Musical Perfection

It may seem the wrong time of year to post this particular piece of music, but it has haunted my dreams for the past few days.  I find this to be one of the most perfectly conceived choral pieces ever written.  It is the third movement of Seven Last Words From the Cross by Scottish composer James MacMillan.  It was originally commissioned  BBC Television and broadcast over seven days during Holy Week 1994. ( info in this post paraphrased from

The text is made up of the Good Friday Versicle, Ecce Lignum Crucis, and MacMillan sets it as a series of duets starting with the bass, then tenor, then alto voices.  This is a reflection of the tradition of the versicle being sung three times, each time at a higher pitch, while the cross is revealed.  Rather than move the pitch, he moves up through the voices.   He sets each version of the versicle as an intricate and plaintive duet in which the two voices weave and trill in imitation of the wailing at the base of the cross.  A high, soaring violin solo transitions into Venite adoremus in a subtle reminder of the Christmas carol that shares that lyric.  The strings give a lyrical and almost heavenly quality to the free rhythm, overlapping chant of Venite adoremus.

The versicles are so effective because of their brooding and angular sound.  They are arrhythmic and almost seem ad-libbed.  They are mournful,  yet also show off some very difficult vocal technique.  They are never quite atonal, as they adhere to a Gregorian chant influence, specifically organum, but they manage to soar and swoop in a most non-Medieval manner.

After the three repetitions of the versicle, the strings assume the dark, angular quality which the voices had performed.  This is followed by the third words of Christ – “Verily, I say unto thee, thou shalt be with me today in paradise”, performed by two soaring and non-vibrato soprano voices (echoing the traditional sound of a boy soprano which has been long associated with sacred music) and a solo violin.  It is one of the most heart-breaking, yet hopeful, finales I have ever heard.

This particular performance is compelling because of the movement that has been incorporated.  It is tasteful, yet significant and moving.

This piece speaks to me on an extremely emotional level.  It brings up memories of childhood spent at church during Holy Week, having been raised in a parochial school.  However, it also sparks something deeply personal for me, a journey through darkness and doubt, which I believe is a vital part of life.  We all work our way through dark places and come out someone slightly different.  The strains of hope and redemption at the end are touching and cathartic.  This is music that transports me and transforms me every time I listen to it.



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