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James MacMillan (b1959)

Who are these angels? & other sacred music

Cappella Nova, Alan Tavener (conductor)
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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Recording details: November 2010
Church of the Holy Rude, Stirling, Scotland
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: October 2011
Total duration: 70 minutes 41 seconds

Cover artwork: The Cloister of Fontenay Abbey, Burgundy, France (12th century) by
Bildarchiv Steffens / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Cappella Nova follow on from their 'undeniably beautiful' (Financial Times) Linn debut, James MacMillan's Tenebrae, with their second volume of choral works by the leading contemporary composer. The outstanding Scottish group have a unique relationship with James MacMillan, the composer having written several works for them. All of the tracks are premiere recordings, recorded under the supervision of MacMillan, whose fascinating conversation with Rebecca Tavener on his new works are included here.

Who are these Angels? includes the last of the Strathclyde Motets, seven of which were included on Tenebrae. Also included is the Mass James MacMillan wrote specifically for Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Scotland in September 2010, sung by over 150,000 people.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'Cappella Nova present illuminating performances which perfectly capture MacMillan's profound sense of the sacred, but here the sense of looking back over the centuries is especially strong … [an] essential addition to the rapidly growing discography of one of Britain's most self-assured musical voices' (Gramophone)

'Aside from being very rewarding to sing, James MacMillan's religious music makes such a refreshing change from what's usually offered in churches today. Approachable without being apologetic, emotional but with a sense of dignity, the best of these works can both delight and challenge … everything is performed with elegance and the requisite intensity, and the recordings are clear and atmospheric' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

'The small-scale choral genre often elicits some of Scots composer James MacMillan's most inspired and appealing works. This collection by the ensemble Cappella Nova, led by Alan Tavener and joined by the women's quartet Canty, the Edinburgh Quartet, medieval harpist William Taylor, and organist John Kitchen features pieces (except for one early work) written between 2007 and 2010. The album includes the seven pieces that make up the composer's second set of Strathclyde motets as well as individual anthems, antiphons, and motets, some a cappella and some accompanied. Among the most appealing are 'Qui meditabitur', whose eccentric but persuasive choral ornamentation makes it immediately memorable and distinctive; 'O radiant dawn', which has the chaste purity and clarity of English Renaissance polyphony; 'Os mutorum', which ends in the unfurling of a train of seductively sensual 'Alleluias'; and the luminous, serene 'Bring us, O Lord' … the sound is always clear and warmly present' (AllMusic, USA)» More
Rebecca Tavener: This is, in many ways, the resumption of our previous conversation published in the album booklet for Tenebrae, and that connection is emphasised by the inclusion of the second and final set of seven Strathclyde Motets. Looking back on this second set and on the series as a whole, do you have particular favourites or do any hold a particular significance?

James MacMillan: There’s one that I’ve heard many times, my own choir sings it and it has been taken up all over the place, and that’s ‘O Radiant Dawn’ – it’s on YouTube sung by an American choir, for example. The one I haven’t heard very often is ‘Pascha nostrum’ – the most challenging of the set – and I’m kind of interested most in the ones I haven’t heard very much!

The whole point is that amateur choirs should be able to sing them, but it’s good to have within the body of fourteen works pieces that anybody could do as well as others that people can strive towards.

The whole purpose of it right from the beginning, from the initial discussions between Brendan and Alan about how it was going to work and benefit the Chaplaincy, St Columba’s and the Strathclyde University Chamber Choir, meant it was a very special process. It gave benefit to the University as well – these are all institutions I feel very attached to, I have an honorary doctorate from Strathclyde University and we went to their chaplaincy as a family for a number of years – it’s been a very happy project for many reasons.

Rebecca Tavener: Did the Strathclyde Motets mark the beginning of a more focussed approach to liturgical music? Where does it stand in your output?

James MacMillan: I’ve always written for choirs but I would say that my more focussed interest began in the mid-decade, 2004/5, with a thought towards Roman Catholic liturgy: the state of it and its potential; its tradition and how I might contribute to it as a composer myself. That meant not just thinking about advanced and easy choral music but also very, very simple congregational music and how that fitted into the tradition. It got me thinking and reading a great deal, studying liturgy, reading the documents from Vatican II and realising what had happened in the last forty years, and understanding that the situation is still very fluid and that one can actually make one’s mark on the development of church music according to authentic practices, as I would now see it.

