The composer who found Christ in Mark

09 Apr 2009

By The Record

His latest composition, The Passion of St Mark, premiered in Perth on April 8. It is, Richard Mills told The Record’s Anna Krohn, not only a major artistic work but a statement of his Catholic faith.

Br Anna Krohn

The Passion According to St Mark is described as “The most ambitious sacred oratorio project in Australia’s history” by Eamon Kelly writing in The Australian, but Richard Mills, the oratorio’s Australian composer and conductor is not daunted by gargantuan creative effort or complex and original musicality set on a massive stage.
Mills’ versatile compositional repertoire is notable for his transposition of archetypal Australian themes onto a contemporary and universal theatrical and musical canvas.  Commissions have included the music to the ballet Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, the Earth Poem Sky for the Darwin Symphony Orchestra and Aboriginal Dancers, music for the 2000 Olympic Games and in an operatic rendition of Ray Lawler’s classic – The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.
In 2001 a Mills and Peter Goldsworthy (as librettist) collaboration attracted local and international attention and prizes. The epic and darkly confronting opera Batavia, dramatises the shocking events which surrounded the wreck of the Dutch East India company ship Batavia off the Western Australian coast.
Richard Mills has also earned both local and international recording, performance and conducting prizes.  He is in high demand as a conductor of opera and chamber music both in Australia and internationally and is also the Artistic Director of the Western Australian Opera, the Director of Australian Music with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and holds numerous other academic and administrative posts. It was during the days of high pressure and rehearsal before the world premiere  of the Passion According to St Mark in Hobart that Richard Mills generously offered the Record some insights.
The Record: You are known for your gruelling workpace- from 10 Days in Hobart to Perth for the Western Australian Opera to Brisbane. Apart from asking you how on earth you manage this – where is home for you?
Richard Mills:  Every major musical performer or conductor must now be prepared to travel both around Australia and overseas.  I try to find balance, though I haven’t had a break for a long time!  I hail originally from Queensland – but now call Melbourne home.  I have lived in Brunswick for 6 years – and love it there.
The Record:  You have had some prior commissions for music with a sacred theme – a Tenebrae and the Requiem Diptych for example – but can you tell us about the genesis of the Passion According to St Mark?:
Richard Mills:  Well firstly this is really big – it is a once-in-a-lifetime co-commission by the Ten Days on the Island Festival, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Western Australian Symphony, The Queensland Orchestra and the Australia Council and Symphony Australia!
The original idea for the Passion came while I was visiting the organ loft of San Marco’s Basilica in Venice. I looked out from that height over the basilica and reflected upon all the cross-currents of sacred music that had been played and sung there.
At first I had in mind a musical score for the Legend of St Mark which is one of the centerpieces for Venetian identity (and of course represented in symbol by the Lion of Venice).  But then I thought that story might be too lightweight – and frankly too full of pro-Venetian Republic propaganda!
So then I decided to take the Passion story from St Mark’s Gospel as a starting point. 
The Record:  How does St Mark’s Gospel present itself in the work?
Richard Mills: Mark’s account of Christ’s Passion is remarkable.  Mark’s salvation story is both very localised and sparse in its telling.
It doesn’t dwell particularly on Christ’s divinity and in some places almost brutally reveals the failure of the disciples.  It also includes the very striking account of the women – the woman who anoints Christ, against the disciples’ better judgement, foretelling the unfolding of his sacrificial death.  There are the women who came to the tomb.
With the scriptural background I was given advice and assistance from my near neighbours – the Jesuits – including Brendan Byrne and Christopher Wilcox.
But both musically and I suppose theologically I also wanted to set Mark’s almost visceral account against the story of salvation on a cosmological scale.   So the sparse story of Mark’s passion – is bookended by the high Christology of liturgical hymns and Dante’s poetry.
The Record:  So how do you interweave these different elements?
Richard Mills: This Passion is divided over seven parts (which is traditionally the symbol of sacred completion).  It begins with the localised but fateful events of the disciples and Jesus going up the road to Jerusalem. (The narrations are sung in English).   There is then an in-breaking of the great entrance hymn of Palm Sunday – the Pueri Hebraeorum.   Then follows the prophetic verses associated in the liturgy with Palm Sunday verses from the Psalms, Zechariah, hymnal verses from the Patristics.
This then leads the drama back to Mark’s account of the Passover Supper – the unfolding of the preparations set-off against the ominous betrayal of Judas and the chief priests but again with the interweaving of the great hymn (of St Thomas Aquinas) the Pange Lingua re-set but sung in its entirety.
