Seven Words From the Cross

Seven Words From the Cross


Artist: Skylark Vocal Ensemble

Composers: William Billings, William Bradbury, Frederick Buckley, Hugo Distler, Gerre Hancock, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, Alice Parker, Francis Poulenc, Robert Shaw, John Sheppard, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Hildegard von Bingen

Format: 1 CD + 1 Pure Audio Blu-ray


Add To Cart

2019 GRAMMY Nominee: Best Choral Performance & Best Immersive Audio Album.

Seven Words from the Cross, is a diverse and innovative program of music for Good Friday, pairing music from the United States with choral music from other parts of the world. This highly original album progresses through the scriptural seven last words of Christ on the Cross, pairing the music of William Billings and the Sacred Harp with the music of contemporary composers Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. In conjunction with this March 2018 release on the Sono Luminus label, Skylark will make its international debut at Tenebrae’s Holy Week Festival at St. John’s Smith Square in London. Skylark will be the only international group featured alongside the greatest choirs of the UK, including Tenebrae, Polyphony, the Tallis Scholars, and the Gabrieli Consort.

Program Introduction by Matthew Guard, Artistic Director:

Thematic programming is my passion. I truly believe in the power of the unaccompanied human voice to communicate at a visceral level. Yet, I do think it is a peculiar challenge to weave together a program that can keep someone riveted (or, let’s be honest, even actively listening!) for 60-odd minutes.

The context for this particular program is quite specific - the vision for Tenebrae’s Holy Week Festival is a week-long series of concerts and semi-liturgical events that offer music appropriate for the final week of Lent leading up to Easter. The setting, St. John’s Smith Square, is both a concert hall and a church, affording a unique opportunity to create a program that is appropriate for both settings, without the specific expectations of one or the other. When it became clear that we might be able to perform on the evening of Good Friday, I set about to design a program around the scriptural seven last words of Christ from the cross. A diverse set of scriptures expressing a range of quite human (not necessarily God-ly) emotions, I felt that a musical progression based on these ideas could speak to audiences of all faiths.

When we learned that we were likely to be the only international group performing at a festival featuring some of the UK’s top choirs, I felt strongly that we should present a program with a uniquely American character. Being a Boston- based ensemble representing America in the UK, prominently featuring the work of Bostonian William Billings seemed to be highly appropriate. Billings is broadly considered the first unique compositional voice in American choral music. His music, which some might characterize as simple and somewhat angular (especially relative to the music being composed in Europe at the time), has an honest rawness about it that I find quite compelling. We intersperse four of his settings throughout the album, providing somewhat of a stylistic thread, culminating in the debut recording of Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s Death May Dissolve, a fantasy on a hymn by Billings that includes the original harmonization.

The heart of the album progresses through the seven scriptural passages (or ‘words’), with pieces chosen to illustrate the universal human emotions expressed by the biblical texts. Some of the seven ‘words’ have a single piece of music, others have several pieces of contrasting styles. Our program begins and ends with simple hymns - I think of them as congregational bookends to the scriptural story that unfolds.

Track List

1 Were you there? 

William Billings
2 When Jesus wept 

Traditional; John Newton
3 New Britain ('Amazing Grace')

Traditional; Robert Shaw/Alice Parker
4 Wondrous Love

William Billings
5 Jordan ('There is a land of pure delight’)

Hugo Distler
Geistliche Chormusik, op. 12:
6 Ich wollt, daß ich daheime wär

Hildegard von Bingen
7 Karitas Abundat 

Frederick Buckley; M. A. Neuville
8 Break it Gently to my Mother 

William Billings
9 David's Lamentation

Francis Poulenc
Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence, FP 97:
10 Vinea mea electa

William Billings
11 Plymton ('In deep distress I oft have cried')

Anna Thorvaldsdottir
12 Þann heilaga kross

Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
13 Death may dissolve (Fantasia on a hymn by William Billings)    

Traditional; Gerre Hancock
14 Deep River

John Sheppard
15 In manus tuas

William Bradbury; Charlotte Elliott
16 Just as I am

Total time: 48:52
Release date: March 23, 2018
UPC: 053479221926

Quotes & Reviews

The sheer musical purpose and thrilling skill with which the many solo passages are handled testify to Skylark’s depth; their ensemble work is often stunning.

Laurence Vittes, Gramophone

The brightest new songbird in North America…

Skylark’s extraordinary breadth of programming (spirituals, shape-note hymns, Hildegard of Bingen, Poulenc, Sheppard and contemporary Scandinavian scores) is matched by an enviable depth of interpretation. One of the many things that makes Skylark a cut above is that each piece is sung so idiomatically. This counters the perception that American choirs have less versatile tone than their British equivalents. 

Tuning and ensemble are never less than first class, but beyond the razor-sharp technique there is a disarming sense of emotional honesty. Whether it’s the final “tremble” in Were You There, or the opening dark rumble of Pann Heilaga Kross by Thorvaldsdottir, or the colourful intensity of Vinea Mea Electa of Poulenc, Skylark does go to the heart of the matter. After hearing this disc, they’re sure to go to the top of your list.


Tony Way, Limelight

These, then, are performances on a very high level; and the disc offers much to enjoy, and indeed to reflect upon – not least at this time of the year. If the programme immediately appeals, you will for certain love the disc; if it does not, I would still recommend listening to it, since you will for certain encounter some unexpected delights.

Nigel Harris, MusicWeb International

Zoë Madonna’s best classical albums of 2018
A masterful, warmly rendered amalgamation of time periods and styles.

Zöe Madonna, The Boston Globe

Throughout sixteen tracks, Guard and the impeccable Skylark singers take us on a musically inspired and spiritually inspiring journey that mixes unforeseen discoveries with fortuitous reencounters with the familiar.

Rafael de Acha, Rafael’s Music Notes

In the repertoire that dominated this Good Friday sequence…they were gripping.

Richard Morrison, The Times


...The choir (18 voices) gives a lovely performance, committed and engaging with a nice clarity of tone and a clear, direct sound which makes the programme a pleasure to listen to. Finely recorded with a nice bloom to the sound, the disc comes in two formats ordinary audio and Pure Audio Blu-ray…

Robert Hugill, Planet Hugill

I don't think I've ever heard Were You There? done so well and with such unfeigned expression.

Jean-Yves Duperron, Classical Music Sentinel

Choral Featured Album

Minnesota Public Radio

The music itself is wonderful by any measure—who can resist William Billings?—and the performances are almost beyond criticism, so rigorously adept are the eighteen members of the Skylark Vocal Ensemble.

Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition

GRAMMY Nominee.png
The sheer musical purpose and thrilling skill with which the many solo passages are handled testify to Skylark’s depth; their ensemble work is often stunning.
— Laurence Vittes, Gramophone
engrossing...reaches in through the ribs and grips the vitals
— (Q2/WQXR NY)
Skylark can sway you softly into calm and then all but throw you across the room with sheer harmonic force.
— Thought Catalog

More From Sono Luminous