Rebecca Tavener: There’s a very wide range of styles and techniques in the set, from the cantus firmus in ’Lux aeterna’ to chord-sequences and rhythms that evoke the English Carol in ‘Canticle of Zachariah’, all given your personal creative stamp – is that part of the process, this interest in referencing the past?

James MacMillan: I think it is, yes, and now there’s an encouragement to do so because, when you do look at the documents, you realise that they suggest that one digs deeply into the tradition and draws on it for sustenance in the modern age. This is what Pope Benedict XVI is all about in his ‘Spirit of the Liturgy’, there’s an encouragement to regard high points of the Church’s musical history such as classic polyphony and earlier, right back to Gregorian roots, as a kind of paradigm for Catholic music, ‘the very sound of Catholicism’ as I have heard Gregorian Chant described. It can be kept alive in the modern age – a practical consideration, and also an ideological and spiritual consideration.

Rebecca Tavener: A review of your one-act opera Clemency described you as ‘MacMillan the Magpie’ – how do you feel about that?

James MacMillan: I don’t mind at all. I’m very open to instincts and influences from lots of places and always have been.

Rebecca Tavener: We chose ‘Who are these Angels?’ as the title track on this album for a number of reasons, not least among those being its mysterious and intriguing atmosphere. The idea of separating out a single voice (in this case two-part soprano and alto moving in homophony) to comment on more complex polyphony reminded me of Renaissance motets by Christobal de Morales such as ‘Emendemus in melius’ and ‘Andreas Christi famulus’. How did this work come about?

James MacMillan: It’s complicated – the Latin setting was written as a separate motet when I was seventeen and still at school. I tried to sing it with two friends in a local church and it then lay in a cupboard along with a lot of other material. I’ve been in the process of finding that music again, but I didn’t think it was ready as it stood – I wanted to expand it in some ways. Your mention of Clemency is very appropriate here because this music ends up in the opera. Michael and I were working on the Abraham and Sarah story and I wanted a scene of transcendence in the centre. The angels in the opera don’t sing in Latin but in a made-up language, a quasi onomatopoeic, sonic deconstruction but with also a kind of strange Aramaic influence thrown in, and so the only bit that survives in its original form is the ‘who are these angels’ phrase for Abraham and Sarah. In the opera its meaning is clear, but in the motet it is quite mysterious with the Lenten Latin text interrupted by the question. I like it in both forms. The motet entirely pre-dates the opera. It was commissioned for De Doelen, Rotterdam, by Neil Wallace (and Aberdeen University) and it was his idea to use the ‘who are these angels’ phrase alongside the Latin text attributed to St Augustine. He thought it might come from a poem by Rilke.

Rebecca Tavener: The striking string coda, imitating the cries of seabirds, is a sound as alien as one might imagine the true voices of angels might be, as opposed to the voices they adopt to communicate with humans – is this an expression of ‘holy/wholly otherness’?

James MacMillan: Yes, exactly! And the unknowability of God, as well.

Rebecca Tavener: Staying with angelic interventions, the polychoral motet ‘And lo, the Angel of the Lord’ was composed for Ex Cathedra – did they request that scoring to reflect their core Iberian repertoire?

James MacMillan: Yes, they said they could divide into lots of parts and do antiphonal things. I got to know their repertoire and obviously there’s a nod to the historic direction of the multi-layered music of that time. It’s a bit short and I’d like to go back to it at some stage in the future and write more of that kind of multi-choral/divisional music.

Rebecca Tavener: Another recent commission from an English group of long-standing is ‘Bring us, O Lord’ written for Schola Cantorum of Oxford. Alan sang with them as a student, so I know he particularly relished this connection. Your treatment of this anthem, with its profoundly moving text by one of the greatest of English Protestant divines, John Donne, seems very deliberately English, with a distant evocation of Edwardian repertoire such as Parry’s ‘Songs of Farewell’.

James MacMillan: All that’s in the mix; I’ve got to know and enjoy that period of music very much and it’s what choral singers learn as a very necessary part of the British choral scene, of course.

Rebecca Tavener: By contrast, ‘Benedictus Deus’ was written for arguably the world’s leading Roman Catholic choir, the Choir of Westminster Cathedral. It must be a total joy to write for that choir in that acoustic! There are moments of Bruckner-esque grandeur in this that seem to pre-figure the ‘Tu es Petrus’ you wrote for the Papal visit in September 2010.

