Silences Between: Last Words from the Cross


JAMES MacMILLAN conductor
MAY FESTIVAL CHORUS Robert Porco, director
The May Festival Chorus is endowed by the Betsy & Alex C. Young Chair



Laudamus Te
Domine Deus
Domine Fili unigenite
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris



Seven Last Words from the Cross, Cantata for Chorus and Strings

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (St. Luke)
Woman, Behold thy Son!…Behold, thy Mother! (St. John)
Verily, I say unto you, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise (St. Luke)
Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani (St. Matthew)
I thirst (St. John)
It is finished (St. John)
Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit (St. Luke)


Amanda Heisler, soprano
Carolyn Hill, soprano
Mary Beth Poulimenos, mezzo-soprano
Megan Christman, mezzo-soprano
Tyler Johnson, tenor
Tony Beck, tenor
Chris Canarie, bass
Steve France, bass
Daniel Parsley, bass
Michael Pekel, bass
Justin Peter, bass




Composed in 1959. Premiered on January 20, 1961 in Boston, conducted by Charles Munch.

Poulenc was raised in a home that valued religion deeply. His father was committed to his Catholicism, but, the composer added, “in a very liberal way, without the slightest meanness.” When Francis left home for military service in 1918 and later jumped into the heady life of artistic Paris, however, his interest in religion declined. “From 1920 to 1935, I was very little concerned with the faith,” he admitted. In 1936, though, he underwent a rejuvenation of his religious belief when his colleague Pierre-Octave Ferroud was killed in an automobile accident. Deeply shaken, he wrote, “The atrocious extinction of this musician so full of vigor left me stupefied. Pondering on the fragility of our human frame, the life of the spirit attracted me anew.” He rejoined the Church and thereafter expressed his faith frequently and unashamedly. “I am religious by deepest instinct and heredity,” he said. “I feel myself incapable of ardent political conviction, but for me it seems quite natural to believe and practice religion. I am a Catholic. It is my greatest freedom.” During the last three decades of his life, a series of wonderful musical works on religious themes, including the Mass, Stabat Mater, Gloria and The Dialogues of the Carmelites, sprang from his ardently renewed vision.

Poulenc’s faith, like the music it engendered, was simple, direct, optimistic and joyous. He once told friends, “I have the faith of a country pastor,” and he always preferred quiet meditation or prayer in a rural church to the structured services of the urban cathedral. It was through his music that he shared his devotion. “I want the religious spirit to be expressed clearly, out in the open, with the same realism that we see in Romanesque columns,” he said. “I try to create a feeling of fervor and, especially, of humility, for me the most beautiful quality of prayer.... My conception of religious music is essentially direct, and, I dare say, intimate.” When an interviewer once commented on the high quality of his choral and sacred works, he replied, “I think I’ve put the best and most genuine part of me into them.... If people are still interested in my music fifty years from now it’ll be more in the Stabat Mater than in the Mouvements perpétuels.”

During his last years, Poulenc became increasingly fatalistic and turned more to the Church. Throughout his life, he was subject to attacks of acute depression, and the one he suffered while working on The Dialogues of the Carmelites during the mid-1950s resulted in a nervous breakdown. He largely recovered, but thereafter viewed his existence as fragile. “What shall I write next? Undoubtedly nothing else,” he lamented to his biographer Henri Hell in 1961. A year later, however, he wrote to the singer Pierre Bernac, “I now feel completely, happily free, and I can await Providence.” The Gloria of 1959 naturally reflects some of Poulenc’s deeper thoughts, but it also shows the buoyant, confident feelings inherent in his faith and his music. It is a wholly appropriate piece for a man who was once described as “half monk, half bounder.”

