Scottish Catholic composer James MacMillan has argued that he regards it as his responsibility as an artist who hopes to remain true to a theological dimension in his music to explore and exhibit "the poetic tension between peace and violence" that he holds to be "the essence of the sacrificial narrative."1 His St. John Passion, which premiered at the Barbican in London on April 27, 2008, establishes this dramatic tension by employing a variety of contrasting musical styles. The vocal music ranges from the plainsong-based narration of the "Narrator chorus" to the melismatic solo baritone performing the part of Christus to the massive blocks of sound sometimes employed by the Large chorus that performs all other dramatic roles such as Peter and Pilate. A similar variety of musical styles is found in the orchestral writing that sometimes accompanies the singers and sometimes (as in the final movement) performs without the singers.2
MacMillan's music expresses the drama inherent in the theological dimension of the Passion rather than illustrating the drama based in the action only. For instance, in the first movement the Narrator [End Page 5] chorus retains the even temper and rhythm of chant while singing the words "Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's slave and cut off his right ear"—no musical expression is given to the act of violence in the text. Christ's response, "Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup which the father has given me?" retains the quiet tone established by the Narrator chorus. But MacMillan at this point introduces a Latin motet to end the movement (and he ends each of the first seven movements in a similar way). MacMillan sets the Latin words from the Last Supper (and from the Eucharistic Prayer of the mass), "Accipite et manducate ex hoc omnes" ("Take, eat this all of you") in a manner that manifests the weight and human actuality of the sacrifice that is the origin of the Eucharist. The motet thus musically meditates on Christ's awareness of the suffering and sacrifice he is about to endure, following the model of Bach's chorales but here directly invoking the listener's sense of liturgical participation. The chorus begins quietly singing but then breaks into an atonal, rhythmic, overlapping recitation of the words; the orchestra intervenes with horns and percussion building to a point of tension, before the chorus returns to a quiet tone yielding once more to rising tension marked by horns and the cymbal. At various points throughout the motet we hear a tinkling bell that sounds like the sanctuary bell one would hear during the prayer of consecration. A sighing motif played by the horn gives a sense of the personal suffering of Christ, carrying us back to Christ's words expressed to Simon Peter in which Christ acknowledges that he must "drink the cup which the Father has given me." The musical expression and the interposed Latin text link the listener (and the listener's experience of the Eucharist) to the inner awareness experienced by Christ of the suffering he willingly accepts upon himself as the Passion begins.
Although Bach's frequent use of chorales and arias in his St. John Passion provides recurrent personal reflections on the Passion narrative, I find that MacMillan's setting in which the only solo voice is the baritone that performs the role of Christ highlights the suggestion [End Page 6] that the listener is engaged in seeking and encountering Christ as though positioned in the dramatically engaged chorus. MacMillan builds upon this suggestion by emphasizing Christ's appropriation of Yahweh's words addressed to Moses from the burning bush in Exodus, calling upon the listener to engage with Christ's claim to being the one true savior. In the opening movement, following the opening chantlike narration, the solo baritone voice performing the role of Christ sings a melodic inquiry, "Whom do you seek?" accompanied by a violin playing high glissando notes in a nimbus effect. The chorus, at first accompanied by loud percussion, proclaims fortissimo, "Jesus of Nazareth." But at this point, MacMillan momentarily departs from the...