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Beginning with the blazing choral fanfare Blow the trumpet in the new moon, this programme explores the spiritual and secular texts that have influenced MacMillan over the years, and includes his monumental setting of the Miserere.
It is a setting of some joyful lines from Psalm 81, evoking musical instruments and especially the trumpet. I used to be a trumpeter myself and I try here to fuse the sound of the brassy fanfare into a purely choral sound, unaccompanied and full of extrovert and bold figures and passagework.
There can be no greater contrast than the beautifully poised Children are a heritage of the Lord, composed for the Salisbury family to mark the 400th anniversary of Hatfield House.
The setting of the Ash Wednesday tract Domine, non secundum peccata nostra was written for St John’s Cambridge and combines solo violin with the choir. The violin’s different roles—background arpeggiando figures, foreground strong pizzicato chords and longer solo leading into the final repeat of the first section gives the piece a sense of development through its rondo shape but ultimately leaving the choir with the last word.
MacMillan’s monumental setting of Psalm 51, Miserere (long associated with Ash Wednesday) was commissioned for a 2009 festival in Antwerp, where it was performed by The Sixteen, a choir with which MacMillan has had a long and deep association. It draws on many characteristics of the composer’s mature choral style, from folk-like melodies to Scotch snap rhythms, from bitonality to canonic textures, and from plainchant to dramatic and explosive expressions of feeling. The composer writes:
It is through-composed but structured in a series of interlocking sections, and bound together by a number of recurring motifs. I have nodded towards Allegri’s masterful setting by referencing the psalm chant found in his setting. However, my version of the chant is harmonised, once in a relatively traditional manner, and then later, ethereally and with floating drones. The opening melody, based upon a minor mode, eventually recurs at the very end in its major, with a sense of resignation and hope.
When MacMillan was commissioned to write a short motet for the enthronement of the Welsh-born Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2003, he set To my successor, an inscription by George Herbert on the hall mantelpiece at Bemerton Rectory, near Salisbury.
One equal music sets the prayer ‘Bring us, O Lord, God’, a poetic paraphrase by Eric Milner-White from a sermon by John Donne. Like the Vaughan poem, it is comforting vision of the afterlife. It has been set by a number of composers, and indeed this is the second setting by MacMillan himself, premièred as recently as May 2017.
The Scottish war poet Charles Hamilton Sorley was just 20 years old when he died in 1915 at the Battle of Loos. His harrowing poem When you see the millions of the mouthless dead, perhaps his ost famous work, is notable for its spare unsentimental style, and its stark uncompromising message. MacMillan’s setting was premiered in his home town Cumnock in 2015 on the centenary of Sorley’s death.
MacMillan is not the first composer to have been enraptured by Scottish folk tunes and poems. A born Lowlander, he chose to write his own folk-like melody for the anonymous Scots poem Lassie, wad ye loe me?
Domus infelix est was composed for the Cumnock Tryst, the festival established by James MacMillan in the Ayrshire town of his early years. The poem is attributed to William Mickle (1734-88) and the ‘lord’ referred to is Bonnie Prince Charlie.
The Latin text of Cecilia Virgo dates from the 1500s and MacMillan chose ‘to draw on the heritage of richly contrapuntal music from the sixteenth century’. The work is scored for double choir, allowing the composer to make full use of ‘the multiplication of voice parts, as well as the antiphonal duality of the split choir’.
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 soprano voices breaking away from the rest of the choir in a soaring descant.
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