Passion Music

Passion Music

Acclaimed as “a landmark for contemporary music,” James MacMillan’s interpretation of the 2,000-year old Passion narrative is one of his most significant works. His account draws inspiration from previous musical settings of the Crucifixion story, dating as far back as the fourth century, and offers a new reading for the twenty-first century.
—Sir Colin Davis, conductor

Polyphonic settings of the Crucifixion of Christ have been composed since the 15th century. The story of the Crucifixion is told in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and has inspired composers to create dramatic works for solo voices, choirs and orchestras. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) wrote four or five settings of the Passions but only two have survived, the St John Passion and the more frequently heard St. Matthew Passion. The St. Matthew Passion is scored for two choirs and two orchestras. Both orchestras include two recorders, two transverse flutes, two oboes, two violins, viola, viola da gamba, and basso continuo. Bach uses dissonance in his music to emphasize words in the text such as “crucify,” “kill,” or “mourn.”

Like Bach, Scottish composer James MacMillan’s (b.1959) music is infused with spiritual influences. His Roman Catholic faith has inspired many of his sacred works including his setting of the St. John Passion for a large orchestra, double chorus and baritone solo. This massive work was premiered in London in 2008 and is scored for one principal soloist, Christus, a baritone, a chamber choir which carries the Narrator’s words, a large chorus which takes all of the other text, including the characterization of the other main players in the drama, and orchestra. MacMillan says of the work: “after writing my Seven Last Words from the Cross in 1993, I always knew that the inevitable next step would be a setting of one of the Gospel Passion narratives. It has since been my ambition to tackle such a project. I decided on St John’s text, as it is the version with which I am most intimately acquainted, hearing it recited or sung every Good Friday in the Catholic liturgy. In fact, since my student days in Edinburgh I have regularly participated in the Gregorian or Dominican chanting of the Crucifixion story on that day. This simple music has had an overriding influence on the shape and character of my own Passion setting.”

The work is divided into ten movements and is given a rating of the highest difficulty level for a chorus. It is a dramatic work that has been called a major achievement and fundamental addition to the choral repertory. MacMillan’s St. John Passion lasts one hour and a half will be performed in Chicago on Palm Sunday, April 13th at 3:00 p.m. in Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago. The performance is a partnership with Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music under the direction of choral visionary Donald Nally.

Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, BWV244 will also be performed in Chicago this Lenten season. The performance at the Harris Theater takes place on Friday, April 11th at 7:30 p.m. Grammy Award-winning conductor John Nelson returns to Chicago to lead the fourth annual Chicago Bach Project in a one-night-only performance of what many consider the most moving of all sacred works. Maestro Nelson, whose recent release of the St. Matthew Passion on DVD has garnered high praise from BBC Music Magazine, Gramophone, and American Record Guide, brings “a deep and sensitive understanding of what gives this music its unique spiritual resonance and urgent dramatic power” (Chicago Tribune).

Christie Miller is an active freelance musician, clarinetist. She has performed with many of Chicagolands finest ensembles, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

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Macmillan interview link
Info link for Macmillan’s St John Passion 
Info link for Bach’s St. Matthew Passion