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(c) Ashley Coombes

The Judas Passion: story told for the first time from perspective of the ‘traitor’

29 August 2017

World premiere of major new choral work by Sally Beamish and David Harsent at Saffron Hall on Sunday 24 September 2017

The Passion story is told for the first time from the perspective of Judas the ‘traitor’ in a major new work by composer Sally Beamish for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with a powerful and controversial libretto by TS Eliot prize winner, David Harsent.

The semi-staged production of The Judas Passion will be premiered at Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden on Sunday 24 September 2017, where the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are Featured Ensemble during the 2017/18 season. There is a second performance at St John’s Smith Square, London, on Monday 25 September.

The Judas Passion has great contemporary relevance, putting centre stage the man who ‘has been made the scapegoat for the entire human race’ (David Harsent), exploring human motivation and the nature of forgiveness and redemption by reassessing one of the world’s most infamous ‘sinners’ 300 years after Bach wrote his famous Passions.

Sally Beamish says:

My Quaker background played a part in my thinking, that to understand all is to forgive all, and there is that of God in every man. 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 irredeemably evil?

David Harsent says:

Even for a dyed in the wool atheist the drama of the Passion is a gripping narrative. I was intrigued by the idea of writing a passion with Judas as its focus. I wanted to consider why he is made a scapegoat for the entire human race, and how he has become an easy excuse for anti-Semitism.  Why, supposing the so-called betrayal of Christ was God’s plan, is Judas beyond redemption? Why, if he so deeply regretted what he had done, is he inexcusable? The central aspect of my libretto is that incoherence.

The audience is left to decide for itself whether it is the voice of God or the Devil speaking to Judas and Christ – whether Judas is not simply a betrayer but a deliverer – that his role was ordained.

Unlike in Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Mary Magdalene, another biblical ‘sinner’, is given a strong role as commentator, which intensifies as the piece progresses. She asks the final question, after Judas’ suicide: ‘If he can’t be forgiven, who can be forgiven?’, addressed in anger to Christ at the height of his own suffering.

A ‘Judas Chime’ has been commissioned from metal sculptor John Creed consisting of 30 ‘pieces of silver’, and will be a visual as well as an aural focus, cast onto the ground by Judas at the culmination of his anguish. There will also be hammer and nails on a wooden soundboard, and small scrapers to be played by members of the orchestra.

This Passion turns on the idea of roles, whether Judas chooses, or is chosen, to betray Christ. There is an eleven-strong male choir from the Choir of the Enlightenment, to represent the disciples. Within this there are step out roles for Peter, Caiaphas and two thieves, as well as other solo lines.  The chorus also functions as narrator, as the Sanhedrin, and as the crowd.

Christ is played by played by baritone James Newby, who is on the OAE Rising Stars of the Enlightenment mentoring scheme in the Saffron Hall performance (Roderick Williams in the London premiere). Tenor Brendan Gunnell plays Judas and soprano Mary Bevan, Mary Magdalene.

Sally Beamish says:

The Judas Passion draws on fragments of music from Bach’s St Matthew Passion which I have developed into my own language, and you can hear fleeting glimpses of Bach in the work, which also references Chassidic chanting and imagined music from the temples of Jesus’ time.

I concentrated on texture and atmosphere. The OAE perform on Baroque instruments and I have worked with their distinctive musical colours: the fragile, glassy sound of strings, the lyrical beauty of the flutes, the open, raw natural horns and trumpets and delicate tracery of harpsichord and lute.’

A simple movement plan for the semi-staged performance will be designed by Director Peter Thomson, and sculptor Graham Fagan’s acclaimed Rope Tree will be on stage.

The Judas Passion with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is conducted by Nicholas McGegan. The piece is a co-commission with his Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, San Francisco, who will tour the piece in the US.


For further information please contact Victoria Bevan at Albion Media  020 3077 4947

6 Flitcroft Street, London, WC2H 8DJ.
+44 (0)20 3077 4930


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