Composing Christ’s Passion : musical and theological approaches in the Passion settings by James MacMillan, Arvo Pärt, and John Adams

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This thesis provides an account of the differing theologies and compositional approaches of three composers—James MacMillan, Arvo Pärt, and John Adams—and contributes a comparative theological and musical analysis of their work through case studies of MacMillan’s St Luke Passion, Pärt’s Passio, and Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary. This thesis examines the theological context of each composer; their religious and political backgrounds and draws out implications for the interdisciplinary field of theology of music as a whole. In Part I, I establish the role of faith in James MacMillan’s musical inspiration, showing how the suffering and death of Christ are direct and indirect themes in much of his work. With this as a foundation, I give a close reading of his St Luke Passion (2012), and I demonstrate how MacMillan uses music both as a theological practice of his faith and also as a means to communicate theological meaning. In Part II, I consider Arvo Pärt’s religious and political formation, and discuss an Orthodox theology of the icon. I then argue that Pärt—as a composer—acts as an Orthodox iconographer, and I suggest ways his Passio (1989) might be read as an ‘aural icon’. In Part III, I explore the possibility that the music of John Adams—as a non-religious, questioning composer—might still provide theological insight, precipitate the possibility of God revealing something of himself to seekers, as well as compelling believers to interrogate their own theological assumptions. This thesis contributes comprehensive musical examples of how proposed methodological frameworks might be applied, arguing that different compositional styles and different faith backgrounds necessitate different musical and theological lenses. Furthermore, it considers both ‘music as a possibility of theological revelation’ as well as ‘theological explication through music’ through these three musical works, contributing to musical theology more generally.
Date of Award30 Nov 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorGeorge Corbett (Supervisor)


  • Music and theology
  • Theology of music
  • Theology and the arts
  • James MacMillan
  • Arvo Pärt
  • John Adams
  • Composer
  • Passion
  • St Luke Passion
  • St John Passion
  • Passio
  • The Gospel According to the Other Mary
  • Theology
  • Music
  • Musicology
  • Begbie

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 8 August 2027

Cite this