James MacMillan’s “Seven Last Words from the Cross”

In recent years it has been an enormous thrill hearing my music being performed by The Dmitri Ensemble. This excellent young ensemble brings a breath of fresh air to music-making in this country and is fortunate to have in their director Graham Ross one of the most exciting new musicians to appear on the radar. I am honoured and thrilled that they are choosing to mark my 50th birthday with this disc on Naxos, bringing together a number of different choral works from 1993 to 2005.” – James MacMillan

8-570719On April 7, Naxos released Seven Last Words from the Cross by renowned Scottish composer James MacMillan. The recording, which features The Dmitri Ensemble and director Graham Ross, also includes two world-premiere recordings of other works by Mr. MacMillan, Nemo te condemnavit (2005) and …here in hiding… (1993), a work originally performed by the Hilliard Ensemble for four solo voices, performed here by The Dmitri Ensemble in a new arrangement for unaccompanied ATTB chorus. Rounding out the recording is the 1994 Christus Vincit, a double-choir anthem written for St Paul’s Cathedral, London, based on text from the 12th century Worcester Acclamations.

Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993), for SSAATTBB chorus and string orchestra, was commissioned by BBC Television and first screened in seven nightly episodes during Holy Week in 1994. The text is based on a compilation from the four canonical gospels of the last seven sentences uttered by Christ.

The composer has written: “The work begins with a cadential figure from the end of my clarinet quintet Tuireadh (Lament), repeated over and over, upon which the rest of the music gradually builds. Again a repeated cadential figure forms the basis of the second movement, this time evoking memories of Bach’s Passion chorales. Christ’s words are kept until the very end of the third movement, when they are sung by two high sopranos, accompanied by high violins. The rest of the piece is a setting of the Good Friday Versicle Ecce Lignum Crucis.”

MacMillan continues: “In the fourth movement, the music rises from low to high before the choir delivers an impassioned lament, above which the strings float and glide. The movement eventually subsides through a downward canonic motion to end as it began. The two words ‘I thirst’ (fifth movement) are set to a static and slow-moving harmonic procedure, which is deliberately bare and desolate. The interpolated text from the Good Friday Reproaches is heard whispered and distantly chanted. The sixth movement begins with hammer-blows, which subside and out of which grows quiet choral material, which is largely unaccompanied throughout. In the final movement, the first word is exclaimed in anguish three times before the music descends in resignation. The choir has finished; the work is subsequently completed by strings alone. 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.”

Hailed by The Guardian as “a composer so confident of his own musical language that he makes it instantly communicative to his listeners,” James MacMillan is one of today’s most successful living composers and conductors. His music is notable for its extraordinary directness, energy, and emotional power. References to Scottish folk music imbue his work with a strong sense of the vernacular, while his strongly-held religious and political beliefs, coupled with his concerns for the community, inform both the spirit and subject matter of his music. MacMillan first came to the attention of the classical music world when the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra premiered his The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at the Proms in 1990. His most recent successes have included his second opera, The Sacrifice, a 2007 commission by the Welsh National Opera and winner of a Royal Philharmonic Society Award, and the St John’s Passion, commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Sir Colin Davis at its 2008 world premiere. MacMillan received the British Composer Award for Liturgical Music for his Strathclyde Motets in December 2008.

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