About this Recording
8.570719 - MACMILLAN, J.: 7 Last Words from the Cross / Christus vincit / Nemo te condemnavit / …here in hiding… (Dmitri Ensemble, Ross)

James MacMillan (b. 1959): Seven Last Words from the Cross
Christus Vincit • Nemo te condemnavit • …here in hiding…


In recent years it has been an enormous thrill hearing my music being performed by The Dmitri Ensemble. This excellent, young ensemble brings a breath of fresh air to music making in this country, and are fortunate to have in their director Graham Ross one of the most exciting new musicians to appear on the radar. I am honoured and thrilled that they are choosing to mark my 50th birthday with this disc on Naxos, bringing together a number of different choral works from 1993 to 2005.

Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993) for SSAATTBB chorus and string orchestra was commissioned by BBC Television and first screened in seven nightly episodes during Holy Week 1994, performed by Cappella Nova and the BT Scottish Ensemble under Alan Tavener. The traditional text of the Seven Last Words from the Cross is based on a compilation from all four gospels to form a sequential presentation of the last seven sentences uttered by Christ. The work begins with a cadential figure from the end of my clarinet quintet Tuireadh (lament), repeated over and over, upon which the rest of the music gradually builds. Violin ‘fanfares’ emerge when the men start singing the Palm Sunday Exclamation Hosanna to the Son of David. Finally, another idea unfolds—a plainsong monotone with the words from one of the Good Friday Responsaries for Tenebrae.

Again a repeated cadential figure forms the basis of the second movement, this time evoking memories of Bach’s Passion chorales. The choir and ensemble operate according to different procedures—the choir repeating the words Woman, Behold Thy Son to a shifting three-bar phrase, the strings becoming gradually more frantic as the music evolves. They both give way to an exhausted Behold, Thy Son.

Christ’s words are kept until the very end of the third movement when they are sung by two high sopranos, accompanied by high violins. The rest of the piece is a setting of the Good Friday Versicle Ecce Lignum Crucis. During the liturgy this is normally sung three times, each time at a higher pitch as the cross is slowly unveiled and revealed to the people. Here also the music begins with two basses, rises with the tenors and then again with two altos. A high violin solo features throughout.

In the fourth movement the music rises tortuously from low to high before the choir deliver an impassioned, full-throated lament above which the strings float and glide. The movement eventually subsides through a downward canonic motion to end as it began.

The two words I thirst are set to a static and slow-moving harmonic procedure which is deliberately bare and desolate. The interpolated text from the Good Friday Reproaches is heard whispered and distantly chanted.

The sixth movement begins with hammer-blows which subside and out of which grows quiet choral material which is largely unaccompanied throughout. The three words act as a background for a more prominent text taken from the Good Friday Responsaries.

In the final movement, the first word is exclaimed in anguish three times before the music descends in resignation. The choir has finished—the work is subsequently completed by strings alone. On setting such texts it is vital to maintain some emotional objectivity in order to control musical expression in the way that the Good Friday liturgy is a realistic containment of grief. Nevertheless it is inspiring when one witnesses people weep real tears on Good Friday as if the death of Christ was a personal tragedy. In this final movement, with its long instrumental postlude, the liturgical detachment breaks down and gives way to a more personal reflection: hence the resonance here of Scottish traditional lament music.

Christus Vincit (1994) for SSAATTBB chorus a cappella is a double choir anthem written for St Paul’s Cathedral, London, setting a text from the twelfth-century Worcester Acclamations. The anthem starts from the sopranos and works its way to the basses in plainsong-like phrases, punctuated by moments of silence. An ornamented vocal cadenza is sung by a high solo soprano.

Nemo te condemnavit (2005) for SATB chorus a cappella is a short Communion motet written for Yale Glee Club in 2005. It is a setting of the Communion Antiphon for Palm Sunday, taken from St John’s gospel, chapter 8 on the adulteress; “Woman, has no one condemned you?” “No one, Lord.” “Neither do I condemn you; go and do not sin again.” It is one of a growing set of new works for post-Communion reflection that I am writing for the Catholic liturgy. It is dedicated to the Scottish historian Michael Fry. The performance on this disc is the world première recording.

My short motet…here in hiding…(1993) was written immediately after my trumpet concerto Epiclesis, and both pieces explore similar musical and theological territory. Both are concerned with the mystery of The Eucharist and both incorporate the Gregorian hymn Adoro te devote. Instead of being a straightforward setting of the poem by St Thomas Aquinas,…here in hiding…jumbles the Latin original with the English translation by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The different texts are sometimes combined, sometimes fragmented or intercut to form new relationships and a new order of progression.

The piece has an episodic structure based on two contrasting materials. Firstly there is a chromatically rich and ornately embellished music which is juxtaposed with a simpler ‘folkier’ idea based on the plainsong. A third homophonic idea forms the central pivotal point of the piece. Various vocal textures are explored throughout, covering solos, duets, trios and quartet. The final quartet combines Latin and English versions of the first stanza and is a musical synthesis of the two contrasting ideas which have shaped the piece. The piece was first performed and recorded by The Hilliard Ensemble in the version for four solo voices. The performance given here by The Dmitri Ensemble is the world première recording of the version for ATTB chorus a cappella.

© James MacMillan


The sung texts are included in the booklet and may also be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/570719.htm

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