BY SCO Admin | August 26 | comments icon 1 COMMENT     print icon print


Premiere for MacMillan’s Passion

— BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra opens season with St John debut; composer on new CD

James MacMillan’s acclaimed version of St John Passion is to have its Scottish premiere in Glasgow next month.

The composer told the SCO he was delighted that Scots would at last have the chance to see and hear his St John Passion performed live. It is his most acclaimed work—which has been performed all over the world to rapturous acclaim—and was the inspiration behind his contribution to the Papal Mass at Bellahouston Park last year.

“The initiative came from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra,” he said of the Scottish debut on September 29 at Glasgow City Halls. “They had wanted to do it for a while so they chose it as the launch for their new season which is great.”

The orchestra will be performing the piece in collaboration with the London Symphony Chorus and the BBC Singers.

“It’s exciting as Mark Stone will be taking the role of Jesus as he has done many times before, and Donald Runnicles, a Scot, will be the conductor,” the composer said. “So it’s all very exciting and very pleasing.”

Scottish roots

In the pre-concert prelude, broadcaster James Naughtie, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, will talk with Mr MacMillan about the St John Passion and ask him about the background to its composition. Ahead of the event, the composer spoke to the SCO.

Mr MacMillan admitted there will be a special charge to seeing this piece performed in Scotland for the first time.

“It is always a delight when my music is performed in Scotland,” he said.

“The first performance was very special. But then I’ve been lucky enough to conduct it myself four times. It’s just totally different from sitting in the audience as the conductor and every time it’s been very moving for me.”

He went on to say: “I do have a special attachment for the St John Passion, as it is a very important piece for me. Many of my friends and followers of my music in Scotland will only ever have heard the CD recording of this piece so it is great they will have the chance to hear it live.”

Mr MacMillan wrote the piece as an 80th birthday present for the renowned conductor Sir Colin Davis and he admits it was a daunting challenge.

“I’d long wanted to tackle one of the passion settings but you always worry as a composer if you can do the job justice,” he said. “Especially so in this case when you have Bach’s ghost hovering over you, as you can argue the Bach Passions are among the towering achievements of western civilisation.”

Bach’s Passions

The lasting influence of Bach’s Passions on classical music is undeniable but the composer believes that the Passion form itself has a unique appeal.

“Well I think it is very interesting in recent years that there has been renewed interest in the Passion as a form, from composers who are not even Christian,” he said. “I think that shows the power of the story behind it among other things.”

However, he is well aware that Catholics will be familiar with the Passion of St John from the Good Friday Liturgy.

“Most Catholics will know St John’s Liturgy of the Passion from Good Friday,” Mr MacMillan said. “In my own parish of St Columba’s we sing it in a very simple plainsong setting with the priest as Christ, and the congregation interject. It is a very beautiful way to bring the Passion to life. But my piece is very much for the concert hall, I can’t imagine it ever being used Liturgically.”

Though he stresses that other elements, such as opera, were big influences on the piece, it is clear his appreciation and understanding of Catholic Liturgy played a key role.

“I think for all Catholics the Liturgical cycle is very important,” he said. “And in a way life starts to revolve around Liturgy. It is such an important part of your life as a Catholic that it is inevitable that cycle becomes part of your artistic life.”

Papal Mass and beyond

Members of the congregation from the Papal Mass at Bellahouston might find the familiar in the Glasgow performance of the St John Passion, however. Mr MacMillian describes the Mass for Blessed John Henry Newman used for the Papal visit as ‘having tangential connections’ with his St John Passion.

Cappella Nova is releasing a new CD of James MacMillan’s choral music later this year that will include the first commercial recording of the Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman, which was the setting used during the Papal Visit in Glasgow and Birmingham.

The composer hopes it will allow parishes to use the Mass themselves. “It might be that people want to revisit and revive it as a learning and teaching resource,” he said.” And that would be great.”

As for the future, Mr MacMillan has a number of projects planned, but fans of his St John Passion will be fascinated to know he’s ‘just beginning to think about a St Luke Passion.’

Comments - One Response

  1. Philip M. McGhee says:

    Dr. MacMillan’s “Corpus Christi” mass was used for the inauguration of the current liturgical book of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It received “kudos” and an encore presntationa few weeks later.

Leave a Reply

Social media

Latest edition


exclusively in the paper

  • Unite in prayer against the virus, Paisley bishop pleads
  • Papal award recognises 60 years of Faithful service
  • Catholic high school leads trend with positive outcomes for pupils
  • New memorials celebrate Croy’s proud mining heritage
  • Top Catholic university rolls out programme in Scotland

Previous editions

Previous editions of the Scottish Catholic Observer newspaper are only available to subscribed Members. To download previous editions of the paper, please subscribe.

note: registered members only.

Read the SCO