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On James Macmillan’s 'Seven Last Words from the Cross'

There are certain pieces of music which leave a lasting impression; James Macmillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross (1994), widely considered a masterpiece of contemporary music, is certainly one of them.

To describe the piece, it’s important to understand the meaning of the text: the ‘Seven Last Words’ themselves are the seven final sayings of Jesus before death on the cross. The pain and suffering of this crucially important moment in the Christian story is self-evident in the words themselves.

1. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

2. Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.

3. Woman, behold your son” “Behold your mother.

4. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

5. I thirst.

6. It is finished.

7. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

The piece was written for BBC television, with one movement performed each day in Holy Week. Each movement in Macmillan’s setting is semi-self-contained, each with its own distinct structural idea and similar duration.

From the simple oscillating chords of the first movement, the choir and strings slowly grow into a frenzy of activity. Macmillan’s mastery of the juxtaposition of the transcendent with brutal reality is on full display here (his orchestral work, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, is another great example of this). This is a deeply dramatic setting of the words.

Interestingly, it seems Macmillan has chosen to swap the order of the traditional second and third words from the cross. “Woman behold your son” and “Behold your mother” comes next, with silence being used extremely effectively as a structural element. Short declamatory bursts of choral writing followed by silence slowly gives way to increasingly intense writing for the strings.

Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. offers some respite from the dissonance, with distinct ‘verse’ sections and a refrain consisting of melodic fragments in the refrains coming together to form a loose major tonality, (reminiscent of his piece A New Song).

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? gradually grows from just the basses/double bass in intensity, pitches and voices to a loud climax, before gradually coming back down to where it began.

I thirst uses silence as an important structural element again. The trembling dissonances in the strings are particularly effective here, especially when contrasted with occasional, almost tonal, harmonies.

In It is finished, we see the chord sequence introduced in the first movement gradually materialise from the slowly transposing choral writing, before giving way to frenzied percussive strokes from the strings.

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. finishes the piece with a burst of loud music, before gradually drifting off into higher pitches and lower dynamics until just two violin parts are playing, one semitone apart right at the top of their pitch range. This effect - reminiscent of dying breaths - brings the piece to deeply moving close.

From listening to the full work, it’s clear that Macmillan expertly crafted the structure of this work, not just within the individual movements, but across the whole piece. The way that melodic fragments, harmonies, and gestures are introduced, developed, and brought back further developed later in the piece is masterful. Have a listen.

PWR, May 2023.

P.S. I’ve just had a setting of Seven Last Words premiered by Clifton Cathedral Choir. The way I approached setting these words myself is for another time, but for the time being (if you’re interested), you can view the score here.

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