James MacMillan: I’ve written a lot of music for them now and this was one of two motets I was commissioned to write for the installation of the new archbishop. The other involved brass and organ and definitely paved the way for ‘Tu es Petrus’. I was learning the acoustic of the building through these motets.

Rebecca Tavener: What do you think the true purpose of this extremely ceremonial music is?

James MacMillan: Well, here were two gloriously beautiful liturgies, one for Archbishop Vincent Nichols and one for the Papal Mass, and they needed to have a special start. These motets had to encapsulate the grandeur and the glory of the moment right from the beginning and maintain it. I’ve always loved Westminster Cathedral – the place, the music and what it represents – a standard bearer for Catholic choral music in the UK in spite of many efforts to dislodge the tradition.

Rebecca Tavener: It ends on a somewhat introspective note with a decorative figure in the alto, all coming down to pianissimo. Is this a reminder that it’s about the glorification of the office and not the man, a bit like the person standing in a Roman general’s chariot during a triumph declaiming ‘remember Caesar, thou art mortal’?

James MacMillan: Yes, there’s got to be some humility in all of this. Otherwise these people could get a bit carried away with themselves!

Rebecca Tavener: ‘Tota pulchra es’ was written for the 2010 National Convention of the American Guild of Organists, Washington DC, and commissioned by the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. How did that come about?

James MacMillan: This goes back a long way – I was talking to the Guild of Organists for years about a commission, but I think it all crystallised when I went to the Basilica: I know some of the music people there, so maybe they steered the commission in a particular direction.

Rebecca Tavener: One of the most interesting things about it as a Marian work is its extreme forcefulness, unlike other famous settings such as Duruflé’s, for example.

James MacMillan: I don’t know why that is, I sometimes see things in slightly oblique ways. ‘Christus vincit’, for example, became a serene prayer rather than a prayer of triumph – and perhaps the opposite was happening here, it’s a very beautiful text but it can have a kind of glorious, joyful beauty.

Rebecca Tavener: The subject of prayer through music brings us neatly to the Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman. The back story about its sticky start in Scotland is in the public domain, from your own blog to a plethora of articles and news stories and, as we speak, the Missal is not yet published so it’s too early to assess the popularity of your setting.

James MacMillan: The new Missal will be in use from Autumn 2011 and the Mass is already in use in pockets thanks to the Papal services in Scotland and England in 2010.

Rebecca Tavener: Did the controversy expose a lack of musical confidence and ambition in the Scottish Catholic Church?

James MacMillan: Yes, I think so, and the Scottish church seems to be just a little bit behind everywhere else. The fact that Benedict XVI does represent a huge shift in liturgical thinking hasn’t quite filtered through yet – it will, but it might take longer here than in other places.

Rebecca Tavener: The new translation, how is it for the composer?

James MacMillan: I think it’s great, I’m really excited about the new translation – it has more beautiful language, the ‘Gloria’ is much better and I’m going to enjoy working on it in other settings. With settings of the Mass it’s a case of getting them right, making them in accordance with what Catholic liturgy means. I’ve now re-worked my St Anne’s Mass to take in these changes.

Rebecca Tavener: Moving on to the music, it would probably be perverse not to begin by introducing the elephant in the room, the quotation from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in the ‘Kyrie’.

James MacMillan: The starting point for this was my St John Passion from which this is a little spin-off. It goes back to Roger Scruton’s book on Wagner and Tristan Death and the Devoted Heart – Sex and the Sacred where he makes the point that we normally think of Wagner’s most overtly religious moment as the big Eucharistic scene in Act I of Parsifal, but there’s another in Act I of Tristan where the two principals lose themselves to love through the love-drink – this is a focus of Christian Theological considerations as well as lots of musical concepts, and the fact that this work is notably right at the beginning of modernity. I’m sure that’s why Messiaen became infatuated with the Tristan myth and began to run with it in his own work as a Catholic composer, hence the Tristan Trilogy: Turangalila, Haravi and Cinque Réchants, and Tristan is almost imbued in his thinking as a theological composer.

Rebecca Tavener: Anything to do with Wagner carries a load of ‘baggage’, do you want that to become part of the individual’s response or would you rather they left it at the door when they enter the church or concert-hall?

