was written for the 150th anniversary celebrations of St Aloysius’ College in Glasgow, the school MacMillan’s children attended. St Aloysius is an independent Catholic school founded in 1859 which has a spacious, domed neo-baroque chapel. MacMillan’s work is a setting of two texts: one by St Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) in Latin, and the other attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) in English. The Aquinas text is a well-known Benediction hymn and Niebuhr’s famous prayer, universally known as ‘Serenity’, gives MacMillan his title. The first section setting Aquinas’s words is a good example of MacMillan’s ability to write a straightforward setting. Indeed, MacMillan uses the piece frequently with his own church choir in Glasgow. It is, in effect, harmonized chant doubled by the organ. In the second section, to Neibuhr’s words, the sopranos sing an ornamented chant—unmistakeably redolent of MacMillan—over an organ pedal point. This pairing is repeated, with the ‘O salutaris hostia’ hymn acting as a refrain between verses of Neibuhr’s ‘Serenity’. In the last verse the sopranos descant the three key words of the opening of the poem—‘serenity, courage, wisdom’—over the lower voices, which sing a Latin doxology in unison using the melody given to the Latin words throughout. As the descant dies away so the Latin words grow to a strong conclusion and the organ carries the anthem loudly to its end.
from notes by Paul Spicer © 2011