As we continue to explore the music of contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan, we’ll be listening to his choral masterpiece “Seven Last Words From the Cross.”
This work, commissioned by the BBC in 1994, depicts the final seven short sentences that Jesus uttered before dying on the cross. MacMillan drew from all four gospels to place these seven final sentences to music. They are as follows:
(1) Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
This part of the composition begins with a shy cadence that builds into fanfares in the tenors and the violins. The tenors’ lines come from the Palm Sunday Exclamation. This merges into a subdued, monotone plainsong with lyrics from the Good Friday Responsaries for Tenebrae.
(2) Woman, Behold Thy Son! . . . Behold Thy Mother!
The second movement opens with the same cadence that began the first, but this time it is mixed in with fragments of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The frantic tone of the building music in this movement evokes the tragedy of a mother beholding her son’s death.
(3) Verily, I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.
This is perhaps the most moving part of the work. MacMillan opens with a dissonant conversation between the tenors and basses that suddenly gives way to an angelic melody in the violins and sopranos. Meanwhile, the tenors and cellos combine to create a delightful undercurrent.
(4) Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani (My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?).
These passionate cries of loneliness are accompanied by passionate music that swings unpredictably from from peak to valley. MacMillan captures the torment and isolation of the cross in a powerful way.
(5) I thirst.
These two simple words are repeated throughout the ensemble in a bare, almost desperate manner. The strings hover breathlessly while the choir chants in hushed voices.
(6) It is finished.
his movement is a perfect example of MacMillan’s masterful ability to create musical representations of physical actions. You can hear the hammer driving the nails into Jesus’ hands at the start of this movement.
(7) Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit.
The choir exclaims the first word – “Father!” – three times, then goes silent for the rest of the piece. The strings complete the work alone, gradually slipping into eerie and unresolved silence. MacMillan has written that he based this final string sequence on the Scottish folk music of his childhood. Listen for the sighs in the violins at the very end, representing Jesus’ last few breaths.