The Tanglewood Festival Chorus had the distinct pleasure of being able to have lunch with James MacMillan today during the break between the morning and the afternoon orchestra rehearsals. A good 40 or 50 people took him up on the offer and we crammed into a conference room upstairs. He thanked us profusely for our attention and study of the piece and complimented us on how great it sounded in rehearsal. Then we peppered him with questions, which he graciously answered. (I wondered if our brash American vowels sounded as quaint to him as his Scottish brogue did to our ears.) I took some notes, below… they’re a mixture of direct quotes and answer paraphrases.
On why he chose the St. John version of the Passion story over the other Gospel versions
MacMillan grew up attending Good Friday services. He has regularly sung Gregorian chant versions of the Passion story. He knew the St. John version of the story first. That said, he’s hoping to some day write another Passion exploring one of the other texts as well.
On why the Resurrection isn’t included in the Passion story, even though John’s gospel covers it.
MacMillan “wanted to avoid the temptation to be bombastic” by including the Resurrection in this piece. He feels it must be treated with intimacy and mystery, and happen in a quieter place. He hopes to complete John’s gospel by setting the Resurrection story to music some day, though he imagines something like 5 singers and 5 instruments to achieve that austerity.
On why he included the “Reproaches,” and the assertions by some that this piece is anti-Semitic for including it
Like the interludes at the end of the other movements, it is a liturgical tool. “No sane Catholic would see these words as accusing the Jews of killing Christ.” The Reproaches have been musically set by other composers as well, so there’s certainly precedent for including them in a work. More practically, including the Reproaches solves another issue: “There’s not a lot for Christ to sing.” As he composed the piece, MacMillan had thought about making a special movement, an aria of sorts, for Jesus to sing. The Reproaches fit that role nicely.
On why an orchestra-only 10th movement, when the piece could have ended after the 9th movement
I loved his answer for this one. MacMillan said the amazing thing about Schumann is how the piano continues on a postlude… “the music goes on to a place where words can’t go.” He wanted to take this lesson from history and do something similar here. While the 10th movement is not a continuation of the music from the rest of the piece, it provides a chance for reflection, a song without words, that is needed to wrap up the piece.
On the role of Pontius Pilate, and what the basses can do to personify him besides being angry all the time
Movement three “is a courtroom battle, with Pilate and Christ trying to out do each other, pitting their wits against each other.” Pilate’s character is certainly an angry role, but he’s also a character with “guile.” MacMillan mentioned that he chose to have only one soloist for economic reasons. He complimented the choruses on “the fact that you come across as one unit” while singing the role.
On the role of Peter, and the juxtaposition of themes in the 2nd movement.
MacMillan was very conscious of how Peter, as cowardly as the rest of us, denying Jesus in the face of violence, could then be chosen to be the head of Christ’s church. He really wanted “to play about this paradox between Peter the fallen human, the coward that we all are, and Peter as the first Pope.”
On the role of Jesus and the heavy melismatic writing
It was difficult to know how to treat Christus, and MacMillan is sure there might be other ways. (He’s hoping to explore some of those options if he goes back and tries a different gospel’s Passion story, though he assured us that that will also include easier choral music so more choruses and organizations can perform them.) He wanted his voice “to be different from all others in the piece.” And, MacMillan loves writing melismatic lines any ways (he commented that maybe he went even a little too far here). But there’s “something about Christ’s words which lend themselves to melisma.)
On the role of the narrator chorus, and whether the singers should be emotionally involved or detached from the storytelling
The narrator chorus is both detached and emotional. Having heard the piece now performed in three different countries, MacMillan has noticed “a different accent for each nation as they sing the narrator chorus.” For instance, the British choruses are slightly more detached. He noted, though, that in these rehearsals, Sir Colin Davis has been asking for (and receiving) more emotion from our American narrator chorus. He commented that it sounded like we wanted to give it, and make that more visceral connection, so it was certainly appropriate.
On whether he’s ever thought of making adjustments to the piece or if he could truly call it done
“When I was younger, I would tinker with things” after he had finished composing them. But now, with his experience, MacMillan states he’s become better at knowing what to expect “when what’s on paper becomes flesh, as it were.” So no, he has had a pretty clear idea of what he wants to accomplish and he knew what would work before it was ever first sung.
On whether he’s ever considered splitting up the St. John Passion and publishing smaller parts of it for commercial potential
MacMillan hadn’t decided yet, and hadn’t given too much thought to this while composing it, but he does feel that some of the reflections after the movements could work as church choral pieces. In fact, the Stabat Mater portion of movement 7, Jesus and his Mother, already exists as an unaccompanied published piece under the name Fiat Mihi. (I think many choral members will be looking that one up.)
On Eastern, Scottish bagpipes, and other musical influences on his composition style
MacMillan noted that the Catholic church has its roots in the synagogue. He admitted he was “fascinated with non-European music, more ethnic music, including Arabian.” He also noted his familiarity with Gregorian chant, and cited its influence, especially with the style of the narrator chorus. He considers this work what happens when chant and opera “meet and do battle together.”
Scottish music definitely has a tradition of being very heavily embellished (yes, including bagpipes). MacMillan confessed that Scottish music “is under my skin.” He also remarked that many of the themes borrowed for this piece are of Scottish or Gallic origin. He cited the melody in the brass in the 10th movement, noting that it’s a setting of a Sanctus used in Scotland and Anglican services… “any churchgoer in the UK would recognize it immediately, but here in the States it’s more likely to go unnoticed.” [Update: Peter Pulsifer from the chorus points out that this Sanctus is actually MacMillan’s own setting of the Sanctus from his St. Anne’s Mass… MacMillan quoting MacMillan! Though it is apparently quite popular.] There are nods like this throughout the piece, “genuflections to tradition.” As MacMillan said, “the ghost of Bach was floating over my head” as he wrote the piece, because you can’t write a Passion without acknowledging, or in this case embracing, his influence — even going so far as to include the melody he made famous in his chorales. He included homages to Bach, Wagner and… Victoria? He wanted to take these 3 pillars and bring them into this piece so it could be part of that tradition. Why Wagner? “Wagner had provided the way forward for composers.” Besides, “composers shouldn’t worry about borrowing… so just steal as much as you can!”
On his 21st century music not sounding like other crazy 21st century compositions
“Fundamentally, I’m an old-fashioned composer” who values tradition and doesn’t take the high-minded modern idea that the past is not useful. He does not take an iconoclastic attitude toward tonality. Sure, “there are obvious chromatic stretches and they create tension, but it’s all rooted in something.”