James MacMillan: interview about St Luke Passion
James MacMillan’s new St Luke Passion turns the spotlight on the chorus and returns to Baroque roots.
You have been continually drawn back to the Passion narrative. Why is this?
I’ve always enjoyed a fruitful fascination with the Passion story, and there are deep reasons through history why artists and composers have been attracted to it, right up to our own times. The story is compelling and the images are powerful, prompting a variety of responses. Each time I return to it I try and find different perspectives. Some works are purely instrumental reflections following Haydn’s example, such as my Fourteen Little Pictures for piano trio, or the Triduum of orchestral works written in the mid-90s. Others follow more familiar formats with choir, such as the Seven Last Words from the Cross or the St John Passion.
What drew you especially to St Luke’s telling of the story? How does it differ from St John?
My setting of the St John Passion took a particular approach, examining the human drama, and was almost operatic in impact. So returning after a five-year interval I wanted to take an alternative direction. St John stands apart from the other three so-called synoptic Gospel writers who share structure and common material and, of those three, St Luke has a special appeal for me. As well as relating Christ’s life and teachings, Luke is concerned with the idea of the Kingdom of God which points forward to the same author’s Acts of the Apostles. This started me thinking about a more spiritual, inward, and pared-back approach to create a focused work about an hour long.
How did you select the texts from St Luke’s Gospel?
I decided to frame the Passion narrative with a Prelude exploring the Annunciation to set the scene, and a Postlude taking us beyond the Crucifixion to the Resurrection and Ascension. These incorporate Gospel texts where Luke explains the Kingdom of God. The main body of the work sets Chapters 22 and 23 complete. The other major decision was to use English throughout. I’d been struck at performances of the St John Passion how engaged the audience was with the narrative sections in English, and several people, perhaps not church regulars, came up to tell me how the story had gripped them, as if for the first time. This was perhaps because we are so used to Latin settings, or to German when we hear the Bach Passions. So I opted for English only and decided not to include any extraneous texts beyond Luke’s Gospel.
Why did you dispense with soloists and focus on the chorus as narrator?
Excluding interpolated texts, set as reflective arias, offered the possibility of a limited role for soloists and I decided to go the full way and do without the usual tenor Evangelist and bass Christ. Everything would be sung by choral forces. This posed quite a few challenges for me as a composer and for the chorus who would have to be very busy. I’d used a chamber choir narrating the story in the St John Passion, and I envisage in the St Luke Passion a flexible approach with the choir director deciding which tutti passages could be sung by a semi-chorus and which single lines might be better sung by a soloist drawn from the choir. I tried to make the choral writing as varied as possible, sometimes homophonic, sometimes with upper or lower voices, at other times just a unison line. The crowd sections move into polyphony to show the chaotic, angry or fearful world of the street.
Using the children’s choir to depict Christ imparts a special quality. How did this come about?
Any Passion that casts Christ as a soloist immediately makes him take human form as an adult male, whereas I wanted to examine his otherness, sanctity and mystery. Employing a children’s choir grants a measure of innocence to Christ as the sacrificial lamb, while the vocal line is either in unison or in three parts reflecting the oneness or Trinitarian implications of God. I’ve written for children’s voices in Quickening and most recently in the Gloria for the Coventry Cathedral 50th celebrations, and have gained a lot listening to youth choirs involving my own children over the years. In the UK we are spoilt with excellent young choristers thanks to the cathedral and collegiate systems, but hearing Quickening performed around the world has introduced me to equally impressive children’s choirs in countries such as the Netherlands, the USA and New Zealand.
Since the St John Passion, you’ve expanded your sequence of Strathclyde Motets. How has that influenced your choral writing?
Up to 2005 I’d written works of varying difficulty, up to challenging repertoire for choirs of professional soloists such as The Sixteen or the BBC Singers. But since then I’ve also wanted to create a body of work that could be tackled seriously and realistically by good university, church or community choirs. I’ve spent my life with amateur choirs and value their contribution, so in the Strathclyde Motets I’ve accepted the challenge of writing modern music that is simple and readily performable. I’m similarly hoping the St Luke Passion can be performed by a wide range of abilities – the first performance will be by professional forces in the Netherlands but the US premiere will be by an amateur university chapel choir. I’ve tried to be as helpful as possible, providing pitch cues and harmonic support, using simple modalities, avoiding angular leaps, keeping sections in repeating metrical schemes etc.
How did you select the orchestra to balance the choral forces in the St Luke Passion?
The orchestration was dictated by my pared-back approach and practical issues for choirs that might want to hire an orchestra and can’t always afford additional brass or percussion. It has taken me back to the Baroque origins of the oratorio, employing a distinctive Handelian chamber orchestra with organ and timpani. There is a single flute and clarinet, while oboes and bassoons have doublings for expressive reasons, plus two horns and trumpets. The use of organ together with cello or double bass solos gives a continuo feel, but support for the chorus is also at times provided by the string or wind choirs.
How do you view the state of new choral music today?
I’m genuinely surprised and delighted by the amount of new choral music being commissioned and performed by choirs today. I would never have believed this possible when I think of the world 30 years ago and the type of music composers were then focused on. It wouldn’t often have involved choirs because of a general antipathy and level of difficulty. The landscape has totally changed and I’m finding choral writing becoming much more central to myself and other composers. The thirst for new choral music from audiences is equally marked and most welcome.
St Luke Passion (2012-13) 60’
Co-commissioned by Stichting Omroep Muziek/NTR ZaterdagMatinee Amsterdam with assistance from Royal Concertgebouw, together with Duke University, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Soli Deo Gloria Inc, and Britten Sinfonia.
15 March 2014 (world premiere)
Royal Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Netherlands Radio Choir/
Vocaal Talent Nederland/National Jeugdkoor/Markus Stenz
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Photo: (c) Philip Gatward