Category Archives: MacMillan

Reflecting Catholicism… in music?

It’s 20 days until the off-book rehearsal, and I’ve almost got the large chorus first movement portions of the MacMillan St. John’s Passion memorized, including that nasty tone cluster part for the movement-concluding reflection.  It was in that reflection that I gained yet new appreciation for the composer’s ingenuity as I uncovered more hidden gems.

The Latin text of this first movement (or at least its translation) is familiar to any Catholic.

Accipite, comedite:
Hoc est enim Corpus meum quod pro vobis tradetur.
Accipite et bibite ex eo omnes:
Hic est enim calix Sanguinis mei novi et aeterni testamenti qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum.
Hoc facite in meam commemorationem

Which translates to what even the least faithful Catholic will recognize from going to Mass: “Take this, and eat it — this is my Body.  Take this, and drink, this is my Blood, of the new and everlasting Covenant, shed for you and all sinners.  Do this in memory of me.”

For the non-Catholics, some background.  The transubstantiation mystery, a.k.a. the celebration of the Eucharist, is pretty much the whole point of the Mass, and one of the central tenets of Catholicism.  How can one treat this epic event musically?

Ta da — we have the tone cluster.  Each individual part in the diviso, starting with the low basses and up to Soprano 1, sings each successive syllable of the “take this and eat it” or “take this and drink it” text, and sings it one half-step higher.  In the end it’s the equivalent of mashing your face on the piano keyboard.  The effect is mysterious and spooky, like when John Williams asks the chorus to do it at the beginning of his Close Encounters of the Third Kind score.  Then we all sing the same melody, if you could call it that, except we’re each singing it from our base starting note.  This is like rolling your face around on a keyboard… or perhaps picking it up and mashing it down in a very set pattern.

And you know what?  It works.  It certainly conveys that something funky is going on, that this is unlike anything else you’ve experienced, that you should pay attention because something magical and mysterious just happened right in front of you.  It’s like the altar bells, only much more in your face.

Now for the rest of it… all the stuff about the new and everlasting Covenant, and so forth.  It’s all chanted pretty regularly by the whole chorus in a solid chord.  But whenever the text mentions the people being saved, it drops to an out of place, discordant chord that is at odds with the rest of the chant.  This happens for “vobis et pro multis”, meaning “for you and for many.”  It also happens for the word “peccatorum”, or “sinners.”  This is quite consistent with the general Catholic approach, which is to say we’re all sinners and aren’t worthy to even glance at the big toe of God or Jesus, but if we pray hard enough and seek forgiveness and healing through the Sacraments then maybe, just maybe, we might be deemed worthy of God’s grace.

All that conveyed in the 60 seconds or so of this passage.  Brilliant.  I love it.

The MacMillan off-book date is *gulp* WHEN?

The rehearsal schedule was rejiggered… and the off-book date was moved up.  To January 11th.  Yikes!  That’s not such a big move, but the reality of that date finally hit me.  That’s about three weeks away!

For the uninitiated, the TFC memorizes the music for all of its performances.  That’s always been one of the things I love about singing with the chorus, for two reasons.  First of all, it means you really get to know the music inside and out.  Secondly, it means most of the “work” of being the chorus is shouldered by the individual members on their own time and pace, rather than by grinding it out through weekly evening 2-3 hour rehearsals to work on notes together.  Typically the last piano rehearsal before we rehearse with the conductor on concert week is known as the “off-book” rehearsal.  You can have your music with you, but you’re expected to have it memorized by that point. 

There was a time when people didn’t take that off-book date too seriously.  We would make note cards with text on it as reminders, or little cheat sheets to get through some of the tough parts.  A few years ago John Oliver came down hard on that.  “Off book is off book,” he admonished us, specifically calling out note cards and cheat sheets as signs you were not ready.  Some of us still sneak a few notes or peeks at the music to confirm what we think we know.

This piece is certainly going to be one of the harder pieces we’ve had to memorize — though I’m told by most accounts that Moses und Aron, the Schoenberg opera, probably tops the list.  I expect we’ll have a lot of people sneaking peeks at music on January 11th.

Right.  January 11th.  Holy crap!  Did I mention that’s only about 3 weeks away?  I’ve been soaking up the music but I’ve only sat down and truly studied a few movements, trying to imprint both the notes and the text in my brain.  Time to step it up!

