MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross

March 12, 2009

This Music Note was originally written April 2006, but is here posted to All Manner of Thing for the first time.


MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross
Polyphony, Britten Sinfonia, Stephen Layton
(Hyperion CDA67460; 67:47)

Given that the Western world in the twentieth century was growing progressively more secular, and that this trend was particularly pronounced in the arts, it is perhaps surprising that so much first-rate sacred music was written.  Igor Stravinsky and Benjamin Britten, two of the very finest composers of the past hundred years, both made substantial contributions to the sacred music tradition, as did many others.  Moreover, in the last forty years the number of composers devoting their talents to sacred music seems to have been increasing, prominent among them the so-called “holy minimalists”: Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, and (the distractingly pompous) John Tavener.  These men have tended to write music that is accessible and beautiful, but also fairly solemn, slow, and austere.

Into the picture steps the young Scottish composer James MacMillan.  His music, too, is rooted in personal devotion — he is a lay Dominican — but there is nothing sentimental or gentle about it.  His musical language is aggressive, frequently dissonant, and the fruit of an incisive musical intelligence.  This is not to say that his music is not approachable, because it certainly is, but it is not comfortable, and will not appeal to those who take their music like warm milk.

Take, for example, the opening section of his terrific cycle Seven Last Words from the Cross.  The orchestra begins quietly in layered chords and, gradually increasing in volume, a fugal counterpoint in women’s voices arises out of the texture: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.  As this interplay soars higher, an agitated men’s chorus enters with a Latin text from the Palm Sunday liturgy, rising to a dissonant exclamation: Rex Israel! The orchestral foundation, grown louder, spawns a wild sawtooth solo violin line that cuts jaggedly through the texture, now accompanied by the women’s voices rapidly intoning a Tenebrae text for Good Friday.  At its climax the music is a well-controlled chaos of colour, rhythm, and language.  The air slowly clears, the strings swelling sweetly, until all that remains is the patter of the women’s voices in monotone: They placed me in a wasteland of desolation, and all the earth mourned for me.  It’s a bracing, thrilling piece of music.

This opening to Seven Last Words sets the stage for what is to follow.  In general, the music is an explosive mixture of sharp orchestral attacks, bold dissonance, and soaring soprano voices, with interludes of lyrical beauty.  Though the texts center around the seven sayings of Jesus on the cross, Macmillan has embellished them with texts from the Holy Week liturgy.  Behind it all is the voice of an unmistakeably passionate and prodigiously talented composer.

Seven Last Words lasts about three-quarters of an hour in performance.  The disc is filled out by two lesser works, a motet On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin and a setting of Te Deum, both written quite recently.  They are fine works, but can’t compete with the main event.  The choir is top-notch, coping admirably with their frequently challenging parts, and the sound is excellent.  This is a really superb disc.


Listen to the opening section of Seven Last Words:

More clips from the Hyperion Records website.

10 Responses to “MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross”

  1. Pentimento Says:

    I recently performed Macmillan’s “Three Scottish Songs.” They are wonderful, and chilling.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I don’t think that I have heard them, Pentimento. Do you know if they have been included on any recordings?

  3. Quin Says:

    Thanks for the clip – that’s pretty good stuff.

    Better than Pärt and Górecki (and Glass), the likes of which I’ve never been a big fan of. The whole minimalist strain, if I may call it that, has always seemed pretty barren to me. IMHO, later centuries will come to recognize Messiaen and Lutosławski as the real greats of the last 50 years or more. But I’ve banged this drum before!

  4. Pentimento Says:

    They haven’t been recorded yet. They were published in 2007, and I sang them at my doctoral dissertation recital in New York in 2008. I tried to call Boosey, the publisher, to invite them, because it may have been a premiere, but couldn’t ever get out of voicemail. . .

  5. cburrell Says:

    Very interseting, Pentimento! I looked at the Boosey page for MacMillan but couldn’t find the score listed. Is their catalogue out-of-date, or did you acquire the score by some other means?

    Quin, I cannot agree with you about Pärt, and I still don’t know enough of Lutosławski to have a well-formed opinion, but about Glass and Górecki, and especially about Messiaen, we agree.

  6. Pentimento Says:

    I have a recording from the recital, but the sound quality is so poor that I have scruples about sharing it with anyone . . .

  7. I have MacMillan’s Confession of Isobel Gowdie and 3rd Symphony. I’ve only listened to the “disk” (actually mp3s) once, and that not very attentively, but it certainly sounded promising.

    Pentimento, it’s possible that that recording could be improved digitally, depending on the nature of the problems. If it’s a valued keepsake that might be worth a try.

  8. Pentimento Says:

    Hi Mac. I actually looked into it, because I wanted to have some tracks from recent performances to put on a CD for teaching job applications. But according to my technician colleague, the recording mic was placed too far away from me in the hall, and he couldn’t enhance it in a way that would make the voice come forward enough. If I ever get the chance, perhaps I’ll redo those songs in the studio, though that will take a lot of planning and effort. The songs are haunting.

  9. cburrell Says:

    I’ve been listening lately to MacMillan’s St. John’s Passion, and if I can find some time I’ll write up some thoughts about it. It’s a very ambitious piece, but not entirely successful in my judgment.

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