It’s hard to talk about James MacMilllan’s music without throwing around words like “uncompromising”, “fearless” and “holy-fuck”. James is a Scottish composer who has had enormous success in Europe with ambitious works by the bucket-full and the accolades to go along with them. While he’s certainly developed a sound that is alluring to new-music ears, he seems completely unshy about dealing from the bottom of the deck and baring a melodic sensibility that wouldn’t be foreign (Actually, it would probably make him a millionaire) in the pop world. James’ musical output is also deeply intertwined with his Catholic faith. The majority of his more alluring works are interpretations of the liturgy.
Holy-fuck he may be, his music has not yet reached Whitacre-esque heights in North America. Difficulty is a contributing factor as the majority of his music is uncompromisingly difficult. James seems to relish the inhuman sounds of any and all extremes to the point where the music is just too damn hard. To his credit, the extreme difficulty of his music is also matched by an awareness of the less-is-more phenomenon. Pages of his music, reams in fact, are littered with goose eggs that look like they fell out of sleepy basket. It’s this fence sitting that makes his music exciting for me. At too many concerts, I find myself pleading with the unseen muse to just slow the damn music down and let us breathe as often as I check my watch in anticipation of nothing at all happening.
The Seven Last Words From The Cross is a cantata for strings and chorus divided up into seven movements corresponding with the seven sayings attributed to Jesus Christ when he was being crucified. Unifying the work as a whole is the ascension story which is played out literally for us by the text but also told in a more abstract manner by the music itself. The main tool of the job is an ascending musical motif of semi-tone / whole tone (Hereafter referred to as the “ascension motif”). It sneaks into many a nook and cranny of the piece and keeps the music reigned in from the edge of obscurity.
(Some of my youtube links below aren’t displaying correctly…. le sigh)
1. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).
The first movement features a typical MacMillan-ism that actually should be attributed to Charles Ives. Musical school flunkies will be familiar with the oft-told story of the elder Ives experimenting with sonic realizations of two marching bands passing each other on the street. The same concept of clashing soundscapes is done here with three distinct sonic scenes, all centered around the opening F#. This common-tone begins the piece before the low strings introduce the ascension motif. The motif is parlayed to the women’s voices who stretch and knead at it before a conclusive descending figure caps the end of the first sonic scene. The second sonic scene, in the men’s voices, begins with them monotoning around our opening F#. Their obsessive chatter comes at us with alarming aggression as a gritty and abrassive hella-halleluiah setting of the Psalm Sunday Exclamation. The harmonies are perverse and disgorge themselves over a simple monotone chant on the Good Friday Responsaries from the sopranos. The movement ends once the second sonic scene disappears around a street corner and we are left hearing the sopranos chanting unhurriedly on our opening F#.
2. Woman, behold your son: behold your mother (John 19:26-27).
I must admit, the second movement perplexed me at first. I was initially turned off by the never-ending, never varying, bleating of the choir in their highest register in an unrelenting forte. It just didn’t seem to go anywhere. Once I realized that the idea in play was similar to the first movement I became more interested. There are two sonic scenes on the table here. The first is the obvious one, the choir, very high, very loud, intransigent. The second starts out as the silence, between the choir’s exclamations, and soon gives way to a tenebrously articulated C# in the lowest strings. Soon, it creeps into the ascension motif and the game of the movement becomes the jarring nature of having the ear trying to escape the never ending besiegement from the choir by being inexorably drawn to the hideous growth of the ascension motif. When the choir is finally overwhelmed, the strings melt away in a bubbling, flayed mass that seems to recall Cthulu splayed out on the men’s room floor of a poorly maintained rest stop.
3. Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).
If you were going to introduce someone to this work for the first time, the third movement would be a great place to start. In short, it’s absolutely freaking gorgeous. We’re notably deprived of a literal ascension motif here. Instead, the ascension metaphor is told through the form: There are four sections, each in two parts, for each voice type of the choir and they proceed from lowest to highest. The basses begin, basically a cappella, with an extra-worldly exclamation in their lowest register. The harmony is sour but it soon sweetens up on the text, “Venite adoramus”. Each section of the choir has their moment in the sun, much like the basses, with the harmony sweetening ever more as we move higher and higher. The expectation that’s being built for us is that after each a cappella section the strings buoy up the tapestry of chorus parts that have been featured up until that point. The surprise of the movement comes at us when instead of the hearing the sopranos adhere to the familiar formula, the strings pull seat out from under us and end the movement by holding the sopranos up in the absolute tip-top of their register (High ‘C’s and ‘A’s) singing Jesus’s words, “Verily, I say to you today, thou shalt be with me in paradise”.
4. My God, My God, why have you forsaken me, (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34).
This movement is a conjuration of a bitter outpouring of grief. There isn’t really a moment of rest to be found here and as the center of the whole work, it plays an important structural role. It conjures up memories of some of J.S. Bach’s mirror-image structures. That is to say, the opening drags the ascension motif out of the depths and turns it upside down at the dead center (Measure 44/45 out of 90) where it’s allowed to plummet back into the grime from whence it came. Much like Bach, James extends this structure to the work as a whole. Proceeding outwards from this movement, movements 3 and 5 exude a tenderness and sweetness and neglect to state the ascension metaphor literally, movements 2 and 6 play with mutations of a firmly stated ascension motif in a more grotesque atmosphere, and the outermost movements provide our premise and closure respectively.
5. I thirst (John 19:28).
The minimalism of this movement recalls the tintinabulation of Arvo Pärt. One can’t help but picture a cracked and dry landscape. The ascension motif almost appears, but is hidden as a gnawing simultanaeity in the strings at the closing of the movement in what the score notates as, “A Violent Shuddering”.
6. It is finished (John 19:30).
This movement begins, literally, with hammer blows pounding at sonic nails. The strings are left to bleed out over chorus parts that recall the stately introduction of the ascension motif in the first movement. The concluding note from the chorus is an F# that also hints at the beginning of the piece as it is maleated with ruthless cluster chords from the strings.
7. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46).
James is at his most cruel and uncompromising in the opening chord of this movement. Somehow, after the cluster chords of the previous movement are done ringing the choir is expected to hit a D7 / E minor polychord at a double fortissimo. There’s no help from the strings either. Just an absolutely low C# from the cellos and basses. And after that handful of measures, the choir is done for the night and the band strikes up to play us out.
But what comes after is just some of the most hauntingly beautiful music I’ve ever heard close a piece that I feel obliged to forgive. Recalling an older piece of his, “Kiss On Wood” for violin and piano, the metaphor seems obvious. The entirety of the six movements that came before ends up weighing down on what has to be one of the most fragile violin duets every put to page. The violins coil upwards over a bed of strings into a throbbing minor second that concludes the ascension metaphor of the whole work as a literal sonic realization of breath leaving the body.