Containing Chaos? Aspects of Medieval Liturgy in James MacMillan's Visitatio Sepulchri

Lisa Colton

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


From at least the tenth century, key parts of the Christian liturgy were performed with particularly dramatic rituals, especially on high-ranking feast days in the Church calendar. One of the most ubiquitous texts of this type was the Quem quaeritis dialogue, so-named on account of its text, which sets the Angels’ question ‘Whom do you seek?’ and the Three Marys’s answer ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. This liturgical scenario embodies many aspects that modern audiences would associate with theatrical display. Visitatio Sepulchri, MacMillan’s chamber-scale opera (1992–1993) takes the Quem quaeritis narrative and places it within a larger structure that connects it to the Crucifixion and to the Resurrection. The composer uses several medieval chants (the fourteenth-century Parisian liturgy for Easter Day, the Easter sequence Victimae Paschali laudes, and the Te Deum) as well as drawing inspiration from broader aspects of medievalism. This chapter examines the placement, function, and effect of pre-existent chant and other material in Visitatio Sepulchri. It assesses the way in which both musical borrowing and the idea of medieval drama impact upon the creation of the work, on its performance, and on its expressive potential as sacred opera.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationJames MacMillan Studies
EditorsGeorge Parsons, Robert Sholl
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9781108592154
ISBN (Print)9781108492539
Publication statusPublished - 20 Aug 2020

Publication series

NameCambridge Composer Studies
PublisherCambridge University Press


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