An introduction to
"A Passion Play"
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.
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.
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
Act 4: Magus Perde's drawing room at midnight
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
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.
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 . . . ."
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
"A Passion Play", the tour
By kind permission of Pete McHugh
- The Jethro Tull Archive).
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
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
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)
- "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
'...band of gentlemen...' might be in
intentional reinforcement of the riddle - a
band of gentlemen, but NO-ONE? A very
* 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
- A sweetly-scented
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
- 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
- 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
* 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
- 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
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
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
* Leigh-Ann Hussey (The
Annotated Passion Play)