~ A Passion Play ~



An introduction to
"A Passion Play"

In 1972 Jethro Tull went to France to record the follow-up to 'Thick As A Brick' at the Château d'Hérouville studios, where in those days David Bowie, Elton John, Brian Eno and Pink Floyd also recorded. After working for months on a new double album, Ian called the sessions off, being unsatisfied with the way the recorded tracks sounded. The album was never completed. Some musical ideas and bits of lyrics were recycled for 'A Passion Play'. (Only two songs from these sessions appeared two years later on the 'Warchild' album. About fifty minutes of these so called 'Château d'Isaster' tapes were released on 'Nightcap' in 1993).

A publicity photo of the Hérouville studios from 1972.

In the 17 days, that were left before the next US-tour would start, Jethro Tull in 1973 recorded and released their most disputed and controversial album: 'A Passion Play'. Anderson has been quoted as saying that that album is about the dichotomy of good and evil. It is an exceedingly complicated album to understand: music and lyrics ask a real effort from the listener. The music is so complex because - though presented as one long piece of music - the album consists of a series different, rather laboured, artificial pieces. The lyrics are difficult to interpret as Ian uses imagery from c.q. seems to refer to classic literature like Dante's Inferno and the Book Of Revelation from the New Testament. Like 'Thick As A Brick' this is a concept-album.

The lyrics tell the story one Ronnie Pilgrim who dies, experiences judgement and afterlife - visits heaven and hell - and then is reborn (reïncarnation?). 'A Passion Play' is a passion play: only here not Christ is the principle person, but modern man, who as a pilgrim in a complex society steers a course between good and evil as a "voyager into life". Like a real medieval play, the story consist of several acts:
Act 1: Ronnie Pilgrim's Funeral: a winter's morning in the cemetery
Act 2: The Memory Bank: a small but comfortable theatre with a cinema-screen (the next morning)
Act 3: The business office of G. Oddie & Son (two days later)
Act 4: Magus Perde's drawing room at midnight

He meets up with Peter Dejour or Peter of the Day or St. Peter of the day. Then he is led to a movie theater where he is shown his life. Since the album is presented as a play complete with a program, we have an interval: The Story Of The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles. After the interval, the play resumes in the business office of G. Oddie and Son or God. From there Ronnie goes to Hell and meets Lucifer and finally Magus Perde in his drawing room. The album ends with Ronnie Pilgrim facing impending rebirth/reïncarnation.

So what does this all have to do with good and evil? Well, we see that both God and Lucifer are present. So our character Ronnie would seem to be a metaphor for humanity. He steers a course between good and evil. He accepts neither God nor Lucifer: "Here's the everlasting rub: neither am I good nor bad I'd give up my halo for a horn and the horn for the hat I once had." Man is neither wholly good nor wholly bad but both at once. This human paradox informs all of our lives. The three previous albums were critiques of modern society. This album mostly avoids this (although God has a business office!) in favor of an extended commentary on one aspect of human nature.

When Anderson was asked in a radio interview in 1979 what A Passion Play was all about, he explained: "It's about . . the notion of what might happen to you when you die, and the idea that rather than just sort of be allotted a place in a notional heaven or hell one still had to make a choice, still had to work on towards other levels of post- death options, you know -- you were still able to make choices and do one thing or the other in a post-death experience -- a bit sort of Buddhist in philosophy, I suppose. Anyway, that's what it was about, but deliberately couched in fairly abstract terms and a lot of verbal imagery that I wanted there because I didn't . . . I wanted people to listen to it and form their own conclusions about what I was saying . . . or what I might be saying . . . ."

Although the album would eventually chart at #1 in the U.S., critics lambasted it and the band. This resulted in the announcement that they would stop touring and relations with the press were cut off. This situation lasted only a short time but the rift that developed between the band and the press has never been bridged since. But it was not the press alone who could not cope with Ian's ingenuity: I want to state that is has been this album that divided even the core of Tull-fans. For many fans of the early days, who would stick more to the blues and rock idiom, this album just was too much, as it transcended the musical and lyrical conventions of rock.
* Jan Voorbij & "Songs from the wood : the music and lyrics of Ian Anderson" (1994 - John Benninghouse).

Top of page

"A Passion Play", the tour programme (1973).
By kind permission of Pete McHugh
(Electrocutas - The Jethro Tull Archive).



  • A Passion Play
    A passion play (or passionate play) is a non liturgical drama depicting the life of Jesus Christ (especially the crucifixion, the death, the resurrection). They were popular in the 15th century, before the Renaissance - and they could require three days for performing, but are still performed today. Bach - of whom Ian is fond of - wrote Passion Music - the liturgical counterparts of the Passion Plays: two Passions (St. John Passion, and St. Matthew Passion) which were the central part of the liturgy for the Holy Week. They consist of recitatives, arias, polyphonic choirs ("All the old familiar choruses come crowding in a different key: Melodies decaying in sweet dissonance."), and there are various characters who represent the 12, Mary, Jesus etc. I remember that at that time there was a problem - whether Jesus should be a bass, or a tenor. Eventually, in Bach's music Jesus was a tenor. Every ten years, in Oberammergau, Germany, the most traditional passion play is presented. This tradition goes back to the year 1634.The lyrics could have been taken out of the gospels - as Bach did - or written by various poets.
  • Ian may have thought of writing a modern Passion, in which Christ could be the modern man. (think of what James Joyce did with Ulysses). C.G.Jung said that Jesus is an archetypal every one of us has inside of him/her and that may be what Ian though of. But I really don't know what's the connection between Jethro Tull's album and that time's music. It's right religion is considered and you hear all kind of biblical references. Until I have discovered this history of Passions - I've considered "A Passion Play" a kind of an ode to the Passionate man - to the one that is really enthusiastic about something. Etymologically, enthusiasm means "having the god into the worshipper" - so here we come to religion again. Well - I think that you can happily enjoy "A Passion Play" without so many references to Jung's psychology, James Joyce, history or who knows what other cultural stuff - but I think this kind of looking to the things makes Ian Anderson the modern artist - in the classic sense of the word - the one that integrates the cultural history in the present day.
    * Victor Ciofoaia, Joao Viegas (SCC volume 9 nr. 14, 3/30/1998)

