The premiere of Bob Chilcott’s St John Passion will take place on 24 March as part of a devotional service at Wells Cathedral. The work is scored for soprano and tenor soloists, two baritone soloists, mixed choir, viola and cello solo, brass quintet, organ and timpani.
The hour-long work has been specially written for the choir and its organist and master of choristers Matthew Owens.
‘As in the great Passion settings by J S Bach, the story is narrated by a tenor evangelist,’ says Chilcott. ‘The solo roles in the narrative have instruments from the ensemble that are identified with the respective roles ‒ the evangelist is accompanied by viola and cello solo, Pilate by two trumpets, and Jesus by horn, trombone, tuba and organ.
‘The role of the choir within the narrative is to play the part of the crowd or of soldiers who comment from time to time in short outbursts. The larger role that the choir has to play is the singing of four meditations that punctuate various points of the drama. The texts they sing are English poems from the 13th to the early 17th centuries that express deeply human responses to death, to life and to man’s relationship with the world and with God.’
Chilcott has set five Passiontide hymn texts ‒ ‘It is a thing most wonderful’, ‘Jesus, grant me this, I pray’, ‘Drop, drop, slow tears’, ‘There is a green hill far away’, and ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ ‒ designed to be sung by the choir and congregation together.
‘I was fortunate as a singer to sing the evangelist role in both the great Passions of Bach a number of times. I also remember as a boy chorister in King’s College, Cambridge singing the simpler renaissance versions of the Passion chanted by the dean and chaplain of the chapel in holy week. It is the austerity, the agony and ultimately the grace of this story that has inspired me to write this piece, to be performed for the first time in a magnificent building where this same story has been commemorated for almost a thousand years.’