Westminster Cathedral Choir returns to acclaimed Scottish composer James MacMillan, whose powerful, passionate and luminous music has made him one of the best-loved choral composers of today.
Included on this recording is a dramatic setting of the Tenebrae Responsories, a spiritually engaging and emotionally involving work which relates back in its searing intensity and some of its choral effects to Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993) (recorded on), one of MacMillan’s seminal earlier works.
The choir is joined by London Brass for jubilant settings of Tu es Petrus, Summae Trinitati and Ecce sacerdos magnus.
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James MacMillan has had a long and close relationship with Westminster Cathedral. He is both a deeply committed Catholic and a hands-on church musician who directs the choir at his local church in Glasgow. He is passionate about raising standards in Catholic worship and sees Westminster Cathedral Choir as a beacon of professionalism from which the church should take inspiration. Understanding the limited resources of many churches, which may also have limited musical expertise, has led him to compose music of widely varying difficulty but which never compromises his own artistic integrity. It is an extraordinary skill, and some of this variety can be heard in this recording.
Tu es Petrus was written for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Westminster Cathedral in 2010. The text—‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church’—was the perfect choice for the visit of St Peter’s successor. This is a great occasional piece for a ceremonial occasion. MacMillan wrote of it: ‘As an ex-brass player myself, who loves writing for voices, it was very exciting to be invited to combine the two sounds with percussion and organ in Tu es Petrus and, the previous year, in Summae Trinitati. It was with immense pride that I wrote this work for the visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the Cathedral. Martin Baker had remembered a particular percussion sound in an earlier work of mine The Birds of Rhiannon which involved beating on large metal sheets, and we discussed their use in this piece. In the end I decided against them as I didn’t want to terrify the Pope! The piece is noisy enough as it stands, and I remember being taken aback at the rehearsal when the tumult filled the Cathedral.’
The Tenebrae Responsories is a major work in MacMillan’s choral output written for Cappella Nova in 2006 and first performed by them the following year at St Andrew’s in the Square, Glasgow. MacMillan says: ‘I have always loved the Victoria settings of these texts and preciously guarded my old, and now legendary, recording of these by the Westminster Cathedral Choir under George Malcolm. It was a delight to be asked by Cappella Nova to set some of them myself.’ There are three movements which form a spiritually engaging and emotionally involving work which relates back in its searing intensity and some of its choral effects to Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993), one of MacMillan’s seminal earlier works. This work is also about the crucifixion. The word ‘tenebrae’ means ‘darkness’ and refers to the Catholic practice of gradually extinguishing candles following readings of the Psalms in special Holy Week services. The first movement is intensely chromatic, the second begins with three great choral outbursts of ‘Tradiderunt me’ (‘They delivered me [into the hands of the ungodly]’), returning at the end. They are then picked up at the start of the final movement with another three shouts of ‘Jesum’ (‘Jesus was betrayed by the ungodly man …’). The end is yet another example of MacMillan’s ability to give his audience something which will figuratively send them to their knees. A treble solo emerges from a final impassioned choral phrase describing how Peter followed the crucifixion procession from a distance to see the end, and he sings a dying soliloquy, a lament, walking off stage until he can no longer be heard. This remarkable work leaves a vivid impression in performance.
Summae Trinitati was written for Westminster Cathedral, for the installation of the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols as Archbishop of Westminster in May 2009. Like Tu es Petrus it is scored for voices, brass, timpani and organ and has Coronation service ‘wow’ factor. The text is the Responsory for the Solemn Reception of an Archbishop, and the fanfare with which it begins made a huge impression as the new Archbishop entered the great west doors of the cathedral. There are three sections, the central one gentler and using MacMillan’s familiar ornamental chant.