    Top of page
  • "I go escorted by a band of gentlemen in leather bound"
    I'm pretty sure Ronnie is on his own, but carrying a Bible. Beautiful phrasing! The angel has directed him to the viewing room, but he crosses the icy wastes to get there.  'Icy wastes' conjures up a bleak, lonely image in my mind.  The line immediately following ' of gentlemen...' might be in intentional reinforcement of the riddle - a band of gentlemen, but NO-ONE?  A very Anderson concept!
    * Neil Thomason
  • The Silver Cord
    Traditional in the language of out-of-body experiences, whether induced by hypnosis or by near-death experience, is the silver cord that binds the soul to the flesh.
  • Over the Hill
    Two possible readings of this line are: The hill in question is Calvary. The hill is an elfmound. Interestingly enough, both these hills are crowned with "trees", the one with the Rood (as it was called in Medieval times; the Cross), the other with the blackthorn tree of Faerie. The more obvious reference is that you can't get much more "over the hill" (ie, old) than being dead.
  • Fulham Road
    A long street in London, running from near Putney Bridge to South Kensington. Maison Rouge Recording Studios, where the band occasionally recorded, is at 2 Wansdowne Pl., Fulham.
  • A sweetly-scented angel
    Possibly a reference to the angelic Beatrice, who appears in Dante's Divina Commedia, first to the poet Vergil in Inferno, to encourage him to rescue Dante (Canto 2, Terzettas 54-117), then later to Dante himself.
  • Icy Wastes
    This line refers to Canto 32, Terzettas 21-72, of Dante's Inferno. In the lowest circle of Hell, Dante finds those who had been traitors in life, consigned to suffer in a lake of solid ice up to their necks.
  • The old dog
    From Dante's Inferno (John Ciardi's translation): "Here monstrous Cerberus, the ravening beast, howls through his triple throats like a mad dog over the spirits sunk in that foul paste. ... And they, too, howl like dogs in the freezing storm, turning and turning from it as if they thought one naked side could keep the other warm."
    * Leigh-Ann Hussey (The Annotated Passion Play)

    I'd also like to suggest a second interpretation for "the old dog". Though you equated it with Cerebus, I think a simpler reference might be meant: perhaps to the superstition that hearing a dog howl foretells death.
    * Christine Hoff

    Top of page
  • The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles
    Within A Passion Play, this fable-like story has the function of relativizing everything and preventing it from getting too serious. I think the drift of the story is "much ado about nothing" and contains a mild criticism on people who meddle with of kinds of things that are not there business at all, while in the mean time they neglect the things that really matter in the end.
    * Jan Voorbij
  • The cynical absurdism of the piece is in keeping with the cynical and absurd tone of the majority of the lyrics. It functions as a bridge between the two "movements" of A Passion Play, like the wind & bell/gong-like sounds at the center of 'Thick As A Brick'. It is a lampooning of "children's" cherished orchestral pieces like Prokofiev's 'Peter and the Wolf'. At the same time, the whole album can be viewed as a lampooning of traditional christian thought on life, death and morality. Both 'Thick As Brick' and 'A Passion Play' can be seen as attempts to deflate societal and institutionalized pomposity and irrational conservatism. The jabs seemed aimed more specifically at British culture than any other. It can be viewed as "flashback" or metaphorical review of the life of the afterlife-traveler, the "moral" being that what the society around the traveler found of utmost importance was really inconsequential. It deals with the theme of alienation from the surrounding society due to an irreconcilable difference in moral perspectives. This particular type of alienation is explored extensively throughout both TAAB and APP. It is the most traditionally "western" of any of the music on APP. The afterlife is depicted musically with pagan and folk overtones, while this possible "flashback" is depicted with music of the "establishment". This further highlights the contrast between the conflicting moralities, expectations, realities, and priorities of the dominant society vs. the alienated individual.
    * Jay Thomas
  • D.A. Scocca points out all the animal puns lurking in "The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles". "_Bee_ wanted to help.... answer _BE_gan..." "all the time _Owl_ had been sitting on the fence sc_OWL_ing" "You _CAN, GURU_, you can!" "Newt _KNEW T_oo much to be stopped..." A lot of these are lost on the reader who hasn't actually heard the recording; Jeffrey Hammond's narrative style makes the puns really obvious.
    * Leigh-Ann Hussey (The Annotated Passion Play)

    Top of page



Back to "A Passion Play" lyrics page

Forward to "A Passion Play" annotations page 2

Forward to "A Passion Play Analysis"

(Note: Currently Neil Thomason is working on
An Annotated Passion Play
and he just finished all acts.)


Introduction Site Map Site Search TullSongs TullAlbums TullScapes
TullBooks TullUnreleased TullClips TullLinks TullResources About & Awards

© Jan Voorbij (1998-2009)