German text by Paul Gerhardt (1607-76), based on 'Salve, caput cruentatum' (14th century), trans. Robert Bridges (1844-1930) (L,E,G)
Optional percussion*Timpani-Sanctus Bells-Tubular Bells (C4, Aflat4, Bflat4, Eflat5)-Gongs (Eflat4, F4, G4)-Bass Drum
*1 or 2 players; any or all of the above instruments
Choral level of difficulty: 4 (5 greatest)
MacMillan’s St John Passion is one of his major works and was written in 2007 to celebrate Sir Colin Davis’ 80th birthday. Later, at the suggestion of Nigel Perrin, he sanctioned the extraction from the work of five movements which he wrote ‘stand on their own and are effective as ‘motets’ with organ accompaniment’. The premiere was given by the Bath Camerata in Wells Cathedral April 2014.
The Passion ends with a quotation from Bach’s St Matthew Passion and this Sequence opens with the Passion Chorale. The first movement after this Astiterunt reges terrae flings us into immediate drama with huge organ chords, and in the original work massive timpani strokes. This is a short virtuoso movement for the singers which needs complete confidence to do it justice. Judas, Mercator pessimus follows and we have the dramatic choral shouts of ‘Judas’ (the Seven Last Words has similar outbursts) in this unaccompanied movement for eight voice parts until the very end when the organ rumbles in with a quiet pedal note before the manuals spark into action with a series of demi-semiquaver runs. Peccantem me quotidie, the third movement, begins softly and contrapuntally, getting gradually quicker and then slowing into ‘miserere mei Deus’ which has a stupendous ‘et salva me’ (save me) which is repeated twice more to conclude the movement. Crucifixus etiam pro nobis proceeds in long, slow, quiet chords while the organist ‘provides support for the choir while playing quasi-improvised obbligato on various string and soft reed stops’. Finally, the Stabat Mater is a moving conception where two elements combine: a canonic ‘Stabat mater’ with all MacMillan’s familiar ornamental triplets and grace notes, and, surrounding this, a slow recitation of ‘Lully lulla, My dear darling’ which grows into hummed and open-mouthed singing, and finally there is a quotation from the Passion Chorale which ends the work.
This Sequence is a highly successful extraction from the large-scale Passion and makes a very moving concert piece for Holy Week. It is a very challenging undertaking and will only be attempted by accomplished choirs, but there are many of these and they would do well to investigate this moving sequence.
Repertoire Note by Paul Spicer