Visitatio Sepulchri

James MacMillan (1959)

Visitatio Sepulchri 1992-1993

2(II=picc).2(II=corA).2(II=bcl).2(II=dbn)-2.2.2(II=btrbn).0-timp. perc(1):2cowbells/2wdbl/2bongos/2timbales/SD/2tam-t/5tom-t/ 5tpl.bl/glsp/t.bells/BD/cyms/bell tree-strings(min:8.6.4.4.2)
Duration 
45
Language 
Publisher 

Visitatio Sepulchri is a setting of a fourteenth century liturgical drama from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Originally it would be enacted during Matins on Easter Sunday morning when members of the clergy and choir would take the part of the three angles and three women.

On finding the tomb empty and open on Easter morning the three women encounter three angels at the entrance to the supulchre "Whom do you seek?" the angels enquire. "Jesus of Nazareth" the women answer. "He is not here, he has risen from the dead as predicted. Go and tell this to the world." Women, angels and cantor then join in the Easter sequence ‘Victimae Pascheli laudes’ which is followed by the ‘Te Deum’.

As an opera libretto this text is entirely anti-dramatic but my initial inspiration was sparked by its starkness, objectively and minimal theatricality. The drama became internalised in the music with multi-layered intensity, while the simplicity in the text, with its lack of narrative, gives a blank sheet to the producer. My intention was that the visual complement to the music should be as ritualistic as possible, absorbing, deconstructing and reconstituting the liturgical actions of Holy Week as an extra layer of movement and activity about music and text.

The work is in three sections. The opening scene is entirely without text – a lengthy orchestral prelude which captures the violence of the crucifixion, the anguish and the agony at Golgotha. Scene Two includes the dialogue between the women and the angels when the story of the Resurrection is relayed for the first time. A seventh character makes his appearance here; the Cantor provided a central function in ecclesiastical liturgy and here he acts as a ‘representative’ of the onlookers in this sacred drama. He is the only figure who does not ‘sing’ – he speaks, shouts and chants in sprechstimme style and he interjects questions, comments and exclaimes as if from the multitude outside.

The final section is a rendition of the great hymn of praise Te Deum (We praise you, O God) and represents both the culmination of the Easter story and the celebration of Resurrection. Musically, this scene is devised so that a number of ideas are kept in motion at all times, in different layers, coming back again and again in different guises, giving the impression of the same huge cyclical pattern of inevitability revolving at different times, speeds and levels throughout the voices and orchestra.

James MacMillan, April 1993

Comments 

Work can be presented fully staged, semi-staged or as a concert work.

Performances 
20-23.5.93 Tramway, Glasgow: Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Ivor Bolton
25/26.8.93 Edinburgh: Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Ivor Bolton
9.6.08 Hilversum, Netherlands: Groot Omroep Koor / James MacMillan
12.10.12 Espoo, Finland: Tapiola Sinfonietta and the EMO Ensemble / Pasi Hyökki
2
Flute
2nd doubling piccolo
2
Oboe
2nd doubling cor anglais
2
Clarinet
2nd doubling bass clarinet
2
Bassoon
2nd doubling contrabassoon
2
Horn
2
Trumpet
2
Trombone
doubling bass trombone
1
Timpani
1
Percussion
2 cowbells, 2 woodblocks, 2 bongos, 2 timbales, side drum, 2 tam-tams, 5 tom-toms, 5 temple blocks, glockenspiel, tubular bells, bass drum, cumbals, bell tree
8
Violin
6
Violin II
4
Viola
4
Cello
2
Double bass
7
Other
soloists: 2 sopranos, alto, 2 tenors, bass, male speaker (Sprechstimme)
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