We are wrapping up our series on the composer James MacMillan with his beautiful Miserere, performed by the Swedish choir Sofia Vokalensemble.
Miserere is an eight-part choral work. It is based on the text of Psalm 51, which is oriented around the phrase “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy great mercy.” The lyrics explore the progression from guilt and sin to hope and redemption, and MacMillan’s harmonic genius enables him to reflect that progression in the tonal movement of the music. Notice how the piece opens with a sombre free-chanting section in E Minor but ends with a glowing, warm E Major cadence. Along the way, the voices search through a variety of different harmonic contexts and musical atmospheres, reaching a sensational peak that fades into a gentle resolution.
As we move into a new year, we will be starting a new series on the music of a composer who (unlike most of the other composers we listen to here at TWM) is currently alive!
Sir James MacMillan is one of today’s most successful composers. Originally from Kilwinning, Scotland, he writes music for almost every instrument imaginable and regularly conducts the best orchestras in the world. You’ll hear Scottish folk music influences in his music, as well as representations of his Catholic faith.
Today we will be listening to his choral composition “O Radiant Dawn,” sung by the fantastic choral ensemble Apollo5. MacMillan wrote this piece for the annual Epiphany celebration in early January, which celebrates the revelation of God incarnate in the Christian calendar. He does a masterful job of balancing the four voices (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) despite their inherently differing colors. Notice how MacMillan has built the piece from only a few simple phrases, repeated and layered over one another in consistently progressing tonalities.
This is one of MacMillan’s tamer compositions. In the following weeks, we will dive into his intense choral works (such as the “Seven Last Words”), his acrobatic works for violin and orchestra, and his jarring percussion concerto.