Wednesdays, July 22 & 29, 8:30 PM
Carmel Mission Basilica

Orchestra and Chorale conducted by Andrew Megill

James MacMillan, Seven Last Words from the Cross
Thomas Tallis, Lamentations of Jeremiah I
William Byrd, Ne irascaris Domine (Part 1)
Alberto Ginastera, Lamentations of Jeremiah 2
Randall Thompson, Alleluia

The Seven Last Words from the Cross is regarded as James MacMillan’s masterpiece. The composer’s deep faith is overtly present in this mesmerizing and deeply moving music. In the Carmel Mission Basilica, the emotional impact of MacMillan’s work will be intense.

Composed in 1994 for choir and string orchestra, MacMillan was inspired by Bach’s Passions, hymns, Gregorian chant, and even Scottish song. He juxtaposes the vivid text based on Christ’s final words with passages of quiet inner reflection to form a powerful dramatic narrative. The haunting score features extraordinary passages, yet it is MacMillan’s use of silence that might be the most potent aspect of the work. This is music of extraordinary musical and emotional depth, and will move audiences with its majesty, intensity, inventiveness, and originality.

The program will also include settings of related texts by two of the greatest English Renaissance composers, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, an excerpt from Alberto Ginastera’s Lamentations of Jeremiah, and Randall Thompson’s iconic Alleluia. The traditional candlelight chant processional and recessional will bookend these extraordinary concerts at the Carmel Mission Basilica.

“James Macmillan is one of the most eloquent and profound composers of our time,” said Associate Conductor Andrew Megill. “And it is a joy to introduce his masterpiece, The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, to the Carmel Bach Festival family. Like most of Macmillan’s choral music, it is  modeled on the music of the J.S. Bach. Like Bach’s Passions (which concern the same subject matter), Macmillan’s cantata is grounded in the composer’s own personal faith, but transcends any specific theology to communicate universal truths of human experience. I find the work to be deeply moving and transcendently beautiful.”

Andrew Megill is the artistic director of Fuma Sacra and serves as chorusmaster for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He is also music director of Masterwork Chorus and professor and director of choral activities at the University of Illinois. He is in his 13th season as associate conductor of the Carmel Bach Festival and director of the chorale and chorus.

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Scottish composer James Macmillan studied composition at the Universities of Edinburgh and Durham. He has written in a wide range of media and genres, from chamber music and concertos to opera and sacred works. Since the early 1990s his music has enjoyed international acclaim, with high-level commissions, residencies, and awards, including the OBE, Order of the British Empire. His composing style draws on many influences, including the avant-garde and established 20th century composers such as Messiaen and Shostakovich, as well as traditional Scottish music. While his musical style might be called eclectic, his intention is always to emotionally connect and stir the listener, and is infused with his Roman Catholic faith and his political convictions:

There are strong Scottish traits in my works, but also an aggressive and forthright tendency with a strong rhythmic physicality, showing the influence of Stravinsky, Messiaen and some minimalist composers…. My philosophy of composition looks beyond the introversion of the New Music “ghetto” and seeks a wider communication while in no way promoting a compromising populism…

 In his sacred works particularly, Macmillan seeks to truly move and transform the listener, even applying the word transubstantiation—which Webster’s defines as “the miraculous change by which according to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox dogma the eucharistic elements at their consecration become the body and blood of Christ while keeping only the appearances of bread and wine”—to describe his intention.

Seven Last Words from the Cross was commissioned by BBC Television in 1994 and was broadcast episodically during seven nights of Holy Week in that year. The traditional text of the Seven Last Words, the final statements of Christ on the cross, has inspired other musical creations including that of Haydn, and is derived from the four Gospels. In four of the seven movements, Macmillan supplements these brief utterances with additional texts in Latin and English associated with Good Friday.

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do begins with a quiet but unsettled cadence in the low strings, borrowed from Macmillan’s Clarinet Quintet Tuireadh (lament), and is repeated throughout the movement, as is this text. Superimposed on this, with gradually increasing tension, are two additional texts. First, in Latin, is Hosanna to the Son of David from The Palm Sunday Exclamation, followed by The life that I held dear, from the Good Friday Responsories for Tenebrae.

Woman, behold thy Son!…Behold thy Mother! is first stated by the choir a cappella, followed by arresting silences. These pauses are soon filled in by the strings, which become increasingly agitated through the movement. The choral textures are meant by the composer to evoke Bach’s Passion chorales.

Christ’s words, Verily, I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise, are sung by high sopranos at the end of this movement, preceded by the Good Friday Versicle Ecce Lignu, Crucis (Behold the Wood of the Cross). This text starts the movement in the very depths and follows a traditional liturgical plan, being repeated three times, each in a higher register.

Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani? (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?) is built on a kind of arch in range and dynamics. Beginning at the very lowest tessitura with the basses, repetitions are handed off to tenors, altos, then sopranos, until the full choir is engaged, all the while increasing in volume and complexity. Following this peak, voices peel off in reverse order, until once again it is just the vocal and instrumental basses dying away.

I thirst is portrayed with the bleakest of textures. As these two words are intoned by various voices in turn, they are contrasted with the Latin text Ego te potavi aqua (I give you water) from the Good Friday Reproaches. This text is whispered randomly or chanted. Near the end, the strings make an enormous noise with their tremolos, which Macmillan says should be “like a violent shuddering.”

It is finished begins with the type of violent chords that have depicted the hammering of nails in the cross since the Baroque era. The additional text,  My eyes were blind with weeping, is another use of the Good Friday Responsories for Tenebrae. This is sung quietly, without interruption from the strings apart from a brief reminiscence of the opening movement in the violins. But the cold and unrelenting hammer blows return to close the movement.

Only after the third anguished statement of Father does the choir complete the statement Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit, leaving the rest to the strings. In Macmillan’s words, In this final movement, with its long instrumental postlude, the liturgical detachment breaks down and gives way to a more personal reflection: hence the resonance here of Scottish traditional lament music.

 –Allen Whear