Just prior to Holy Week I engage in a pleasurable ritual: I compile a collection of CD’s for the season. They include Haydn’s string quartet 'The Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ', The Messiah, The St Matthew Passion, and The St John Passion, Arvo Pärt’s Passio, and Schubert’s String Quintet in C major – the slow movement of which has a Good Friday connection for me thanks to Jim Cotter. Another piece which has particular significance is James MacMillan’s, Seven Last Words from the Cross – a brilliant work!
This year, in anticipation, and inspired by Jeremy Begbie, I’ve acquired James MacMillan’s Triduum. This consists of three interrelated works which form a triptych, and correspond to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. They’re distinct works and different in make-up. The first has the title, 'The World’s Ransoming', and is a concerto for cor anglais and orchestra; the second, a Cello Concerto, written for Mtislav Rostropovich; and the third, Symphony: Vigil, a large symphonic work.
MacMillan is a deeply committed Roman Catholic, whose faith is central to his music. In contrast to the 'new simplicity' of the 'holy minimalists' (John Tavener and Arvo Pärt), MacMillan’s music explores and expresses vividly the pain and ugliness of the world, as well as its beauty and hope. This is music with massive tension (as well as resolution in due course) and not the sort of thing to listen to if you want a bit of quasi spiritual chilling! In particular, the Triduum provides a powerful means to somhow enter into the experience from the inside, to feel the pain of Good Friday and the despair of Saturday before the joy of Easter Sunday. But it requires time, putting ourselves within a time frame and resisting the pull to cut to the chase, to get there because we already know the outcome, to prematurely proclaim, 'Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. Alleluia!' And this is no small challenge for some of us!
I’m becoming acquainted with the Triduum before Holy Week, because it’s music which isn't immediately accessible, it makes demands. MacMillan himself says, 'Music needs us to sacrifice something of ourselves to meet it, and it’s very difficult sometimes to do that, especially in the whole culture we’re in.' And again, this seems wholly appropriate if we are to enter more meaningfully into this life-defining story.