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Photo: Edinburgh Festival / Sean Hudson
Edinburgh Festival 1993, Francisco Negrin, dir

MacMillan, James

Visitatio Sepulchri (1992-93)

Duration: 45 minutes
for 7 solo singers or 7-part chorus and chamber orchestra

Texts from a 14th century Easter Day liturgical drama and the Te Deum (L)

2S,A,2T,B,male speaker (Sprechstimme) 2(II=picc).2(II=corA).2(II=bcl).2(II=dbn)-2.2.2(II=btrbn).0-timp. perc(1):2cowbells/2wdbl/2bongos/2timbales/SD/2tam-t/5tom-t/ 5tpl.bl/glsp/t.bells/BD/cyms/bell tree-strings(min: NB: this work is available both as a music theatre piece and for concert performance.
Abbreviations (PDF).

This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.

World Premiere
Tramway, Glasgow
Francisco Negrin, director
Conductor: Ivor Bolton
Company: Scottish Chamber Orchestra


1ST WOMANSoprano
2ND WOMANSoprano
3RD WOMANContralto
CANTORMale speaker (Sprechstimme)


The opening scene is a textless orchestral reflection on the events of Good Friday, capturing the violence of the crucifixion and the anguish and the agony at Golgotha. The second scene takes place on Easter morning, when three women find Christ’s tomb open and empty. At the entrance to the sepulchre the women encounter three angels. "Whom do you seek?" the angels inquire. "Jesus of Nazareth" the women answer. "He is not here, he has risen from the dead as predicted. Go and tell this to the world." As the austere ritualistic dialogue unfolds, the story of the Resurrection is relayed for the first time. The Cantor speaks on behalf of the audience, interjecting questions, comments and exclamations as if from the multitude outside: "Is it true? Mary is more to be believed than the lying mob." From personal revelation experienced by three women, the final scene shifts to communal praise ritualised down the ages through liturgy. The characters unite in a dramatic setting of the Te Deum (We praise you, O God), representing both the culmination of the Easter story and the celebration of Resurrection. After the tutti opening, human individuals re-emerge in the central section, calling on Christ to liberate and save his people. The drama ends with a final invocation to the Lord for mercy, hope and protection, first impassioned above brass paeans, then fading as prayers into the distance.

Repertoire Note
Choral level of difficulty: Level 5 (5 greatest)

This work is one of a number by MacMillan that can be presented in a number of formats: fully staged as at its premiere, in a music theatre style with simple lighting, or as a purely concert work. Orginally performed with solo voices, MacMillan recast the work for seven-part choir, each choral section taking one of the solo parts. Visitation Sepulchri dates from the time the composer first burst onto the musical scene with works such as The Confession of Isobel Gowdie and Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, and shares their blending of energy, passion and reflection.

In biblical terms  it moves on from where his St John Passion ends as it is concerned with the women’s visit to the sepulchre where Jesus’ body has been laid following his crucifixion. Scene One is a purely orchestral, powerfully moving scene-setter mirroring the drama of the crucifixion. Scene Two introduces three angels (TTB), the three women (SSA) and a male Cantor section which sings/speaks/shouts un-notated, approximate pitch throughout (rather like sprechstimme). The extreme contrasts between the still, reflective meditations of the singers and the dramatic brass-dominated interjections from the orchestra seem to reflect an outward prayerfulness and inward turbulence following the Angels’ confirmation of Jesus’ resurrection. Scene Three follows without a break and is a setting of the Te Deum. This is complex and incredibly energised. The winding-down process sees a statement of the plainsong Te Deum melody used effectively in long notes against a still hyperactive orchestra. At the end of the text, ‘let me never be confounded’, the music moves into an extraordinarily different mode – almost cinematic in its triumph and consolation which might follow the successful resolution of the plot of a thriller. The voices whisper a fade-out. 

This remarkable score is complex and needs highly skilled singers with, in some cases, fairly extreme ranges: the 1st tenors have to touch a top D flat at one point and the 3rd Angel (basses) begins the second scene on low Es. The orchestral writing is often virtuoso and the whole work will, of course, need to generate theatrical electricity whether performed staged or in concert. MacMillan’s deep feeling for religious drama is one of the things which sets him apart from almost all his composer colleagues working at this level.

Repertoire note by Paul Spicer

Press Quotes
"This work is quintessential MacMillan. It progresses relentlessly from spaciously looming towers of string tone to outbursts of terror... the strength of feeling is irresistible; bursting with love, pain and tenderness..."


History, Mythology, Religion

Recommended Recording
Netherlands Radio Choir / Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic / James MacMillan

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