Final piece of three-part commission by award-winning composer to premiere

Posted on: 7 March 2024

As the solemn season of Lent continues, the Choir of St John’s College is preparing to premiere the final instalment in Joanna Marsh’s evocative triptych of newly commissioned pieces.

Titled Still to Dust, this poignant piece delves into pressing and prescient issues of our time. "This is a Lenten commission, so the imagery in the poem is specific to that time in the church's calendar,” explained Joanna, who won the 2022 Ivors Academy Award for Choral Composition. Joanna picked out the title line as “a reminder of our short time on this earth and the intensity of the responsibilities we hold during it.”

At the heart of Still to Dust lies a profound meditation on the symbolism of the ash cross, traditionally applied to the foreheads of worshippers on Ash Wednesday. Still to Dust uses a sonnet by poet, Anglican priest, and singer-songwriter, Malcolm Guite. Malcolm weaves together imagery from the Lenten season with contemporary concerns, drawing parallels between the burning of Palm Sunday's crosses and the devastating wildfires that ravage our world.

“As I set about the traditional task of burning the remnants of Palm Sunday’s palm crosses in order to make the ash which would bless and sign our repentance on Ash Wednesday, I was suddenly struck by the way both the fire and the ash were signs not only of our personal mortality and our need for repentance and renewal but also signs of the wider destruction our sinfulness inflicts upon God’s world and on our fellow creatures, on the whole web of life into which God has woven us and for which He also cares,” said Malcolm.

“I like the structure of the poem, the way it comes full circle,” Joanna remarked. The poem's cyclical structure, beginning and ending with the application of the ash cross, serves as a powerful reminder of humanity's shared mortality, the universal call to repentance, and the urgent need for environmental stewardship. 

In musical terms, Still to Dust represents a departure from the two previous pieces in Joanna’s triptych. “Music written for Lent has tended to inspire composers to be a little more stringent harmonically, and this piece is no exception,” said Joanna.

Despite its solemnity, Still to Dust ultimately concludes on a note of hope and light, underscoring the transformative power of repentance and the promise of redemption and renewal in the face of contemporary challenge.

From the desert to the cross: a Lenten Meditation is taking place at St John’s College on Saturday March 9. The service is fully booked, however limited additional seating may be available on a first come first served basis.

Photo credit: James Beddoe

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9 March 2024


A Meditation on the Passion of Christ is a service of music and readings reflecting on the Passion of Christ. This year the service features music by Byrd, Purcell, Weelkes and MacMillan, as well as the final piece of a triptych of works written for the choir by Joanna Marsh.

The commitment, projection and natural energy of this choir have never failed to inspire me

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