The drama passes through Gethsemane, to the Trial, to Golgotha – all interwoven with verses from Wisdom, the sorrowful and other Holy Week Psalms and the O cruor sanguine by Hildegarde von Bingen.  At the death of Christ in the Gospel account the road theme returns – this time almost infinitely expanded with Dante’s vision of the Universal Cross from Canto XIV in the Paradiso.
The entire work culminates in this cosmic sweep of salvation – with the Vexilla Regis, and again Dante’s verses about melody coming forth from Cross written now universally and the triumph of crucified love with the Ecce lignum crucis.  “This is the wood of the cross on which hung the Saviour of the World.”
The Record:  Are there musical allusions to Venice?
Richard Mills: The Passion of St Mark is the centre piece for performances that will include, with some variation between cities other great Venetian works:  Gabrieli, a Vivaldi Motet (RV626) and Concerti.
The Record: So there are still those “cross-currents of San Marco”?
Richard Mills: Yes, but it is all very complicated and while we are still rehearsing, very difficult to pull together!  The ink is still hardly dry.  The work only began in the middle of last year.
The Record:  Did you have vocal parts or characterisations in mind when you composed the Passion?’
Richard Mills:  Well it’s a bit unusual – as the vocal parts are shared. (There is for instance not a single Christus part).  The choruses are antiphonal and play a subliminal and intricate part in the interweaving of the visceral and the cosmic.
Among the soloists are some very wonderful and upcoming stars from the Western Australian Opera – Rachelle Durkin and the very young but amazing Charles Mellor.  I must say that the choruses (mostly amateur) have been wonderful as well.
The Record:  Can you tell us what else inspired you during the massive undertaking?
Richard Mills: Yes as well as reading the great Patristic writers, I recently read a really fascinating book about the theology of Pope Benedict XVI by the Melbourne theologian: Tracey Rowland.
There is so much in this.  For instance the Pope urges artists of talent to manifest the great mystery of the faith in their greatest achievements- in their art. 
I think this is so important.  We all have a thirst for the sublime, for a reflection upon the ineffable aspects of the faith.  This for me is a labour of love and it is a manifestation of faith – really.
The Record:  You have often commented upon the dangers of “forgetting our history” and of cultural amnesia.  In a way your opera “Batavia” is about the fragility of civilisation and also about the power of mercy and forgiveness as an undercurrent. In this you seem to agree with Pope Benedict as well?
Richard Mills:  Yes the Pope is on about this a great deal.  All the Western traditions, all its institutions are fragile.  Even the Christian tradition can so easily fade away.  That is why the Patristics are so inspiring.  They get us back to basics with their own insights and genius. 
Currently I am absorbed by St Augustine, particularly Peter Brown’s (updated) biography of Augustine.   But it applies to Gregory, the Desert Fathers and Ambrose.  Even Newman’s great Dream of Gerontius (set to music by Edward Elgar) – is a marvelous part of this.
The Record: You have given the Church’s traditional liturgical music some central parts in this Passion.  Perhaps it is telling that it is not the Church but secular musical groups who have funded this enormous undertaking.  Would you also agree with Pope Benedict that along with the holiness of the saints it will be the beauty of the arts which will bring people back to the Faith?
Richard Mills:   Yes I do.   It sad that liturgical music is so underfunded in this country!  Some of the music experienced in our churches is not at all inspiring – some is pathetic really!  Many organs have been neglected and are run-down – and silly little electronic things are used instead.  In a way the reform has to begin at the heart of the Church.
The Record:  I know that you once scored James McAuley’s verses Blue Horses.  McAuley is an example of a great Australian poet and Catholic whose hymnal texts really are perennial and yet marked by his originality.  Would you ever go in for hymnody yourself?
Richard Mills:  Well I would love to be invited (and commissioned).  Richard Connolly and McAuley really did produce forceful and lean hymns that have endured.  There are many obstacles to composing good hymns – and the first is the text.  Vaughan Williams all those years ago noted how hymns attract the best – and the worst – texts and music.  So that’s the challenge.  I wonder if there are any Catholic Australian poets who might be interested?
The Record:  I know you also have a Little Office of the Virgin Mary and an organ concerto in the works.  How would you relate the composing of these sacred works with your own faith?
Richard Mills:  Make no mistake – some of this work is penitential slog!  I recently allowed myself a glass of wine – since I think I am doing my Lent in the writing and rehearsals!
But really, I have given my best attention and my energies to this work.  Sometimes it has been a work of hope.
I think that when it comes to the faith – charity is a doddle- it is faith and hope which are the really hard part.
Sometimes I wonder in a hopeful way how, on one dimension, this insignificant story set in Palestine, could possibly have the power to take on this encounter with the infinite Love?  I suppose The Passion is an attempt to bring both the questioning and doubt – and the answer of faith together.
This work, this music is the way I pray.  And prayer changes you – it really does.

The Passion According to St Mark was premiered by the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra at the Perth Concert Hall on Wednesday April 8.