James MacMillan: Kiss on Wood


Composed in August 1994, James MacMillan’s Kiss on Wood is a short work originally written for violin and piano, however in recent years the cello and piano version has become more widely known. Kiss on Wood was premiered at the Harrogate Festival in 1994 by violinist Madeleine Mitchell and pianist John Lenehan. For this blog I will be referring to the cello and piano version of the work.

MacMillan includes a short programme note to demystify any questions one may have about the title and where it comes from:


“Kiss on Wood is a short, static and serene meditation for violin and piano. Lasting about eight minutes, it is an ornamental and highly elongated paraphrase on the Good Friday versicle, ‘Ecce lignum crucis in quo salus mundi pependit: Venite adoremus’ (‘Behold the wood of the cross on which the saviour of the world was hung: come let us adore him’). 

This is sung as the crucifix is slowly unveiled and before the people are invited forwarded to kiss the wood of the cross. The music and title are devotional in intent, but can equally represent a gesture of love on the wooden instruments making this music.”


The Music

After a dramatic, and quite aggressive opening, the colourful dissonances are held on by the piano as the cello soars into its glorious upper register. Flourishes from the soloist paired with the cascading dissonance sequences from the piano only heightens the tension already felt at the beginning of the piece. 

The pair unite to play the main theme of the work, both of which in their luscious lower registers, creating an impending doom kind of atmosphere. There is a sense of sweetness in the soloists fragments of melody, which perhaps highlights the love for the cross as it is being unveiled. 

The intensity is high throughout the whole of this piece, with MacMillan experimenting with different ranges of the instruments. The cello, in particular, reacts really well to this as its upper register is often considered highly emotional and intense, as well as its lower register being regarded as strong, powerful and very moving. 

Kiss on Wood is not a work with a soloist and accompaniment. The two instruments work together to create different atmospheres, which, in turn, makes the work really powerful in its message. MacMillan’s use of dissonance must also be mentioned. The piano sustains lots of the colourful dissonances heard throughout the piece, with each one making the soloist shimmer within it is, often creating ethereal atmospheres.

The end of Kiss on Wood is fragile, subdued and quietly intense. After the last sequence is played in the cello’s highest register, the piano keeps going with very quiet clashing chords, surrounded by darkness and silence. The music dies out, leaving you in deep reflection. 


Final Thoughts

James MacMillan’s Kiss on Wood can be seen both as a devotional piece of music due to its obvious ties with the Good Friday vesicle. However, it can also be seen as an act of love for the wood of the instruments that are being played. The deep love and admiration for the instrument comes through the intense string work and the colourful dissonances sustained throughout. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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1 Comment

Madeleine Mitchell · 9th March 2023 at 3:33 am

One of the finest pieces I commissioned or which has been written for me over the years, a really special piece. I personally think it works best for violin and piano (not least the register) rather than the secondary arrangements for cello and piano or strings. I only discovered later that Jimmy was writing his choral work Seven Last Words at the same time as Kiss on Wood and this is significant to understanding the work and the transcendental nature with the mesmerising Gmajor chord (at 3:49 on my recording). It also resulted in the composer writing me another work as a gift – A Different World 1995 which I premiered at the Almeida Festival and recorded on the same NMC album (In Sunlight: Pieces for Madeleine Mitchell with brilliant sleeve notes by Ivan Hewett). As a result of Capella Nova hearing me perform the work in Glasgow they invited me to tour and record the MacMillan choral work Domine non Seccundam Peccata Nostra (Alpha & Omega which was BBCMM Choral CD of the Month). I’ve always wanted to perform the work at Easter and with choral music soI was delighted when St Johns Smith Square invited me to open their Easter festival on 2.4.23 in a recital with this work on Palm Sunday.

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