'Sounding the Passion' Opens New Doors for Theology and the Arts
On April 9-13, Duke Divinity School, Duke Chapel, and the Duke Music Department hosted “Sounding the Passion: Encounters in poetry, theology, and music,” a series of events that marked the culmination of the first phase of the Duke-Cambridge Collaboration in theology and the arts, organized by Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts. This phase focused on the production of a piece co-commissioned by the Divinity School from Scottish composer James MacMillan, a St. Luke Passion for choirs and orchestra, which had its U.S. premiere in a packed Duke Chapel on Palm Sunday, April 13.
A group of ten scholars and artists from the UK, Ireland, and the U.S. worked with MacMillan since spring 2012 as he composed a musical setting of the biblical account of Christ’s death in the Gospel of Luke. MacMillan had not worked in this way before, and all who were involved said that they believe it opens the door for others to engage in similar co-operative enterprises in the future.
The events began with a poetry reading on April 9 by Irish poet and linguist Micheal O’Siadhail, a member of the Duke-Cambridge Collaboration. O’Siadhail shared poems (now available in his Collected Poems), as well as stories, jokes, and performative reflections on language. “It was beautiful. Everyone was transfixed. You could hear a pin drop,” said Duke alumna Christina Carnes Ananias.
On April 10, participants in the Collaboration—O’Siadhail, MacMillan, DITA Director Jeremy Begbie, St. Andrews Professor of Systematic Theology Alan Torrance, Divinity Dean Richard Hays, Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology Ellen Davis, Cambridge Regius Professor of Divinity David Ford, and Duke Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Philosophy Ray Barfield—offered a public panel discussion on their particular roles and experiences in the St. Luke Passion project. Begbie opened with a brief lecture on the project’s origins, and the panel reflected on working together with MacMillan from the vantage point of their various academic and artistic disciplines.
Later that evening, MacMillan lectured on the Passion itself in relation to modern classical composition and faith, using the work of English composer Edward Elgar as a dialogue partner. Professor Sarah Coakley responded with a series of comments on MacMillan’s music in relation to Scripture and Catholic tradition. MacMillan answered questions on his work and on the Passion, hearing from Duke graduate and undergraduate students, local community members, and members of the choir who would be performing his work. The lecture closed with a live performance of MacMillan’s piece for piano and violin, Kiss on Wood.
On April 11, the events began with a theological panel entitled “The Future of Theology,” held before a full lecture hall. Sarah Coakley joined Alan Torrance and David Ford, each presenting their own vision for the work of the contemporary theologian. “It’s the most fun you can have without a fiddle,” quipped Torrance (also a violinist), setting the tone for the afternoon’s dialogue. “Forthright, provocative, and energetic,” in the words of Begbie, the presentations stimulated a conversation with students, faculty, and members of Duke and local community.
MacMillan then joined Duke Professor Stephen Jaffe and a group of doctoral students in music composition for a composers’ workshop hosted by the Duke Music Department. Several students presented their work—new orchestral, electronic, and operatic pieces—to MacMillan and the audience. The dialogue especially touched on the particular blessings and struggles of modern composition.
The afternoon of Palm Sunday, April 13, saw the long-awaited U.S. premiere of the St. Luke Passion, fruit of the collaboration’s four-year interdisciplinary dialogue and of MacMillan’s extraordinary musical vision. The Duke Chapel Choir, the Durham Children’s Choir, and the Riverside High School Choir joined an orchestra under conductor Rodney Wynkoop to present an immersion in the Gospel of St. Luke. The work showed off the character of a MacMillan piece, rich with emotion and tension, harmony and discord, contemplation and surprise. Music publisher Boosey & Hawkes describes the piece as “returning to baroque roots,” “compact,” and “pared-back” compared to MacMillan’s more “operatic” St. John Passion. (It is, in fact, one of MacMillan’s lifelong goals to complete a setting of all four Gospel accounts of Christ’s death—the St. Luke Passion being the second.) The Passion was framed by a prelude setting of the Annunciation and a postlude setting of the Ascension.
The piece was also uniquely embedded in the theological work of the collaboration. Professor Davis said of working on the piece together with MacMillan: “Through the years of our collaboration I was moved to see that Luke's Gospel was not merely a pretext for a composition that found its real inspiration elsewhere. Theological reflection on the biblical text governsevery momentof MacMillan's Passion, and the musicians and singers seemed to understand that. The Duke performance was a genuine work of evangelism, part of the church’s own work of proclamation.”
The performance ended with a standing ovation and sustained applause. More than one person commented that the piece was emotionally accessible and deeply moving, yet “beautiful” as well as “relentless” were also descriptions one could hear many times among listeners. Though the present phase of the Duke-Cambridge Collaboration had come to an end, a new way of hearing of the life and death of Jesus, a new way of composing contemporary classical music, and a new way of listening across disciplines seemed to have just begun.
Former Divinity School Dean Gregory Jones, who originally proposed the project, said:
"The St. Luke Passion in Duke Chapel was an exceptionally powerful and beautiful performance… musically stunning and theologically deep; my understanding of, and engagement with, the Gospel of Luke and Jesus have been transformed. Too often we, especially in the U.S, have marginalized the arts into an optional niche. What Jeremy Begbie and DITA are doing is displaying the profoundly significant intellectual, aesthetic, and ethical importance of the arts for understandings of God and for the ways we discover and nurture what I Timothy 6:19 describes as ‘the life that really is life.’ After the St. Luke Passion, DITA is poised to undertake even more significant collaborations that integrate the arts with other disciplines and cultivate significant new performative opportunities. The potential is transformational."
MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion had its world premiere in Amsterdam on March 15, and will have its UK premiere in 2015 in London and Birmingham. MacMillan’s visit, the St. Luke Passion premiere, and the week’s surrounding events were made possible in part by a Visiting Artist Grant from the Office for the Vice Provost for the Arts at Duke.