In the Gloria, written on commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and dedicated to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky, Poulenc said that he “tried to write a joyous hymn to the glory of God.” His text, taken from the second section of the Mass Ordinary, is the set of traditional songs dating from the fifth century sung by the angels on the night of the Nativity in praise of the Christ child. Before beginning composition, Poulenc immersed himself in the ancient words, reciting them over and over to himself, listening, noting breathing places, marking stresses, looking for inner rhythms of the syllables and deeper meanings of the ideas. The Gloria, like all great vocal music, grew from the sense and sounds of its text—the words, after all, were there before the music. Poulenc reinterpreted those venerable words and heightened their message by wrapping them in music that again demonstrated his remarkable lyrical gift, which has often been compared to that of Schubert, a composer he greatly admired. Wrote Roger Nichols, “For Poulenc the most important element of all was melody and he found his way to a vast treasury of undiscovered tunes within an area that had, according to the most up-to-date musical maps, been surveyed, worked and exhausted.”

The Gloria opens with a brilliant fanfare for full orchestra as preparation for the entry of the voices. The sentiment of the movement is one of joy tinged with a soupçon of nostalgia, one of Poulenc’s most characteristic moods. Of the lighthearted Laudamus te, Poulenc recalled, “The second movement caused a scandal; I wonder why? I was simply thinking, in writing it, of the Gozzoli frescoes in which the angels stick out their tongues; I was thinking also of the serious Benedictines whom I saw playing soccer one day.” This robust movement also serves to set in relief the following Domine Deus, music of profound awe and intense emotion. The bright wit and chuckling insouciance of the Laudamus te return in the fourth movement. Domine fili unigenite, which, like the earlier movement, is followed by music of a serious and moving nature—the Domine Deus, Agnus Dei. The final movement, Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, is divided into three sections, each based on the same text. The movement opens with jubilant choral shouts echoed by chords spread across the full orchestra. The celebratory mood continues into the next section, a vibrant rhythmic essay punctuated by the fanfare figure that opened the first movement. Poulenc closes his masterful Gloria with the final treatment of the Qui sedes text, this last one suffused with prayerful devotion and peaceful benediction.


(b. 1959)

Seven Last Words from the Cross

Composed in 1993. Premiered during Holy Week 1994 over BBC Television, conducted by Alan Tavener.

Scottish composer James MacMillan, born in Kilwinning, Ayshire on July 16, 1959, was educated at the University of Edinburgh (B.Mus., 1981) and Durham University (Ph.D., 1987), where his principal teacher was John Casken. After working as a lecturer at Manchester University from 1986 to 1988, MacMillan returned to Scotland, where he has since fulfilled numerous important commissions and taught at the University of Edinburgh and Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. He has also served as Artistic Director of the Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust, Affiliate Composer of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Composer/Conductor with the BBC Philharmonic, Composer of the Year with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and Visiting Composer of the Philharmonia Orchestra and Artistic Director of its contemporary music series, Music Today; he became Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic in 2010. In 1993, MacMillan won both the Gramophone Contemporary Music Record of the Year Award and Classic CD Award for Contemporary Music; he was made a CBE in 2004, given the 2008 British Composer Award for Liturgical Music, named an Honorary Patron of the London Chamber Orchestra in 2008, and awarded a Knighthood in the 2015 Queen’s Birthday Honours. In October 2014, James MacMillan inaugurated the Cumnock Tryst, a festival of international scope that he organized in his boyhood home in southern Scotland.

MacMillan’s compositions, many of which incorporate traditional Scottish elements and bear some stamp of either his religion (Catholicism) or his politics (socialism), include two operas, a St. John Passion, concerted works for piano (The Berserking), percussion (Veni, Veni, Emmanuel), cello, clarinet, organ and trumpet, orchestral scores, chamber works and pieces for solo voices and chorus. Of his creative personality, MacMillan wrote:

There are strong Scottish traits in my works, but also an aggressive and forthright tendency with a strong rhythmic physicality, showing the influence of Stravinsky, Messiaen and some minimalist composers.... My philosophy of composition looks beyond the introversion of the New Music “ghetto” and seeks a wider communication while in no way promoting a compromising populism.... The “modernist” zeal of the post-World War II generation of composers who attempted to eschew any continuation of tradition is anathema to me. I respect tradition in many forms, whether cultural, political or historical, and in keeping up a continuous, delicate scrutiny of old forms, ancient traditions, enduring beliefs and lasting values one is strengthened in one’s constant, restless search for new avenues of expression. The existence of the influence of the old alongside the experiments of the new should not appear incongruous. Therefore, in ideological terms, my works express the timeless truths of Roman Catholicism alongside a fierce social commitment. And musically one can hopefully sense the depths of times past integrating with attempts at innovation.

MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross was commissioned by BBC Television and first screened in seven nightly episodes during Holy Week 1994, performed by Cappella Nova and the BT Scottish Ensemble under Alan Tavener. The composer has provided the following information:

“The traditional text of the Seven Last Words from the Cross is based on a compilation from all four gospels to form a sequential presentation of the last seven sentences uttered by Christ.

1. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (St. Luke)

Hosanna filio David,
Hosanna to the Son of David,
benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini,
blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,
Rex Israel, Hosanna in excelsis.
The King of Israel, Hosanna in the highest.

The Palm Sunday Exclamation
The life that I held dear I delivered into the hands of the unrighteous
and my inheritance has become for me like a lion in the forest.
My enemy spoke out against me,
“Come gather together and hasten to devour him.”
They placed me in a wasteland of desolation,
and all the earth mourned for me.
For there was no one who would acknowledge me or give me help.
Men rose up against me and spared not my life.

— from the Good Friday Responsories for Tenebrae

“The work begins with a cadential figure from the end of the clarinet quintet Tuireadh (‘Lament’), repeated over and over, upon which the rest of the music gradually builds. Violin ‘fanfares’ emerge when the men start singing the Palm Sunday Exclamation ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.’ Finally, another idea unfolds—a plainsong monotone with words from one of the Good Friday Responsories for Tenebrae.

2. Woman, Behold thy Son!…Behold thy Mother! (St. John)

“Again a repeated cadential figure forms the basis of this movement, this time evoking memories of Bach’s Passion chorales. The choir and ensemble operate according to different procedures—the choir repeating the words Woman, Behold thy Son to a shifting three-bar phrase, the strings becoming gradually more frantic as the music evolves. They both give way to an exhausted Behold, thy Son.

3. Verily, I say unto you, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise (St. Luke)

Ecce Lignum Crucis
Behold the Wood of the Cross
in quo salus mundi dependit:
on which the Saviour of the world was hung:
Venite adoremus.
Come let us adore him.

Good Friday Versicle

“Christ’s words are kept until the very end of the 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. During the liturgy this is normally sung three times, each time at a higher pitch as the cross is slowly unveiled and revealed to the people. Here also the music begins with two basses, rises with the tenors and then again with two altos. A high violin solo features throughout.

4. Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani—My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (St. Matthew)

“The music rises tortuously from low to high before the choir delivers an impassioned, full-throated lament above which the strings float and glide. The movement eventually subsides through a downward canonic motion to end as it began.

5. I thirst (St. John)

Ego te potavi aqua salutis de petra:
I gave you to drink of life giving water from the rock:
et tu me potasti felle et aceto.
and you gave me to drink of gall and vinegar.

— from the Good Friday Reproaches

“The two words ‘I thirst’ 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.

6. It is finished (St. John)

My eyes were blind with weeping,
for he that consoled me is far from me:
Consider, all you people,
is there any sorrow like my sorrow?
All you who pass along this way take heed
and consider if there is any sorrow like mine.

— from the Good Friday Responsories for Tenebrae

“The movement begins with hammer-blows which subside and out of which grow quiet choral material that is largely unaccompanied throughout. The three words act as a background for a more prominent text taken from the Good Friday Responsories.

7. Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit (St. Luke)

“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 setting such texts it is vital to maintain some emotional objectivity in order to control musical expression in the way that the Good Friday liturgy is a ritualistic containment of grief. Nevertheless it is inspiring when one witnesses people weep real tears on Good Friday as if the death of Christ was a personal tragedy. 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.”