose of 7/8, like when Pontius Pilate talks.  Is it “one-two-three, ONE two, ONE two”… or is it “ONE two, one two, ONE two-three?”  Depends on where you are…!  Not to mention odd effects like glissandos, tone clusters, and very un-melodic lines.  Who would choose to listen to this?

But as I continued studying and listening to it, and put it in the context of the Passion, I began to see its brilliance as I ascribed meaning to its passages.  Some of my favorite moments:

  • Jesus still has his halo… as the only soloist, every time he speaks it is this sing-song, halting, measure-defying, wandering but otherwise pleasant non-melody.  The piece establishes the halo right from the first movement.  It’s an otherworldly juxtaposition that emphasizes not only is he not of this world (and won’t be bound by our conventions) but also how bizarre is it that he should be put to death by the people he came to save.
  • There is still a narrator too, but rather than the virtuosity of a tenor soloist as in Bach, it’s a separate small chorus.  They set the tone of each movement – starting off matter-of-factly, then throughout the piece adding a layer of emotion: hostility as Jesus faces the high priests and Pilate’s questioning, tenderness as his mother standing at the foot of the cross…
  • One of my favorite narrator moments actually drew a lot of derisive laughs in the first rehearsal, probably in the same vein of “these crazy modern composers” – the narrator chorus dies away (the composer remarks in the score that it’s a gliss with “pitch indeterminate”).  While others found it silly, I found it chilling, at least in the recording we have… as Jesus waits on the cross to die, his strength ebbing, while soldiers game for his clothes… it effectively communicates his life draining away and a hopeless sense of “it doesn’t get much worse than this, huh.”
  • When Jesus talks about his kingdom to Pilate, the brass crash in with a majestic fanfare that crumples in on itself, as if to say, “This is so absurd, like a bird explaining the sky to a tadpole.”
  • The crowd scenes are even more violent and jarring to the ear than Bach’s furious fugues – and, really, why should a crowd screaming “Away with him! Crucify him!” like in the 4th movement be singing tonally?  In many cases, rather than the fugue form, MacMillan uses a canon with every part offset a measure or half a measure – which, given that the lines are not always melodic nor do they harmonize this way, becomes a pretty effective mob.
  • Just as I love the “Warlich…” passage in Bach’s Passion, so do I love the tender yet sad way the narrator chorus proclaims that Jesus bowed his head and gave up his spirit.  It just crushes me to hear that passage, almost like I’m hoping this time it won’t happen, it’s so full of inexorable love and sacrifice.
  • And finally, perhaps my favorite part is in the middle of the choirless tenth and final movement.  The basses and cellos play this new, previously unheard theme that sounds noble, majestic, and purposeful, while the clarinets do the same awful squawking that they do in a previous movement, trying (but failing) to drown out the theme.  It’s as if to say the crowds involved in the crucifixion can’t stop Jesus from accomplishing his purpose.  The whole 10th movement serves as a very effective denouement, a sad end to the tale.

Overall there are a lot of neat discoveries in this piece like this, and I’m finding a few more each time through.  If you’re part of the performance, I hope you found these insights interesting; if you’re not performing, I hope you consider attending.

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