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.
Our music for this week continues our series on the music of contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan. We will be listening to “A Child’s Prayer,” sung by the Laurens Collegium Rotterdam and conducted by Wiecher Mandemaker.
This is a powerful, deeply moving piece of music. MacMillan dedicated it to the memory of the children who were killed in a 1996 attack on a primary school in Dunblane, Scotland. MacMillan personalizes the youthful aspect of the music through the lyrics, which are taken from a prayer he used to say during his childhood in northern Scotland. He also orchestrates the piece, which is written for four-voice choir, so that two solo treble parts overlay the ponderous, lamenting chords sung by the rest of the ensemble. The high-pitched treble parts, which weave in and out of each other throughout the entire piece, represent the children who were lost in the tragedy.
Notice the simplicity of the lyrics. The chords in the choir focus almost exclusively on one word: “Welcome.” This word, pulsing over and over in the lower voices, creates a rocking, relaxed atmosphere. Near the end of the piece, the entire ensemble rises to a climax based on the word “Joy,” which quickly resolves into a duet between the two treble voices. I find it interesting and moving that MacMillan chose to finish this piece, which commemorates such a terrible tragedy, with the word “Joy.” Perhaps he means to point the audience toward a redemption of sorts, or maybe he is evoking joyful childhood memories. Regardless of his aim, MacMillan has done a masterful job of creating a beautiful musical picture of grief, comfort, and hope. And he’s done it in only four minutes of music.
As we continue to explore the music of contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan, we’ll be listening to his choral masterpiece “Seven Last Words From the Cross.”
This work, commissioned by the BBC in 1994, depicts the final seven short sentences that Jesus uttered before dying on the cross. MacMillan drew from all four gospels to place these seven final sentences to music. They are as follows:
(1) Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
This part of the composition begins with a shy cadence that builds into fanfares in the tenors and the violins. The tenors’ lines come from the Palm Sunday Exclamation. This merges into a subdued, monotone plainsong with lyrics from the Good Friday Responsaries for Tenebrae.
The second movement opens with the same cadence that began the first, but this time it is mixed in with fragments of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The frantic tone of the building music in this movement evokes the tragedy of a mother beholding her son’s death.
(3) Verily, I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.
This is perhaps the most moving part of the work. MacMillan opens with a dissonant conversation between the tenors and basses that suddenly gives way to an angelic melody in the violins and sopranos. Meanwhile, the tenors and cellos combine to create a delightful undercurrent.
(4) Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani (My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?).
These passionate cries of loneliness are accompanied by passionate music that swings unpredictably from from peak to valley. MacMillan captures the torment and isolation of the cross in a powerful way.
(5) I thirst.
These two simple words are repeated throughout the ensemble in a bare, almost desperate manner. The strings hover breathlessly while the choir chants in hushed voices.
(6) It is finished.
his movement is a perfect example of MacMillan’s masterful ability to create musical representations of physical actions. You can hear the hammer driving the nails into Jesus’ hands at the start of this movement.
(7) Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit.
The choir exclaims the first word – “Father!” – three times, then goes silent for the rest of the piece. The strings complete the work alone, gradually slipping into eerie and unresolved silence. MacMillan has written that he based this final string sequence on the Scottish folk music of his childhood. Listen for the sighs in the violins at the very end, representing Jesus’ last few breaths.
As we continue our series on the music of the contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan, we will be listening to his concerto for percussion soloist and orchestra. It is titled Veni Veni Emmanuel.
We’ve been doing this for nearly six years now here at TWM, but this is the first time we’ve listened to a percussion concerto. To be honest, this is the first time I’ve even come across a percussion concerto. MacMillan definitely broke new ground with this composition, which was written for the percussionist Evelyn Glennie.
This concerto is based on a medieval Gregorian Chant that was written for the Christmas season (listen for the “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” theme at 23:29). MacMillan has written that he meant this piece as an Advent reflection on the human presence of Christ. He was particularly inspired by Luke 21, which says that “[t]here will be signs in the sun and moon and stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves; men dying of fear as they await what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken. And they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
If you’ve been with us for a while, you may remember that a concerto almost always has multiple movements (usually three). But MacMillan has written his percussion concerto in a single 26-minute movement. You may also remember that a concerto usually features a single instrument (the soloist), with the orchestra in an accompaniment role. However, the relatively limited tonal range of the percussion instruments means that MacMillan has created a much more balanced work in which the orchestra and soloist share the melodic responsibility.
You can think of this concerto in five parts:
Fanfare – this is where the percussion soloist shows off the range of all the percussion instruments in her arsenal.
Modulation – the orchestra and percussion soloist trade blows.
Cadenza – the woodwinds and percussion soloist explore a more tranquil melody. This is, in MacMillan’s design, a representation of prayer during the Advent season.
Recapitulation – the original theme returns as the percussion soloist embarks on a virtuoso vibraphone solo.
Plainsong – “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” emerges from the fray and leads the ensemble to an unexpected conclusion.
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.