Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
When Jesus speaks from the Cross, his words take on an even greater significance, for they are uttered at the very culmination of his earthly life—during the hour for which he was born, for which he came into the world (cf. Jn 18:37), during the hour in which he draws all people to himself, even as he is lifted high on the Cross (cf. Jn 12:31). It is perhaps little surprise, then, that composers across the centuries have drawn musical inspiration from the collection of Scripture passages known as the Seven Last Words—the compilation of Jesus’ sayings from his final hours as recorded in the four Gospels.
Given their prominence in the liturgical celebrations of Holy Week, the Passion narratives from each of the four Gospels have frequently been set to music; however, the Seven Last Words represent an interesting offshoot from musical settings of the Passion narrative. These are dramatic works that include all of Jesus’ words from the Cross recorded across the Gospels, not just those contained within any particular Passion narrative. Thus, they are a unique musical hybrid, more akin to an oratorio like Handel’s Messiah or a cantata like those of Johann Sebastian Bach than they are to settings of the Passion narrative (although their subject matter is obviously similar with its focus on the Crucifixion and Death of Jesus). Composers of the Seven Last Words not only drew from all four Gospels in their text settings, but they also frequently incorporated other texts alongside the words of Jesus in order to heighten the dramatic impact and provide a theological commentary on the significance of this moment in salvation history. Such texts are culled from a range of sources: other biblical passages from both Old and New Testaments, excerpts from the various liturgies of Holy Week, even pre-existing or original poetry written specifically for the piece.
What is interesting about the Seven Last Words as a musical genre is its resurgence over the past 50 years. According to music professor and scholar Vaughn Roste, more settings of the Seven Last Words have been composed since 1965 than were composed from the late-seventeenth century until 1945. Granted, some of these more recent settings are purely instrumental works, drawing from the example of Franz Joseph Haydn, whose setting of the Seven Last Words for string quartet set the standard for centuries; nevertheless, it is interesting that more and more composers today are finding musical inspiration in the words of the dying Christ.
Scotland native James MacMillan (b.1959) is one such composer. His setting Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross is described as a “cantata for choir and strings” and was first performed in 1994. This work presents a fascinating example of MacMillan’s compositional ethos, which draws inspiration from his devout Roman Catholicism. While musical contemporaries of MacMillan such as John Tavener and Arvo Pärt are known for a style referred to as “holy minimalism,” which seeks to escape the darkness of the world in favor the purely spiritual and utterly ethereal, MacMillan remains firmly rooted in the bodily in his compositions, refusing to eschew corporeality in favor of a disincarnate spirituality. As MacMillan stated in an interview:
I’ve always been drawn to a theology of music which emphasizes a sense of conflict, a sense of unease, a sense of the dirty as it were, a sense of the physical, the corporeal, rather than a sense of the spirit being in some way divorced or set apart from the corporeal, and trying to speak, trying to be objective, about that. . . . It’s about the interaction—for us it has to be about—the interaction of the here and now, the mundane, the everyday, the joys and tragedies of ordinary everyday people. . . And that tension brings about the great hope and potential for human beings to rise to the heights of what humanity is capable of. It’s in confronting the dark, confronting the, as it were, the lowliness of our corporeal nature that we basically encounter Christ as the theology.
MacMillan’s Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross presents a powerful example of this confrontation of utter darkness, and in so doing, embodies the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI regarding this musical genre: “The seven last words of our Redeemer on the Cross is truly one of the most sublime examples in the field of music of how it is possible to unite art and faith.” This is a work in which the darkness of sin and death is very real. MacMillan captures this agonizing darkness not only in his poignant juxtaposition of the words of Jesus with other biblical and liturgical texts, but also in the intricate and jarring dissonances of both choir and strings. And yet, for all of his unflinching acknowledgment of the darkness, MacMillan never forgets that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). Thus, the Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross also presents the listener with moments of transcendent light.
The third movement, “Verily, I say unto you, today thou shalt be with me in paradise,” offers listeners a glimpse of this light in the midst of the darkness of the Crucifixion. Traditionally, this saying of Christ listed as second of the seven; however, MacMillan reverses the order of the second and third words, perhaps in order to build up dramatic tension in the first and second movements that will be released in the third. The first movement of the work—“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”—combines moments of quiet, somber darkness with moments of intense anguish, all over a inexorable pattern in which the deep double basses play the unsettling interval of a tritone, an interval known for centuries as the “diabolus in musica,” or “the devil in music.” This intervallic pattern becomes a musical symbol of the fact that “the time for the power of darkness” has arrived (Lk 22:53). The second movement—“Woman, Behold Thy Son! . . . Behold, Thy Mother!”—begins with majestic choral writing reminiscent of a Bach chorale, yet there is pervasive use of dissonance throughout, at times subtle and at other times barefaced, but always inescapable, and we hear in the voices and instruments grating against one another a mother’s heart breaking as she stands beneath the Cross of her only Son.