Falling for MacMillan’s St. John Passion

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  As a “recovering Catholic,” I have been to countless Passion Sunday and Good Friday services and know the story almost as well as the Christmas story.  Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, the Passion itself is so full of drama, bordering on melodrama, that it makes sense to communicate some of that pathos via a musical setting.  I especially enjoyed several elements of Bach’s composition: how he always gave Jesus a “halo” with the orchestra strings, how the dramatic crowd scenes can give shivers down one’s spine (Laß ihn kreuzigen… let him be crucified!), and what I consider the whole point of the piece, when after the earthquake and the curtain tears in two, the guard sings Warlich, Dieser Ist Gottes Sohn Gewesen (“Surely this was the Son of God”)

Now I’m falling in love all over again… this time with modern composer James MacMillan’s retelling of the St. John’s Passion.

Mind you, I’m not a big fan of modern music – as John Oliver briefly implied during a rehearsal this week, oftentimes it seems like modern composers are trying all sorts of crazy stuff just to see what they can get away with, and it comes across more as noise.  And without context – if you just drop into any part of MacMillan’s Passion and just listen to a segment of some movement — take, for instance, the opening of movement 5 – it can feel as cacophonous and pointless as most modern compositions.  Weird harmonies and dissonances.  Time signatures that fluctuate between 4/4, 6/8, and a hefty dose of 7/8, like when Pontius Pilate talks.  Is it “one-two-three, ONE two, ONE two”… or is it “ONE two, one two, ONE two-three?”  Depends on where you are…!  Not to mention odd effects like glissandos, tone clusters, and very un-melodic lines.  Who would choose to listen to this?

But as I continued studying and listening to it, and put it in the context of the Passion, I began to see its brilliance as I ascribed meaning to its passages.  Some of my favorite moments:

  • Jesus still has his halo… as the only soloist, every time he speaks it is this sing-song, halting, measure-defying, wandering but otherwise pleasant non-melody.  The piece establishes the halo right from the first movement.  It’s an otherworldly juxtaposition that emphasizes not only is he not of this world (and won’t be bound by our conventions) but also how bizarre is it that he should be put to death by the people he came to save.
  • There is still a narrator too, but rather than the virtuosity of a tenor soloist as in Bach, it’s a separate small chorus.  They set the tone of each movement – starting off matter-of-factly, then throughout the piece adding a layer of emotion: hostility as Jesus faces the high priests and Pilate’s questioning, tenderness as his mother standing at the foot of the cross…
  • One of my favorite narrator moments actually drew a lot of derisive laughs in the first rehearsal, probably in the same vein of “these crazy modern composers” – the narrator chorus dies away (the composer remarks in the score that it’s a gliss with “pitch indeterminate”).  While others found it silly, I found it chilling, at least in the recording we have… as Jesus waits on the cross to die, his strength ebbing, while soldiers game for his clothes… it effectively communicates his life draining away and a hopeless sense of “it doesn’t get much worse than this, huh.”
  • When Jesus talks about his kingdom to Pilate, the brass crash in with a majestic fanfare that crumples in on itself, as if to say, “This is so absurd, like a bird explaining the sky to a tadpole.”
  • The crowd scenes are even more violent and jarring to the ear than Bach’s furious fugues – and, really, why should a crowd screaming “Away with him! Crucify him!” like in the 4th movement be singing tonally?  In many cases, rather than the fugue form, MacMillan uses a canon with every part offset a measure or half a measure – which, given that the lines are not always melodic nor do they harmonize this way, becomes a pretty effective mob.
  • Just as I love the “Warlich…” passage in Bach’s Passion, so do I love the tender yet sad way the narrator chorus proclaims that Jesus bowed his head and gave up his spirit.  It just crushes me to hear that passage, almost like I’m hoping this time it won’t happen, it’s so full of inexorable love and sacrifice.
  • And finally, perhaps my favorite part is in the middle of the choirless tenth and final movement.  The basses and cellos play this new, previously unheard theme that sounds noble, majestic, and purposeful, while the clarinets do the same awful squawking that they do in a previous movement, trying (but failing) to drown out the theme.  It’s as if to say the crowds involved in the crucifixion can’t stop Jesus from accomplishing his purpose.  The whole 10th movement serves as a very effective denouement, a sad end to the tale.

Overall there are a lot of neat discoveries in this piece like this, and I’m finding a few more each time through.  If you’re part of the performance, I hope you found these insights interesting; if you’re not performing, I hope you consider attending.