I don’t often cry uncontrollably when listening to Radio 3’s ‘Building a Library’. But on a distant Saturday – was it seven years ago? – it happened. The piece was James MacMillan’s modern masterpiece, ‘Seven Last Words from the Cross’, written in 1994. From that point, I was hooked to his music and have since conducted some of his choral works as well as lectured on the ‘Last Words’. His language manages to be both flower and thorn. Consonance with just the right level harmonic tension, to my ears at least.
What is it that makes so much of his choral work penetrate so deeply? In my last blog I wrote about Vaughan Williams, amongst others, combining ‘soil and spirit’ in his music. MacMillan does this too. He excels at bringing together two languages of the heart, two languages which speak from deep to deep. As with VW, he delights in exploring the vernacular, in his case the folk traditions of not just his Scottish homeland but also the ululations and rhythms of other world musics. He combines this then with the sacred, borrowing on Byzantine chant as much as Western psalmody. The ensuing alchemy is incredibly powerful: music which is both familiar, invoking atavistic memories, and music that speaks of the beyond, the unfathomable. Britten meets Messiaen, in a way.
The fact that MacMillan is often expressing his own sincere faith in the work gives it extra power, an extra sense of connection, even to listeners who are not open to that dimension. You can sense that integrity in his sacred work whatever your own faith background.
And then there is his sheer craftsmanship, his expert handling of resources, whether of a single-line responsorial or a massive orchestral score. Even when the language is complex, the textures remain clear and deftly sculpted and the overall narrative purpose strong and compelling. I’ve never got bored in a MacMillan piece, the drama is just too gripping.
Returning to the ‘soil and spirit’ theme, listen to this ‘word’ from the ‘Seven Last Words’. We start deep in the past, with something that could have been chanted by the Desert Fathers. The refrain comes from a different world, a seraphic string choir with solo violin floating heavenwards. This seems to beckon a hallowed response, ‘Come let us adore him’, ‘venite adoremus’. The process is repeated twice, each time in a higher tessitura – two tenors followed by two sopranos, getting freer and more ecstatic. It is the serenest section of an otherwise anguished score and all the more beautiful for that context. Be prepared to be hooked: