Of the eight works performed here, six receive their premiere recording (only Missa Dunelmi and Invocation have been previously recorded). Cappella Nova has enjoyed a twenty five year association with MacMillan; many premiere performances later the choir has established an intuitive response to his work and a passion for his creativity which is evident on ‘Alpha & Omega'.
This recording is made particularly special because Missa Dunelmi is conducted here by the composer; founding director Alan Tavener lends his enthusiasm and expertise for the remaining works. James MacMillan provides illuminating and fascinating insights into his work in a conversation with Rebecca Tavener included in the booklet note.
They are joined on ‘Alpha & Omega' by violinist Madeleine Mitchell described by The Times as ‘one of Britain's liveliest musical forces and foremost violinists'. Cappella Nova's previous recordings, ‘Tenebrae' and ‘Who are these Angels?' were both named in Gramophone as ‘Editor's Choice' albums; the latter also received several five star reviews.
This is the third in a series of interviews designed to accompany recordings of sacred choral works by James MacMillan released by Linn, following on from Tenebrae (CKD 301) and Who are these Angels? (CKD 383).
Rebecca Tavener, soprano and co-founder of Cappella Nova, began by asking the composer about the background to the Missa Dunelmi.
Rebecca Tavener: What does Durham mean to you? I know that it is your postgraduate alma mater?
James MacMillan: When I was finishing my first degree in Edinburgh in 1981 I began thinking about where to go next to study: I wondered about Jonathan Harvey and applied to Sussex, and then I heard about John Casken who was in his early 30s – he seemed to be pursuing a language which, at the time through the 70s and 80s, one might describe as a ‘soft, English modernism’, that you can detect in Oliver Knussen to George Benjamin, something I was very keen on. I had been to Darmstadt and found it problematic. There was an ideological restrictiveness that worried me. Wolfgang Rihm’s music was played and booed every time – one of the major German composers! – and I think that’s still going on. I’m just back from Stuttgart and I can detect that there’s still something in the background there about ‘detractions from modernism’, as they would see it. Now, when I go abroad and work with foreign orchestras, I take a lot of English music with me – Benjamin Britten and so on – and I’m very proud of that. I didn’t realise it at the time but it’s part of a heritage of open-mindedness and openness to the past and a nonideological stance regarding what the past can/should mean. John Casken, I think, is still part of that and he was a very humane teacher so Durham was, in that sense, a very good place for me.
Rebecca Tavener: Durham Cathedral is not only the venerable seat of medieval prince-bishops but is also a sacred space that is very friendly to contemporary sacred art. How did this commission come about?
James MacMillan: When I was there as a student I wasn’t writing a lot of choral music and my connection with the Cathedral was minimal, although it was right next to the music department and I was in there almost daily, often having coffee in the crypt. It was only subsequently, after I’d written a substantial body of choral music, that the Cathedral got in touch – the choir had been doing some of my music intermittently – it seemed such a lovely idea to complete the circle as I’d been there as a student and to write for the Cathedral Choir was a great opportunity. I have lovely memories of hearing a lot of music in there.
Rebecca Tavener: Are you deliberately building a musical language to express aspects of doctrine? The Missa Dunelmi is fruitful ground: the re-use of the melody from your baptismal motet Think of how God Loves You appears in part and then in full in the ‘Gloria’; references to two of the Strathclyde Motets, ‘Qui meditabitur’ and ‘Data est mihi’ appear, and the Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman is referenced in the ‘Sanctus’. The ‘dabit fructum suum’ chords in the motet ‘Qui meditabitur’ re-emerge in Cum vidisset and there’s an echo of the Christmas motet And lo, the Angel of the Lord in Alpha & Omega. Those who know your works will be aware of micro-motifs, almost types of sacred leitmotif, that regularly occur in your vocal writing – what significance do they have?
James MacMillan: Some of these self-references are completely subliminal: the one really significant one, which you call Think of how God Loves You has an antecedent in Visitatio Sepulchri where it fi rst appeared at the climax of that work. The conscious self-quotations usually have a theological reason: Visitatio Sepulchri is a celebration of Easter and the risen Christ and when using it for the baptismal motet for my granddaughter, Sara, I wanted to have something of that resurrection aspect to go with her difficult life – so there’s a kind of resurrective theme running through that, too, and it’s there in the ‘Gloria’, that great hymn of celebration at the centre of the Mass.
Rebecca Tavener: The Dean of Durham Cathedral preached a very insightful sermon at the Eucharist when the Missa Dunelmi was premiered and I quote:
A premiere from an internationally known composer is always an occasion. Of course, history warns us against judging a work by its first performance: it will take time for us to recognise its qualities, appreciate how it will lend its distinctive accent to our liturgy. It’s only with the passing of years that you appreciate how well a great wine drinks. Music is not the written score: it is only truly formed as it is performed and heard and responded to. For like the liturgy, the readings, the sermon, like all the arts of worship, music has to be lived and experienced and embodied. Only then, as Beethoven wrote on the score of his Missa Solemnis, ‘will what comes from the heart go to the heart.’
James MacMillan has much to say about this chain of musical endeavour that connects composers, performers and worshippers. He writes about how he has come to his deep commitment to serve the church as a musician: ‘The God-oriented nature of prayerful liturgy emphasises our true vocation of being the people of God on earth. Through the centuries, in being involved umbilically with liturgy…musicians have proved themselves to be the midwives of faith…The ultimate goal is to make the kingdom of God palpable in the lives of many, specialist and non-specialist, musician and non-musician, for the poor in spirit as well as those who are more fulfilled in life…’ He speaks about the ‘mysterious power of music’ as being both central, and yet unnoticed, in the prayer of God’s people: central because worship is the most important thing we do; unnoticed because music is to inspire and enrich worship, not get in the way by drawing attention to itself. That is a rich account of music in its human, theological and spiritual aspects: how it draws out of us our adoration and praise; elicits faith and understanding; creates communities of belief and endeavour; embraces those on the margins of society. By bearing witness to the eternal, music is both missionary and mystical.
Rebecca Tavener: Had you ever conducted the Missa Dunelmi yourself before our recording? How was the experience of directing it in the sessions?
James MacMillan: No, that was the first time and it was a wonderful experience. Sometimes I do have an idea of how difficult my music is, although sometimes not until it is performed. Different kinds of choir sing it, from top professionals to amateurs, and it sounded very much at ease sung by Cappella Nova.
I keep coming back to the setting of the Mass: I’m not going to write more congregational settings but I hope to write another Latin setting in years to come, possibly with brass and so on – a festive setting. I have been writing individual Mass sections lately such as the ‘Credo’ for the 2012 Proms and the ‘Gloria’, and I’ll probably complete that in a ‘mini Mass’ I’m writing for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Junior Chorus and Orchestra, so I’ll write a little ‘Kyrie’, ‘Sanctus/Benedictus’ and ‘Agnus Dei’ and that may all add up to a mega festive Mass.
Rebecca Tavener: Your B minor Mass?
James MacMillan: That kind of thing!
Rebecca Tavener: There are four Marian works which I’ve placed in order of her Biblical and ecclesiastical chronology, beginning with the St Patrick’s Magnificat. How did that work come about?
James MacMillan: It was for the re-opening of St Patrick’s, a beautiful church in the centre of London, where the priest is known to me: a holy man, Alexander Sherbrooke, who studied in Edinburgh. This church is a kind of beacon reaching out to the poor and disadvantaged, and people come to St Patrick’s who are not necessarily ‘churched’, as it were. They’ve got a lovely music programme going with professional singers and the liturgy is very good. They’ve sung this piece in a variety of contexts, not just for the re-opening but also at Vespers and during the celebration of Mass when Cardinal Pell visited from Australia.
I have written an Anglican version which has been used quite a lot in the big cathedrals, and I wanted to write a Latin setting – I like to take different perspectives/angles on the same text, with varied languages and translations. I wanted there to be a sense of unity about it, so there are little phrases which bind it together and there’s a simplicity in that cohesion which I was attracted by and it kind of took care of itself.
Rebecca Tavener: There are two things that stood out for me: your characteristic Celtic ornamentation is one but there are also references to late medieval decorated polyphony reminiscent of Robert Carver.
James MacMillan: Yes, exactly, that’s been creeping in to quite a bit of my music recently, since I wrote the Christmas piece And Lo, the Angel of the Lord that you’ve recorded which I wrote for Ex Cathedra; they were doing quite a bit of multi-layered Renaissance music which influenced me and that’s something I’ve gone back to quite a bit now. I’ve just written something for the Oregon Bach Festival and I’ve felt a desire to re-embrace that sound – this idea of tumbling polyphony coming at you over and over again, relentlessly, washing over you and just washing you out – Robert Carver does this and it’s so compelling and beautiful. I’m always looking at the past to gather up little threads that might work for me and I love writing polyphony, not just for voices but orchestrally, too; being lost and swamped in polyphony is one of the greatest joys of being alive.
Rebecca Tavener: The concept of multi-layering brings us very neatly to ... fiat mihi ... which is actually an extract from movement seven, ‘Christ and his Mother’, in your St John Passion (2007). Is it essentially the same music?
James MacMillan: There are extractions plus instrumental lines that aren’t there. In the Passion there are solo viola lines that are quite ornamental and therefore not essential to the polyphony. There are also little instrumental touches that I’ve taken out and the coda, which is accompanied in the Passion, is a cappella here.
Rebecca Tavener: It has an intricate structure that packs an incredible emotional punch. The inner four-part canon – intellectual ‘head music’ with a Latin text – is at the centre but seems to represent a third party observer while the outer parts are the ‘heart music’; Mary’s plaint, rich with emotion, pain, sighing and an aching intensity of very personal love and loss – visceral music. You’re wonderfully effective at expressing pain in your music: The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, The Seven Last Words and Inez de Castro are all obvious examples. What, if anything, do you draw on from personal experience? Is it subliminal or even visionary in some way?
James MacMillan: I’m not really sure. I think it’s a common universal trait and it’s not personal – it’s not an ego thing – it’s an attempt to get down into the depths of a universal human experience.
Rebecca Tavener: You also have a powerful appreciation and understanding of the feminine in your Marian works, at least those aspects of which the church approves!
James MacMillan: I’m delighted to hear you say that. I remember having to sit through a paper once by a musicologist which accused me and the poet Michael Symmons Roberts of misogyny in our work which was very difficult. A lot of women in my works seem to suffer greatly and I can understand why an unresearched perspective might draw that conclusion, but it’s a wrong conclusion.
Rebecca Tavener: That brings us to Cum vidisset Jesus which was commissioned by the University of Notre Dame (USA) for a conference in 2012: ‘James MacMillan and the Musical Modes of Mary and the Cross’, at which you were the featured guest artist.
James MacMillan: Notre Dame has a very interesting set-up – they’ve attracted a very good choral director there, Carmen-Helena Telléz, and she’s got a great programme that’s beginning to establish itself. They performed the Seven Last Words at a concert and they wanted to take the ‘Woman, Behold Thy Son!’ section as the starting point for a new motet. I’ve visited the text before in a number of ways and again here was the chance for another perspective. As I get older I’m beginning to notice that I’m doing things two times, three times, four times, but in very different ways – and there has to be a different way – for example, I was just writing a viola concerto and there’s a little theme that keeps coming and I’m determined and excited about doing it differently every time, even if it’s just a slight tweak in the harmony. It is a type of play, a game you play with yourself: you can do it in a microscopic aspect of composition or in a bigger way, looking at how you revisit texts.
Rebecca Tavener: The most striking moment is in the last two pages where you echo the ‘dabit fructum tuum’ phrases from the Strathclyde Motet ‘Qui meditabitur’ – is there a theological link?
James MacMillan: Possibly – what do you make of it?
Rebecca Tavener: The bearing of fruit; the asking for fruitfulness from God; the fruit of Mary’s womb being Christ?
James MacMillan: Yes, exactly – these are just tenuous thoughts with me, but there are reasons, deep down…I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.
Rebecca Tavener: The fourth and last in the Marian sequence finds Mary in a universal role as spiritual mother to all. You wrote I am your Mother for Lawrence Lew’s ordination in Blackfriars, Oxford – how did you get involved?
James MacMillan: I’ve known Lawrence since he was a young Dominican: he’s a fascinating character. I was involved partly in his education because he invited me to be one of his professors at Oxford at one point – he taught me more than I taught him in the end – he’s very bright and I think that the future of the Dominicans lies with people like him. He’s also a great musician: he used to sing chorally and has a commitment to the deeper traditions of liturgical music and chant – he’s really up to speed with all that. He was the deacon at Sara’s baptism. We’ve become good friends and any time a clergyman of any denomination shows an interest in liturgical music it’s a gift because there aren’t all that many of them! When he asked me to write this for his ordination I jumped at the chance.
Lawrence chose these texts and I wondered about how to do it, whether to separate them or, as it turned out, have them sung concurrently. As you know, I’m interested in things like the ancient technique of tenor and I thought this was the perfect example to treat that way.
Rebecca Tavener: This is what Lawrence has told me about the experience, both of studying with you and of his ordination:
Anyone who encounters James, as you know, is struck by his gentleness and humility, which seems to me to be the fruit of prayer, contemplation and some spiritual depth. This comes across, of course, in his music but also in working with him academically. James challenged me to think pragmatically. For much as he enjoys the philosophical aspects of music and especially the theory of sacred music, it is clear that his concerns are also very practical: how are we to reinvigorate music in the Liturgy?
In many ways, the Mass on the occasion of my priestly ordination was a chance to try and implement our understanding of Vatican II’s vision of sacred music in the Liturgy. Accordingly, the musical backbone of the Roman rite is Gregorian chant, and so, chant pre-dominated the ordination Mass, and I think that James’ use of a chant cantus firmus echoed this and reiterated the Council’s call for chant to take pride of place in the Church’s Liturgy.
At the same time, one of our academic concerns was with how the musician as an artist, working under the creative inspiration of the Holy Spirit, might express the fruits of his contemplation musically. In employing a cantus firmus James situates his music within the great musical tradition of the Church, but simultaneously expresses himself in a very personal musical style that is distinctively his, and evocative of his native Scotland.
James asked me to suggest a text to support the words of Our Lady of Guadalupe which I’d given him. I looked in the Dominican Gradual for texts from Marian feasts and came across this beautiful 14th century antiphon which had been sung on the Octave Day of the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, Patroness of the Dominican Order. The words struck me as exceptionally moving, and a fi tting prayer.
Rebecca Tavener: Invocation was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 in 2006 as the prize for a choral competition. The text is by Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II. He was, famously, a poet and playwright – what do you think of his writing in general?
James Macmillan: I like his poetry. I don’t think his plays make great theatre: they are too meditative and exploratory of ideas – like his poetry, in fact! Some stand out as beautiful expressions of the human condition but I’m not sure how well they stand up to translation – setting ‘seismograph’ was certainly a first!
Rebecca Tavener: You’ve said of the work: ‘At the heart of the philosophy and poetry of Karol Wojtyla was the question posed in the famous text in Luke 10:29, “Who is my neighbour?” He answers it by saying that the “neighbour” reveals how I am a person, for he or she is another I. This is apparent in the text of Invocation to Man who became the body of history.’ There’s quite a lot of humming, is that the sound of meditation and refl ection?
James MacMillan: It’s partly that, but also I love to be able to extend the palette of anything I’m writing and if there were other extended techniques for singing that I could use without sounding like the usual suspects I would do so. So far, humming with open/closed mouth is the most natural idiom for me, I think. I like the idea of smearing in sounds that are non-verbal with the verbal: that is taking music that is text-led and providing a context with it that is almost instrumental, like an accompaniment – not just with chords but different sounds that have a delicacy that only the human voice can achieve. I’ve just fi nished a work that is almost all humming.
Rebecca Tavener: Invocation could be described as a choral madrigal because you’ve had to create new music for each line of text.
James MacMillan: Yes, absolutely, it is a secular piece in a curious way. It’s actually an arrangement of an earlier version for soprano and small ensemble with jazz kit, slightly like a cabaret song. It came about because British composer Dominic Muldowney and some others decided that the art political song was in decline and they decided to have a political cabaret night at the Almeida Festival. They asked lots of people to write a political song: I wrote this and didn’t let on who the author was and they thought it was a kind of left wing protest song! It’s upbeat, it’s a kind of statement of resolve about the human condition, and the fact that it could be passed off as a political song in über-trendy North London and might even generate sales of the works of John Paul II is rather amusing!
Rebecca Tavener: Domine non secundum peccata nostra is a setting of the Tract for Ash Wednesday commissioned by the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the founding of the college. An unusual feature of the work is the violin solo which supplies a wordless commentary, a response of pure, ethereal emotion, possibly symbolising an angelic observer; your use of strings to express pain is often very vocal.
James MacMillan: It is difficult to get the violin really well blended with the voices – I’ve been reluctant to write for this scoring again but your performances confirmed my faith in the idea.
Rebecca Tavener: Is the solo violin threnody you place at the end of the male voice section there because words are no longer enough?
James MacMillan: I’ve always drawn attention to Schumann as a source of this idea: he sort of goes into reveries at the end of some of his songs, just with the piano. As a young composer I was struck by that, and that after the words are finished Schumann will go off into these massive codas – it’s always lived with me and you can do it in so many different ways.
Rebecca Tavener: Alpha & Omega was commissioned by the American society Soli Deo Gloria, a non profit organisation whose mission is to support sacred music worldwide. Are societies like this much needed in the world?
James MacMillan: They’ve always been very interested in me: their main driver is John Nelson, an American conductor. They try to take oratorio to unusual places, China for example, so I suppose there’s something evangelical about them. They have commissioned a number of composers of various religions, not just Christians. I’m writing a Psalm-setting for them soon. I went over for the first recording session performance of Alpha & Omega in Chicago and visited their offices – it’s a great organisation and they seem to be involved in lots of stuff on both sides of the Atlantic.
Rebecca Tavener: There is immense power encapsulated in this short work: like a musical nuclear bomb. The score feels deceptively light and you wonder if you dropped the score on the floor whether it would make a great crashing sound!
James MacMillan: You’ve got to do that with these kinds of pieces: to get to the core of what it’s about almost in a moment. It sounded fantastic when Cappella Nova sang it in concert in Glasgow – it’s hard for a small group. The Chicago performance used 60 voices.
Rebecca Tavener: On the Soli Deo Gloria website they posted this:
After the performance, during a ‘question and answer’ session the composer remarked with characteristic humility:
The idea of the Alpha & Omega, the beginning and the end, is at once a time-related concept and also a numinous state. There is a contradiction at work in this piece: a heavenly, cosmic perspective that is timeless within a time-constraining piece. To deal with these baffling concepts within a piece of music is a challenge.
Is it always a concern, how to express the voice of God; to summon the sound of the numinous? At the words ‘Behold I am making all things new’ there is an intensely condensed, distilled moment which raises the hairs on the back of neck.
James MacMillan: Yes, and writing choral music is a distillation process all the time, in every facet, because you’ve got to distil emotion with technique but also meaning, with a quite unlimited range of possibilities.
Rebecca Tavener: Do you find yourself writing more than you need and then cutting back?
James MacMillan: No, it’s just in me – there’s something about the choral dimension that’s just there – it might be the most natural expression I have.
Rebecca Tavener: Is there something on this album with which you’re particularly pleased or feel is central to how we might understand you as a composer of sacred music?
James MacMillan: I think …fiat mihi …, strangely, although it’s quite different from some of the others. It opens up a vista on a number of different techniques and views on choral music that are maybe not explored as some of the more simpler things: it is more instrumental than the other works and is, perhaps, my way of extending the technique of choral expression – things that are out of the ordinary like the ornamentation – there are so many modes of vocal expression and aesthetic in there that it encapsulates everything.
Rebecca Tavener: To end where I began – are you deliberately building a musical language to express aspects of doctrine?
James MacMillan: I think so – whether it’s self-quotation or quotation of other things – there is an extra-musical dimension to it and there’s a purpose, sometimes a theological purpose, for the inclusion of particular references.
Linn Records © 2012