James MacMillan: Anything we can do to salvage Wagner’s reputation from that baggage is a good thing – it’s very unfair that history has treated him like some kind of proto-Nazi – he was the same as any other German of that time in his prejudices. This is not the most interesting thing about Wagner at all. I’m much more interested in him as an unconventional religious thinker. His operas are full of human beings that are impacted upon by supernatural powers, in living dialogue with the Numinous, and that is a great consideration for a Christian composer.

Rebecca Tavener: Each section of the Mass has its own musical character, such as the distinctly Celtic organ introduction to the ‘Sanctus’.

James MacMillan: I’ve tried to make each section very different, and there is a line of thinking that suggests that this is the way a setting of the Ordinary ought to be. In some circumstances the long introduction to the ‘Sanctus’ might be too much, so I’ve done a little ossia in the latest version so that the words can lead on more immediately if need be. A more solemn occasion would use the full introduction: you’ve got to be flexible with these things. There’s a kind of liturgical police force out there that’s watching your every move, unfortunately, and that long introduction has been a bone of contention. They’ve picked holes on lots of elements, the choral ending to the ‘Sanctus’, for example, and the fact that the congregation stops singing as the choir continues – why not? Where is there a Vatican document saying you can’t have that?

Rebecca Tavener: Another work with a congregational part is the ‘Advent Antiphon’, I believe it’s an early work?

James MacMillan: It might be as much as twenty years old, it prefigures ‘A New Song’ and I re-used the melody for that as it was just lying there!

Rebecca Tavener: Do I catch a hint of Seven Last Words in there, too, and is it fair to call it a sketch?

James MacMillan: Well, I didn’t know that at the time, but a lot of what I wrote does become sketches for bigger pieces, one way or another. The first time we used it was for the Chaplaincy when Gilbert Markus was still pastor there, done very simply with me taking the cantor’s part. The text changes from antiphon to antiphon, eight in total, four entrance antiphons and four communion antiphons, but the music stays the same. We used it every Advent for a few years, but it dropped out of use when we moved to St Columba’s because the people there at the time wanted hymns (things have changed now) – hymns are not really a Catholic tradition at Mass – the whole point was to re-introduce what the church needs for its liturgy. If you open up the Missal it says ‘entrance antiphon’, so why are we not using them?

Rebecca Tavener: St Columba’s is your family church and ‘Think of how God loves you’ was written for an important family occasion there, I believe.

James MacMillan: It was first sung for my grand-daughter’s baptism and I just looked at what the Missal listed for that day and put these two texts together – it can actually be included in a number of different liturgies and we use it quite a lot now at St Columba’s.

Rebecca Tavener: That brings me to a general question about the purpose of music in worship, both participatory and non-participatory, and current issues including the problem of non-singing congregations and a ‘them and us’ attitude to professionalism in church music. As a composer so much concerned with practical liturgical music, do you think there is a genuine crisis and is that mirrored by cultural vandalism in society?

James MacMillan: Yes, well the whole crisis in Catholic church music has been shaped by what’s been going on in the secular world – the anti-elitism that took hold in much of the clergy in the 1960s completely mirrored what was going on politically, and I think the Church should be above that – it should see beyond the narrow and transient concerns of political debate – I’m not saying that I don’t have any sympathy with those attitudes, but the church has to see a bigger picture. On the question of professionalism, I think the church needs to re-think its whole attitude – there’s a disdain even amongst clergy for clerical professionalism! The whole problem in Scotland regarding liturgy is that an amateur, almost slapdash approach is all that’s required – anything that’s done with care, focus and skill is seen as somehow off-putting to people and it’s not, we could learn a lot from the Protestants, perhaps?

Rebecca Tavener: I think there are plenty of Protestants with similar concerns and that these issues need to be faced up to across the denominational spectrum. I’d like to finish, as I did last time, by asking about what’s coming next?

James MacMillan: There are lots of things on the go: I’m just beginning to think about a St Luke Passion, for example.

Postscript: As I was leaving, the composer gave me copies of the newly printed sets of Strathlclyde Motets and his new, a cappella Missa Dunelmi. Glancing through the score at home, it fell open at the centre page and the first thing I saw was the melody of ‘Think of how God loves you’ in the treble part of the ‘Gloria’ – more evidence of the time-honoured creative practice of self-borrowing.

Linn Records © 2011

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