James MacMillan is one of the most successful composers of our time. His music is strongly influenced by his Scottish background, his Catholic faith and Celtic folk music. He also draws inspiration from the folk music of the Middle East, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. James MacMillan became internationally renowned in 1990 with the premiere of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at the BBC Proms, a requiem for a witch who was burned to death in post-Reformation Scotland. Since then he has enjoyed a
good relationship with the British public service broadcaster, and several years later it commissioned him to write a work based on the seven final utterances of Jesus on the cross. This composition was broadcast in seven parts during the Holy Week of 1994, starting on Palm Sunday.
James MacMillan: Seven Last Words
The sayings spoken by Jesus as he died on the cross - also known as the seven last words from the cross - are recorded in the four Gospels. According to Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ last words were “Eli, Eli, lema sabachtani?” (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?). The Gospel of Luke refers to the following three sayings: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (with which Jesus asked forgiveness for those who had crucified him), “Truly, I say to you: today you will be with me in paradise” (to the criminal crucified on his right) and “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” John mentions three more sayings: “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother” (to Mary and the disciple John respectively), “I thirst” and “It is finished.” These seven sayings together form the seven last words from the cross.
There is a long tradition of putting the seven sayings to music, and it is in fact a subgenre of the Passion composition, which in turn is a subgenre of the oratorio. Famous examples include Die sieben Worte Jesu Christi am Kreuz by Heinrich Schütz (1645), Septem verba a Christo in cruce by Pergolesi (circa 1730) and Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze by Joseph Haydn (1787). A significant 20th-century arrangement of the last words is Sofia Gubaidulina’s composition Sieben Worte (1982). However, whereas the Russian composer wrote a purely instrumental version (without a vocalist to sing the last words), James MacMillan has a large choir sing the words, to which he adds further lyrics, primarily fragments from the liturgy of Palm Sunday and Good Friday.
James MacMillan cites Olivier Messiaen and Dmitri Shostakovich as the inspiration for Seven Last Words from the Cross. To him, religious music is not a sacred or mystical affair, as is the case with Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki. Like Messiaen, he wants to offer the listener a glimpse of heaven, and like Shostakovich, a glimpse of hell. He seeks a balance between the two, or in other words to combine the holy with the everyday. The seven last words from the cross - a combination of more banal words and words pregnant with meaning - match this aim perfectly. For example, the fifth movement combinesJesus’ physical need to drink - “I thirst” - with the following liturgy for Good Friday: “I gave you to drink of life-giving water from the rock: and you gave me to drink of gall and vinegar.” The sixth movement, “It is finished”, is extremely dramatic; one can hear the hammer blows with which Jesus is nailed to the cross. The beginning of the final movement, “Father, into thyhands I commend my spirit” consists of a despondent repetition of the word “father”. Next comes resignation. The choir ceases to sing while the strings bring the piece to a close with a long, intimate epilogue that brings to mind the laments of Scottish folk music.
Kurt Weill & Bertolt Brecht: Seven Deadly Sins
Sixty years earlier, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht dealt with a different religious theme: the seven deadly sins. These were based on the eight temptations set out by the Egyptian Desert Father Evagrius Ponticus, who lived during the fourth century. The current list - sloth (Faulheit), pride (Stolz), wrath (Zorn), gluttony (Völlerei), lust (Unzucht), greed (Habsucht) and envy (Neid) – was established in the sixth century by Pope Gregory I and has been a popular topic in the arts ever since. Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht consciously wrote in this tradition. However, their interpretation of the seven deadly sins is highly idiosyncratic.
Die sieben Todsünden is the last of the three collaborations between Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. They met in Berlin at the time of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s cultural revival following the First World War and prior to the rise of Nazism. Their first two operas, Die Dreigroschenoper (1928) and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (1930)
were box-office successes and some songs were quickly picked up by radio. However, Brecht’s socially critical libretto and the specific sound of Weill’s music (a small orchestra, lots of brass and woodwind, gravelly voices and jazz influences) were soon seen as ‘degenerate art’, not least because of Kurt Weill’s Jewish background.
After Hitler’s election and the Reichstag fire in February 1933, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill no longer felt safe in Germany. In late 1932 Kurt Weill had met the rich Englishman Edward James while visiting Paris, and the latter’s wife, the ballerina Tilly Losch, bore a striking resemblance to Weill’s own wife, the singer Lotte Lenya. Edward James commissioned Kurt Weill to compose a work in which Tilly Losch and Lotte Lenya would play one and the same character: one through dance, the other through song. In March 1933, Kurt Weill fled Berlin for Paris and started work on this project. He invited Bertolt Brecht, who had been travelling around Europe for a while, to join him in Paris. His journey was represented in Die sieben Todsünden by Anna’s tour of seven American cities.
In Die sieben Todsünden, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht expressed their mixed feelings towards American culture. On the one hand, they viewed the unfettered capitalism of America as the source of all corruption, while on the other, America was the safe haven to which they would both eventually escape - Weill in 1935, Brecht in 1941. Die sieben Todsünden is the story of a girl, Anna, who is sent out by her family to seven large American cities in order to earn enough money to build a small house on the banks of the Mississippi in Louisiana – a petite-bourgeois dream. In order to succeed she has to subscribe to the logic of capitalism. In highly cynical fashion, Brecht and Weill associate this logic with the seven deadly sins of Catholicism: avoiding sloth (Faulheit) means getting up early, avoiding greed (Völlerei) means not eating to ensure you remain slim and saleable, avoiding wrath (Zorn) means looking away apathetically from injustice and so on. The result is an unhinged world in which money is the only thing of value.
In accordance with Edward James’ request, the main character of Anna is split into two parts: a singer, who represents her rational side, and a dancer, who represents her sensitive and therefore suffering side. The prologue, epilogue and each of the seven songs in Die sieben Todsünden are adaptations of popular musical forms: a funeral march, the shimmy, the foxtrot, Dixieland jazz, waltzes and folk dances. Anna is a glittering success in her endeavour: at the end of the ballet she returns home and sees the house that was built with her money. However, Anna’s sensitive side is destroyed through years of prostitution.
Die sieben Todsünden premiered on 7 June 1933 at the Théâtre de Champs Élysées in Paris with choreography by George Balanchine, sung by Lotte Lenya and danced by Tilly Losch. It did not find favour with the French audience (in all likelihood because they did not understand the German libretto), but the German immigrants in the audience were incredibly enthusiastic. In the 1950s, following her husband’s death, Lotte Lenya revived Die sieben Todsünden, although she had to transpose her part into a lower key in order to be able to sing it.
- Mien Bogaert, Klarafestival