Benedictus Deus was composed for the same enthronement service as Summae Trinitati and sets the appropriate Antiphon at the Installation of an Archbishop. An extensively contrapuntal work featuring MacMillan’s trademark ornamental lines, there is an impressively contrasting chordal section at the point where the choir sings ‘Blessed be he who has appointed you to rule on the Archbishop’s throne’, complete with quasi-Coronation harmony and a Monteverdi-like sweep upwards at the end of the phrase. At the image of ‘long years (of glory) in this life’ MacMillan writes such a lengthy series of falling phrases that were this piece not for such a solemn occasion one might imagine a subtle sense of humour at work.
Written in 2011 Ave maris stella was commissioned by Truro Cathedral Choir and is a wholly chordal, simple and highly effective setting of this Vesper Hymn. The ending has the trebles breaking away from the rest of the choir in a soaring descant. This is in complete contrast to Tota pulchra es, written in 2010 for the American Guild of Organists’ National Convention and commissioned by the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington DC. The settings of these words we know from composers like Bruckner, Duruflé and Casals are mostly gentle and reflective. MacMillan’s is powerful, impressive, rhythmic and dramatic. It is an outpouring of joy in an almost fevered dance. As might be expected for such an occasion the organ has a key role to play and the work ends with a series of fractured chords and a final blaze of B major on full organ.
Of After Virtue MacMillan writes: ‘This is the only secular work on this recording but its message is a warning about how certain readings of the secular can lead us to barbarity. It is a setting of the last page of Alasdair MacIntyre’s book of the same name, a landmark tome in moral philosophy and a profound criticism of modern moral discourse. He claims that older forms of moral discourse, especially Aristotle and Aquinas are a better guide for the common good. MacIntyre’s revival of “virtue ethics” has had a big impact on me.’ The intensely rhythmic nature of this setting, the imaginative humming colours, the ferocity of expression, the impetus given by streams of moving quavers hummed above the pounding text, and the wholly unexpected and mesmerizingly beautiful utterances of ‘Saint Benedict’ with which the piece ends, all add up to a remarkable tour de force.
MacMillan wrote Serenity in 2009 for the centenary of St Aloysius College, Glasgow, the Jesuit school attended by his three daughters. It mixes two well-known texts, ‘O salutaris hostia’, and ‘Serenity’: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.’ It is written with a school choir in mind and is a good example of MacMillan’s ability to write a simple piece without losing his individuality. The Latin text is sung to a hymn-like setting, the ‘Serenity’ verses are sung to chant over an organ pedal point and the two combine in the final section.
The Edinburgh Te Deum was written in 1978 when MacMillan was an undergraduate at Edinburgh University and studying with Kenneth Leighton. He had formed a Schola (choir) for the Catholic Chaplaincy in the city at the invitation of Father Aidan Nichols OP, later to become one of the major Catholic writers in theology and liturgy. The Te Deum is dedicated to Father Nichols; never performed at the time, it was finally given its premiere in Westminster Cathedral in November 2011. The Te Deum is a large-scale setting intended for liturgical use. The whole of the first section is given to trebles (or sopranos), the cries of ‘Sanctus’ are given dramatic block chords punctuated by the organ. Here are the embryonic choral outbursts which we noted in the Tenebrae Responsories and Seven Last Words from the Cross. The ‘Tu, rex gloriae’ brings further drama before a slow bass solo for ‘Te ergo quaesumus’ leads into the gentle final section and a quiet ending.
Ecce sacerdos magnus was written for the Consecration of the new Bishop of Aberdeen, Hugh Gilbert. MacMillan notes that ‘I got to know him when he was the Abbot of Pluscarden Abbey where I would go for retreats. He is one of the holiest and most inspiring people I know’. The text (in Latin) is thus highly appropriate: ‘Behold the great priest who in his days pleased God.’ The motet is extremely simple (the vocal part is a unison melody) but is given a sense of occasion by a pair of trumpets which begin it with a chant-like fanfare in octaves.
The programme ends with the thrilling Processional on Tu es Petrus, a fanfare written for the Gospel procession at the Mass celebrated by the Pope at Westminster Cathedral for brass, percussion and organ, bringing us back to the musical material of the opening music on this recording.
Paul Spicer © 2013