The Premiere of Gabriel Jackson’s Gripping and Moving Passion Setting

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Stephen Hough, Jon Laukvik, Matthew Martin, Gabriel Jackson, William Whitehead (organ), Emma Tring (soprano), Nick Pritchard (tenor), The Choir of Merton College, Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia, Benjamin Nicholas (conductor), Merton College Chapel, Oxford, 4.4.2014. (JQ)

Johann Sebastian Bach – Christus, der uns selig macht, BWV 620
Jon Laukvik (b. 1952) – Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder, or Herzlich thut mich Verlangen (world premiere)
Johann Sebastian Bach – Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund, BWV 621
Stephen Hough (b. 1961) – Chorale prelude on Von Gott will ich nicht lassen (world premiere)
Johann Sebastian Bach – O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig, BWV 618
Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962) – Herzliebster Jesus, was hast du verbrochen
Johann Sebastian Bach  – Christe, du Lamm Gottes, WV 619
Matthew Martin (b. 1976) – Das walt mein Gott (world premiere)
Johann Sebastian Bach – Nun danket alle Gott, BWV 657
Gabriel Jackson – The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ (world premiere)

The 750th anniversary of the foundation of Merton College falls in 2014 and there’s a very strong musical element to the year-long celebrations. The new organ in the Chapel, built by the American firm of organ builders, Dobsons has been installed and will be formally inaugurated shortly – though it’s already in full use. The College’s acclaimed choir is accumulating a veritable treasure chest of new music to sing thanks to the remarkable Merton Choirbook project, which has produced over 50 new pieces by leading composers from all over the world, including several exciting young composers. Gabriel Jackson’s new Passion setting is the most substantial piece to be composed for that project.

 This is the fifth year in which the college has put on a weekend festival, Passiontide at Merton and tonight’s concert was the opening event in this year’s programme.

 The first half of the concert allowed us the chance to hear organ music played by William Whitehead on the new Dobson organ. This three-manual, 44-stop instrument, which has nearly 3,000 pipes, took some five years to construct and it represents something of a coup for the builders, Dobson Pipe Organ Builders Ltd. Established in 1974 in Lake City, Omaha, all of the previous 90 organs that the firm has built have been installed in the USA; this is their first ‘export’, as you can read here. The organ replaces a very much smaller 1968 Walker  organ and its substantial casing, made of America white oak, looks very handsome indeed. My first thought on seeing it was that so physically large an instrument might prove overwhelming in the Merton chapel, which isn’t over-large. On the basis of the music we heard tonight this proved not to be the case and I suspect there may be two reasons for this. One is undoubtedly the skill of the organ builders but I wonder also if its position in the chapel helps. Like its smaller predecessor it’s located on the back wall of the chapel, underneath the tower. The tower isn’t especially high but I wonder if some of the sound from the organ travels upwards into the tower and is then ‘refracted’ before being heard in the chapel itself. The organ has been described in great detail by Daniel Moult in the March/April edition of the magazine Choir and Organ.

William Whitehead offered four Passion chorales by Bach interspersed by four modern chorale preludes, three of which were receiving their first performances. The contemporary pieces form part of the ambitious Orgelbüchlein Project which Whitehead is curating and which aims to achieve completion of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein; living composers will compose Chorale Preludes to fill the 118 gaps that Bach left in his manuscript. The first impression of the organ, in Bach’s Christus, der uns selig macht was very favourable. Whitehead obtained clarity in the voicings and an impressive, though not overpowering bass depth. In all five Bach pieces that he played he showed great stylistic empathy with Bach’s music. All the new pieces impressed – the brief, lively Martin prelude could have been by Bach himself – not least the strangely disturbing Jackson piece in which a highly decorated melodic line, which seemed to have Middle Eastern overtones, was heard over trudging, irregular bass chords. Stephen Hough’s piece, commissioned by Choir and Organ, is a fine composition in which he uses only white notes. The marking is Andante sereno and the decoration of the melody with quavers and triplets is very affecting. I liked this short, thoughtful piece very much, not least the way in which the final cadence is achieved almost out of nothing.

 I’d like to hear the new Merton organ in a wider range of music – not least some French repertoire – but first impressions are very favourable.

 Gabriel Jackson’s new choral work has been commissioned by the Warden and Fellows of Merton College to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the foundation of the college in 1264. The libretto has been compiled by the college Chaplain, Dr. Simon Jones and it contains two striking features. One is that the Passion story is not taken from just one Gospel account, as is customary. Instead there are passages from the Gospels of all four Evangelists. I surmised that this is because all the Passion Gospels include different incidents in the story but I understand that in addition this libretto has a liturgical dimension which explains, for example, the inclusion of the episode of Christ washing the feet of his disciples. Dr Jones has woven the four accounts of the Passion into a seamless whole. Secondly, the setting contains passages of reflection or commentary derived from non-scriptural sources. Simon Jones has ranged widely – and very perceptively – in making his selection and for several of the non-scriptural passages he has drawn on writers who have a specific connection with Merton College. So, in the second section the non-scriptural words are taken from The General Thanksgiving by Edward Reynolds (1599-1676), who was Warden of Merton from 1660 to 1661. Later, in section 4, words are incorporated from The Evil Hour and from Intimations of Mortality by the poet, Edmund Blunden (1896-1974), who was a one-time Fellow of Merton (1931-1944). Section 5 incorporates lines from the versified Psalm 137 by Thomas Carew (1595-1640), who matriculated at Merton in 1608. Finally, the whole of section 7 comprises a setting of lines from Little Gidding by T. S. Eliot (1888-1965); Eliot was a Graduate student at Merton between 1914 and 1915.

 I had access to the score and libretto in advance of the performance and I thought the libretto worked extremely well on paper. However, when heard in performance it works brilliantly. Each of the textual interpolations is placed with perfect understanding into the Passion narrative and complements and comments on the story at just the right moment. Furthermore, Jackson’s music proves to be ideally suited to the words and, as should always happen in a good vocal setting, it enhances the words and takes them into a new dimension.

 The Passion, which was scheduled to play for about an hour, ran for some 73 minutes in this performance. It is scored for soprano and tenor soloists, SATB choir and an instrumental ensemble comprising 11 players: three woodwinds, one horn, harp, four strings and two percussionists who play a wide range of instruments,. The design of the Passion does not follow the conventional pattern whereby the story is related by a solo Evangelist. Both of the soloists have passages of narration to sing but often the choir relates the story and the soloists comment and reflect upon it. There are seven sections: Palm Sunday; Anointing at Bethany; Last Supper and Footwashing; Gethsemane; Caiaphas, Peter and Pilate; Crucifixion; and The End and the Beginning.

 Jackson’s music gripped me from start to finish. The scoring for the instrumental ensemble is expertly judged. The choice of instruments enables the composer to exploit a range of piquant colouring possibilities and the use of the instruments is often imaginatively spare and always telling. There are moments of beauty. The Anointing at Bethany, for example, includes some lovely, beseeching writing for solo soprano, accompanied by harp and violin. The narration, by the choir, is beautifully harmonised and, in one of many felicitous textual combinations, the words of Edward Reynolds, which the soloist sings, dovetail with and complement ideally the narration. This section is all the more successful because it follows the Palm Sunday episode. Here the music is often deliberately strident with strong, vibrant colours and rhythms. From this I got a real sense of the uninhibited crowd scenes that one envisages accompanied the entry of Christ into Jerusalem.

 The Gethsemane section is dominated by the tenor soloist’s rendition of words by Edmund Blunden. Jackson accompanies his singer with instrumental music that is dissonant, jagged and deliberately creepy: it’s graphic. This is most disturbing music, especially when sung with the sort of feeling that Nick Pritchard brought to it. And how inspired it was to insert lines by Blunden, one of the war poets, into the narrative of Christ’s fearful Agony in the Garden! That, of course, has special resonance as we mark the centenary of the Great War. The Crucifixion scene is narrated by the choir in music that I can only describe as gaunt. Both the choral writing and, even more so, the spare accompaniment displayed great economy of means but it was very powerful and effective.

 The final section of the work includes no Gospel narration; it sets lines from T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding. On paper I wasn’t sure how well this would work but in performance it was remarkably successful. Eliot’s words and Jackson’s music combined to offer hope and a positive outlook. The music, much of it for choir, joined later by the soloists, became ever more radiant and offered balm and reassurance after the graphic events previously depicted. Both the vocal writing and instrumental lines were very lyrical. I don’t know why – because the styles of the two composers are completely different – but I was put in mind of the aspirational way in which Vaughan Williams set words by Whitman in works such as Sea Symphony. This was an innovative and highly successful way to end a Passion setting.

 The performance was superb. The choir sang with precision and complete commitment while the instrumental contributions were incisive – as they need to be to realise Jackson’s scoring. The soloists, both of them new to me, were very impressive. Emma Tring sang expressively and with very pleasing tone. Nick Pritchard was a late replacement for Ben Johnson; one would not have known. He sang with great conviction and ringing tone and displayed the sort of assurance that one might have expected had he been preparing the taxing part for months.  Benjamin Nicholas conducted the demanding score with complete command; he paced the drama unerringly and allowed the more reflective music just the right amount of space in which to make its proper impact.

 I was thrilled and moved by this score and the performance which it received. The standing ovation indicated that I was far from alone in this response. Jackson’s score is important and eloquent and I am impatient to hear it again. I hope very much that Delphian, the label that records the Merton College Choir, will be able to find a way to bring about a recording soon for this work deserves to be widely heard.

John Quinn

Leave a Comment