The Judas Passion
October 4-8, 2017
By Jo Kirkbride
Settings of the Passion story, once one of the central pillars of the musical repertoire, dwindled after a veritable glut in the eighteenth century. But in recent years they have flourished. Penderecki gave us his St Luke Passion in 1965, Arvo Pärt his Passio in 1982 and, more recently, James MacMillan completed his settings of the Gospels of St John and St Luke, with the Mark and Matthew Passions to follow in the coming years. Sally Beamish and David Harsent’s new setting, then, follows something of a new tradition – but theirs is a Passion with a difference. Commissioned by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, this Passion tells the other side of the story – that of Judas, ‘the betrayer’. And unlike more familiar portrayals which paint Judas as story’s villain, in The Judas Passion Beamish and Harsent present Judas in a new light, asking: ‘Does Judas choose, or is he chosen, to betray Christ? What is unforgiveable? What motivates us to behave as we do, and to what extent do we all follow the callings of our own heart – or the callings of whatever voice we choose to name. God’s voice, or the Devil’s?’
This is not the first time that Beamish has reflected upon the Passion narrative in music: her 1995 Viola Concerto explores the role of Peter and his denial of Christ as the subtext of its musical narrative. And Peter’s theme – ‘a descending, plaintive six-note motif’ – makes itself heard in The Judas Passion too, notably when Peter denounces Christ for the third time (‘I don’t know this man’). But the lament that follows this denunciation, with its stripped back orchestration – just harpsichord, double bass, lute and flutes – paints an evocative picture of the Baroque. It is one of several pivot points in this ultra-modern yet ultra-historical work. Here is a twenty-first-century composer writing for instruments that are more than four hundred years old. The shadow of Bach – for so long synonymous with the Passion narrative – looms large in a score that is scattered with canons and fugues, recitatives and arias. But Beamish drills deeper too, summoning Chassidic chanting as the chorus recounts the events of the Last Supper, even offering fragments of imagined music from the temples of Jesus’ time. And yet… the harmonies are unmistakeably of the twenty-first century, the language is current, this is an ancient story – indeed, one of the most ancient of all stories – presented in a way that is all too reminiscent of our own modern times.
Beamish’s Passion is not so much a biblical work as a human one. Judas is presented as an everyman – he is as relevant to us now as he was more than two millennia ago. When we hear the whispering crowds incite his name and watch as he is coerced into taking the thirty pieces of silver (‘What will you take for him? What will you take? We need a reckoning’), it is impossible not feel sympathy for him. ‘If that’s your price’, Judas replies softly, unable to refuse, ‘then pay it’. In this version of events, Judas is a reluctant participant. ‘I do it because I must’, he says solemnly. And when each of Jesus’ disciples asks at the Last Supper, ‘Is it me?’, Judas does not speak. He knows his fate has already been sealed. ‘The man is already chosen’ says a voice that is at once both God and the Devil.
Here is another pivot – Judas has been chosen, but for good or for evil? In Beamish’s score, God and the Devil are interchangeable, they are sung by two voices always in rhythmic unison. ‘And the Devil went into Judas’, Mary exclaims in horror, ‘the Devil or God.’ If Judas betrays Jesus, he will see Jesus sentenced to death. But in doing so, he will also see Jesus receive the promise of eternal life: ‘You will rid me of the man that clothes me’, Jesus tells him. ‘What you are here to do, go and do it now.’ Jesus, like Judas, accepts his fate: both have a sacrifice to make.
Just as God and the Devil are shown here to be interchangeable, so the parallels between Jesus and Judas are brought to the fore. Vocally, Beamish has Judas sung by a tenor and Jesus by a baritone, but by writing many of their lines in a similar range, she draws attention to the qualities that the two share while also highlighting their ‘very different colours’. At times, Beamish goes a step further – Jesus and Judas are united in their thoughts. ‘My God, my God’, they sing together in unison as Jesus is crucified, ‘why have you forsaken me?’ Theirs is a relationship that is intertwined and indivisible.
If the story is a familiar one, then this is an alternative reading of it. A more sympathetic, more modern presentation of events. And key to the change of perspective is the inclusion of a female voice who, amidst all the drama and against the noise of the baying crowd, comments and narrates with quiet restraint. This is the voice of Mary Magdalene. In Bach’s Passions, Mary is not given her own role – instead, a series of arias for the female voice reflect the idea of the ‘pieta’ – the woman’s role as a grieving mother. Against the backdrop of an all-male chorus (who are, by turn, disciples, narrators, and members of the crowd), Harsent’s libretto gives Mary her voice, and although her tone is mournful, she does not present a picture of panic and desperation. Hers is the voice of reason, the reality check, the one who quietly recounts Jesus’ miracles even as those around him call blasphemy. And it is Mary who asks the ‘ultimate question’: If he can’t be saved, who can be saved? If he can’t be forgiven, who can be forgiven?
The compassion and softness that give nuance to Harsent’s libretto are reflected in Beamish’s score, which focuses keenly on the unique and at times almost ethereal sound of the Baroque orchestra. The result, says Beamish, ‘is a transparent language… the glassy sound of the strings, and the lyrical beauty of the flutes; the open, sometimes raw, natural horns and trumpets suggesting ancient ritualistic brass and animal horns; and the delicate tracery of harpsichord and lute. From time to time, the soundworld is drawn together by the sustained tones of chamber organ.’ As the work opens, we hear layers of gathering strings, their soft, ‘glassy’ texture reverberating as though built from the echoes of something unseen and long past. This, too, is a pivot-point – as though the opening itself represents the transition from Bach to Beamish, from ancient to modern. The music, in Beamish’s own words ‘takes as a starting point fragments of Bach’s St Matthew Passion’, which are then worked into her own language with the use of ‘magic squares’. This compositional technique, which was often used by Beamish’s mentor, the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, allows everything from melody and harmony, to phrase length and dynamics to be dictated by a pre-conceived set of patterns. Thus, in The Judas Passion we hear actual echoes of Bach, but only ever as ‘fleeting glimpses’, transmuted into Beamish’s own voice.
While such intricate procedures may not be readily audible, there are more obvious nods to modernity here too, notably in Beamish’s bold use of percussion, which incorporates hammers, whips and nails to depict with raw realism the brutality of Jesus’ persecution on the Cross. And at the heart of this percussion array is an altogether new instrument, the ‘Judas Chime’, comprising 30 ‘pieces of silver’ and intended by Beamish as ‘a visual as well as an aural focus’. It provides a startling centrepiece – a reminder that at the heart of this devastating story is the spectre of greed and selfishness, a heap of unwanted money that is cast to the ground and abandoned at the height of Judas’ anguish, its monetary worth irrelevant. ‘My face on these coins’, Judas cries out in despair, ‘my name on them. For all time: my face, my name, his blood. No matter the gift, no matter the mystery… no matter that I did what I was chosen to do.’ Whether Judas ever had a choice, whether God, the Devil, or the mob themselves are to blame, history will remember Judas’ actions as a betrayal, not as a sacrifice.