Following his sensational St John Passion (2007), the St Luke Passion is the second passion to be completed by the Scottish composer James MacMillan. MacMillan’s attachment to the story of the Passion stems directly from his deep-rooted Roman Catholic faith. The list of his works contains a range of vocal compositions that deal with the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ: from his music theatre work Visitatio Sepulchri for choir and chamber ensemble (1993) and the cantata Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993) to the Tenebrae Responsories (2006) for eight-part a cappella choir. He regularly draws inspiration from the story of the Passion, even in his purely instrumental works.
In the Fourteen Little Pictures for piano trio (1997), the composer’s starting point is the fourteen Stations of the Cross of Jesus. And the first two parts of his orchestral triptych Triduum, The World’s Ransoming and the Cello Concerto (1996), contain melodic material derived from the Gregorian liturgy for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. This catalogue backs up MacMillan’s comment in The Times newspaper to the effect that he regards the Crucifixion and Resurrection as ‘the most important days in the history of the world’. This was part of an interview in 2009, with the telling headline ‘My art is shaped by my faith’. It was therefore always likely that, sooner or later, MacMillan would submit to the genre of Passion oratorio with an instrumental accompaniment.
However, it came as a major shock to many among the Passion-loving audience at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s concert on Palm Sunday 2009 when MacMillan’s truculent St John Passion resounded throughout the concert hall instead of Bach’s Matthew or John Passion. Where had the arias and chorales gone? Why had MacMillan utilized the Good Friday Improperia (the ‘Reproaches of Christ’) as well as the Gospel? And most of all, why was the Evangelist replaced by a four-part chamber choir?
Like most of his colleagues, MacMillan had of course listened attentively to Bach. But as a British musician he also felt a close affinity with his compatriots who had taken the choir centre-stage over the past hundred years, including Vaughan Williams, Tippett and Britten.