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The Judas Passion

Composition Date: 2017

Orchestration: S.T.B Soli – 4CT(or Altos).4T.3B – ––1Perc–ArchLute–Hpsd(ChamberOrg)–

Libretto: David Harsent



Comissioned by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale First performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, at Saffron Hall, UK, 24 September 2017

EP 73108

Programme Note:









The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with chorus

Philharmonia Baroque with chorus

Semi-staged performances directed by Peter Thomson

Does Judas choose, or is he chosen, to betray Christ? David Harsent's powerful, lyrical and evocative libretto raises many questions. The key issue, though, is that Judas does not 'betray' Christ, but 'delivers' him to the Sanhedrin.

Conductor Nicholas McGegan suggested to me about 8 years ago that I might write a Passion using Baroque instruments. The idea of a 'Judas Passion' arose later. Whether it was a response to the rising acts of terrorism, or to a Quaker premise that there is 'that of God' in everyone, I wanted to look at certain questions. 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? Did Judas believe himself to be God's instrument in the fulfilment of the prophesies? Did he believe that he was enabling Jesus to demonstrate the ultimate proof that he was indeed the Son of God? Or was Judas truly, and unredeemably, evil?

The music takes as a starting point fragments of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which I have worked into my own language with the use of ‘magic squares’. - thereby building long lines with corresponding harmonies out of small fragments of the Bach.

The result is a transparent language through which there can be fleeting glimpses of Bach. I concentrated on texture and atmosphere – the extraordinary colours afforded by a Baroque orchestra: the fragile, 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.

The Last Supper is portrayed by a Chaconne (a set of variations built on a repeated chord sequence) and reflects the ritual of communion. I have used other baroque forms such as fugue and canon, and also the idea of recitative, aria and chorale, as in Bach's Passions. In addition there are elements of Chassidic chanting, and imagined music from the temples of Jesus’ time.

The Judas Passion followed naturally from a work I wrote in 1995, which tells the story of Peter's Denial of Christ in the form of a viola concerto. I have drawn from the concerto, and developed Peter's theme – a descending, plaintive 6-note motif - into a main theme of this work, which reappears at certain points to reflect my own comparison between Peter's (and everyman's) fallibilty, and the ultimate sin that is perceived as that of Judas.

Percussion plays a key role in the conception of the piece. I have commissioned a ‘Judas Chime’ from metal sculptor John Creed. This will consist of 30 ‘pieces of silver’, hung as a chime, and will be a visual as well as an aural focus. It will be cast onto the ground by Judas, at the culmination of his anguish. We will also be using hammer and nails on a wooden soundboard, and small scrapers to be played by members of the orchestra, supplementing the single percussionist.

The 11-strong male chorus depicts, at times, the disciples, but also functions as ‘narrator’ , as the Sanhedrin, and as the crowd. Within this, there are step-out roles for Peter, Caiaphas and the two thieves.

In Bach's Passions there is no specific female role, but the arias for female voice reflect the 'pieta' – the woman's role as grieving mother. In Harsent's libretto, the woman's role is Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who became a disciple, with all the complexity that she brings to the Gospel. Her role becomes more intense as the piece progresses. She begins as commentator, and her grief and passion build to her ultimate question: If he can't be saved, who can be saved? If he can't be forgiven, who can be forgiven? This follows Judas' suicide, and is addressed in anger to Christ at the height of his own suffering.

Judas has repented. He deeply regrets his actions, and their horrific outcome. He gives back the money; he hangs himself. And yet in Christian doctrine he can never be forgiven; whereas Peter, who betrayed Christ in cowardice, who turned his back on him in his hour of need, became the 'rock' on which the Church was founded.

Vocally, I have contrasted the tenor (Judas) and baritone (Jesus) by writing them often in a similar range, so that their very different colours will be highlighted. The top of both Roderick Williams' and Brenden Gunnell's voices are remarkable and distinctive, and I have highlighted this in both roles. Julia Doyle's voice is warm and lyrical, and her part is inspired by hearing her sing Baroque and classical roles.

The idea of semi-staging originated from David’s suggestion that the ‘Judas kiss’ - the moment Judas indentifies Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane - should be acted out. From here, further dramatic possibilities emerged, and a simple movement plan will be designed by director Peter Thomson.

This commission is one of the most exciting projects I have embarked upon, and represents a continuation of my already fruitful relationship with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, as well as a chance to work with Philharmonia Baroque and Nicholas McGegan. I am surrounded by support and advice from brilliant, expert musicians, with whom I have met to explore the special possibilities of these fascinating and distinctive instruments and voices.

Sally Beamish, May 2017

Premiere performances:

24th September 2017, Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden

25th Sepotember 2017 St John's Smith Square, London

Buy/Hire from Edition Peters


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