The (Untold) Women’s Narrative in the Passion

Duncan Fraser, composer & musician, talks about his upcoming score for Be Loved: A Passion which will premiere at St James’s Piccadilly in April 2022.

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What really fascinated me though was what was going on for the many women that are mostly only alluded to in the story.

Why, in heaven and on earth, would anyone venture to write yet another setting of the passion story when so many great composers from Bach to Penderecki have done such a brilliant job before?

I have always been fascinated by that arc from Lent (and I wrote 40 piano pieces about Lent, premiered at St James’s 3 years ago) through to Easter day. What was it really like? What happened that the crowd who, on a Sunday were shouting ‘Hosanna!’, only 5 days later, were screaming ‘Crucify!’? What was actually going on for the individuals?

What really fascinated me though was what was going on for the many women that are mostly only alluded to in the story. Where were they? Making or buying bread for the last supper? What did they feel about how they were being treated?

Then, in 2021, I read some truly moving Easter poetry by Rev Laura Darrall and had the mad idea we might be able to make a piece out of this. Laura and I talked a lot, thought, reflected, read and structured but she was unable to see it through due to the huge commitments of being a new curate.

So I approached the Scottish poet Elspeth Murray and we continued the journey, from lists of which women were where when and from initial thoughts, through to research and collaboration to libretto. So began the most wonderful partnership of discovery and exploration.

How on earth could we tell what was the lived experience of these women when we were separated by so much time, distance and culture and most importantly how could I as a man try to represent them especially when we are all working so hard to challenge male privilege? Was it just too presumptuous? Yet why should the gender be more important than the other differences and how could we best live and work through that as we made the work?

We learned so much about Mary Magdalene which was revelatory: the fact that she was probably the lead disciple, (possibly funding them from the rental from properties her father had left her), the fact that she received the ‘vision’ on Easter Day in what some have described as a post-mortem vision (the way we often see loved ones after they have passed), to the fact that her beautiful gospel (The Gospel of the Beloved Companion) was so compelling and the wonderful idea that she had direct line to a vision that was about us all becoming the best we could be (is that what heaven really is?) rather than the view of some of the other disciples that it was simply the overthrow of the Romans. The men were threatened and wanted to write her out of the story but by the time they came to write their gospels had to respect the oral tradition that had grown up around her. It didn’t stop them using the old line ‘well she’s mad’ or through mistranslation ‘she’s a sex worker’ again emphasising the apparent separation of physical and ethereal.

I have always been fascinated at the differences between the way a pregnant 17 year old girl must have reacted physically to the birth and death of her son and the way she has been painted and worshipped, often by men, as ethereal, a virgin, Queen of heaven and especially as a musician I am fascinated by the distancing of the reality of the shock of the Annunciation as painted by so many anaemic Anglican settings of the text.

These ideas were captured so well first by Laura who wrote about how Mary became ‘sacred by a simple yes’ and Elspeth’s brilliant lines, which you will hear throughout:

I am scared
I am scarred
I am sacred

So we knew we wanted the two main women characters and also wanted to challenge the centuries old tradition of a male narrator. I also wanted to represent in the instruments what was going on internally, in as much as we could guess.

Musically a chord fell under my fingers, then three more, then a melody, then it is no exaggeration to say that it mostly write itself. Maybe Mary and Mary Magdalene liked what Elspeth and I were trying to do! We have entered into this mad task with humility and grace in the hope it goes a fractional way to exploring a new aspect of the Passion story.

May you be well
May you be loved
May you be good companions

See you at the performance

©Duncan Fraser