Yet in the third movement, MacMillan invites us to pause. The preceding movements have begun with the words of Jesus, but here, the basses begin with the liturgical text for the Adoration of the Holy Cross on Good Friday: “Ecce, ecce Lignum Crucis in quo salus mundi pependit. Venite adoremus.” “Behold, behold the Wood of the Cross on which hung the salvation of the world. Come, let us adore.” The musical structure of the piece is directly derived from the liturgical action at this point in the Good Friday liturgy. The liturgical text is repeated three times, each time at a higher pitch in a higher voice part. Thus, each statement of the Good Friday versicle grows in intensity, as MacMillan himself affirms:
There’s a sense of travelling in the voices and the instruments, as indeed, that’s what happens in the liturgy: the [veiled] cross is brought in at the back of the church and it’s brought forward, forward rather than upwards. It [the music] starts off with the fundamental [motif], there is nothing seen, and then gradually, with the unveiling of the cross, the taking away of the cover, more of what’s there is unveiled. I think that’s what is happening in the music, unveiling more of the ensemble and gradually adding to the ensemble. But there’s also a sense of travelling, starting in the low tessitura [or range] of the ensemble and choir and rising, through the basses, the tenors, the altos, and then the sopranos at the end.
The portion of the Good Friday versicle sung in the liturgy by the presider consists of a darker, ornamented melody, sung over a low sustained drone in the strings. Suddenly, an impossibly high solo violin appears out of nowhere, and the center of musical gravity shifts from an ominous minor tonality to a luminous major one, as the violas and violins play a gently undulating accompaniment beneath a soaring violin solo, all while the divided bass section sings the text of the congregation’s response, “Venite adoremus.” As MacMillan stated, this pattern continues for the following two repetitions of the Good Friday versicle, sung first by the tenors and then by the altos. Yet on each subsequent repetition of the “Venite adoremus,” the solo choral section is joined by the voices that preceded it: tenors are joined by the basses, altos by both tenors and basses, and the choral writing complexifies each time. This is a powerful musical symbol of believers coming together throughout the world, adoring Christ on the Cross; indeed, it can be interpreted as a musical commentary on the words of Jesus, “And I, when I am lifted up, I will draw all things to myself” (Jn 12:31).
Yet the actual words of Jesus uttered from the Cross do not come into play until nearly the conclusion of this movement. After the third statement of the Good Friday versicle, there is an extended string interlude, which seems to bring the listener back from the moment of respite and reflection into the heart of the unfolding drama. The lyrical undulating rhythms of the “Venite adoremus” section combine with darker melodic fragments drawn from the “Ecce lignum” section, until all once again gives way and only the high solo violin is heard. The sopranos enter, singing in the highest part of their range, and for the first time, the voices sing the melody we have only previously heard in the solo violin. It is only in hindsight that we realize that the soaring violin solo of the preceding sections was the voice of Christ all along, gathering people to himself around his Cross.
Christ’s words in this movement are addressed to the good thief, and by extension, to all sinners who humbly approach him as he reigns from his throne of mercy, the Cross. To all who beseech him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom” (Lk 23:42), the dying Christ responds with utter tenderness and reassurance for which we hardly dare hope: “Verily, I say unto you, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43).
Here is the light, resilient even in the midst of the closing darkness. In this stunningly beautiful movement of MacMillan’s Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross, and indeed, throughout the entire work, we are reminded that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it” (Jn 1:5).
In the recording below, the third movement begins at 12:03, but it is well worth listening to the entire work over the course of this Holy Week, perhaps as a musical accompaniment to this series of reflections on the Seven Last Words of Christ.
 James MacMillan and Richard McGregor, “James MacMillan: A Conversation and Commentary” in Musical Times, vol. 151, no. 1912 (Autumn 2010), 82–3.
 James MacMillan and Mandy Hallam, “Conversation with James MacMillan” in Tempo, vol. 62, no. 245 (July 2008), 20.