Tenebrae Responsories is scored for vocal octet and speaks to all of every faith and none, of the power of love and redemption through personal sacrifice. Tenebrae is full of the instantly recognisable stylistic colours that are MacMillan hallmarks such as his use of ornamentation, placed on rather than before the beat, in the style of the Celtic folk tradition. 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 clearly evident.
For this recording Rebecca Tavener sat down with James MacMillan to talk about his choral music. You can download a transcript of this discussion for free here.
‘MacMillan's faux-medievalism is undeniably beautiful - especially in the seven Strathclyde Motets, handsomely sung by Cappella Nova.' Financial Times
‘These are performances of rare power and intensity.' International Record Review
‘...the beautiful writhing counterpoint reflects contemporary spiritual wrangling...' The Times
James MacMillan talks to Rebecca Tavener about his choral music ...
Rebecca Tavener: You have always been associated with music that has meaning, particularly works that have an historical, political, or spiritual significance, but it seems as though you are producing more a cappella sacred music nowadays, is that correct? Has it become more of a priority and, if so, why do you think this is occurring at this time?
James MacMillan: I've always loved writing for voices and choirs, with or without accompaniment, and it's something that became ingrained very early on, round about the time I was a teenager, when in fact I wrote the Missa Brevis. Obviously there was something very important going on there at school with the school choir and Bert Richardson, my teacher at Cumnock Academy, and that experience has lived with me. I have noticed, especially in the last five years or so, that the amount of choral writing, both accompanied and a cappella, has increased a lot, and there's a facility there that comes very fluently from me and I love doing it.
Rebecca Tavener: The music on this disc actually spans around thirty years of your career, so starting in chronological order with that early Missa Brevis: what were the circumstances of its composition?
James MacMillan: I was just experimenting on my own, I was 17 at the time, and I was hearing a lot of music and developing an early interest in song and also early polyphony. The choir at school was singing Palestrina, Lassus and Byrd as well as JS Bach and Telemann, and it just sparked something in me, and I was writing lots of things, but the one piece I really enjoyed writing was this Missa Brevis. I was discovering lots of 20th century choral music as well, particularly music by Benjamin Britten and Kenneth Leighton, and in fact it was at that time that I decided to go and study with Kenneth Leighton in Edinburgh after school. Listening back thirty years on for the first time, in some of these movements of the Missa Brevis, I can hear those influences, Britten and Leighton, and certainly something of the species counterpoint that I was trying to absorb as well: although it's not Renaissance pastiche, it's a form of archaic counterpoint given a modern flavour.
Rebecca Tavener: The Missa Brevis speaks in a very different voice from the a cappella music you are producing today: there is a ‘straightness' of line and a minimal/restrained use of drama that evokes the sacred music of the high Renaissance - the post-Council of Trent approach, if you like. How much did you feel the shades of composers like Palestrina and Victoria looking over your shoulder at the time you were writing it? How did you feel about it when you got it ‘out of the drawer' again? Having decided to revisit it and prepare it for performance and publication today, did you feel it needed any revision?
James MacMillan: Yes, it did. Just little tweaks here and there - it was like the adult composer helping the boy composer out, I suppose, but it's 97% the way I wrote it. It has always been in the background - I've gone through my life taking things out of my catalogue if I thought they were mundane or not mature, but there was always something about this piece that made me feel very proud of it. We sang the Sanctus with the school choir and I liked the way it worked, and I remember Paisley Abbey Choir singing the Sanctus under George MacPhee while I was still at school - it was very nice. On making a renewed study of it, I decided I liked it a lot and I wanted to get it out there so I tidied it up - really, I tidied up the Kyrie and some of the word-setting in the Sanctus, but the Gloria, Agnus Dei and the Ite Missa est (cf At The Conclusion) are as they were.
Rebecca Tavener: The Missa Brevis is probably the most obviously ‘useful' and user-friendly music on this CD, suitable probably for most good parish church choirs, but when we move onto your cycle of Strathclyde Motets the technical demands go up a gear, and we can also see a distinct journey in terms of the musical and technical devices you have employed as the cycle has progressed. Where did the idea for the cycle come from?
James MacMillan: The Strathclyde Motets grew out of ongoing discussions between Alan Tavener, Brendan Slevin, the Roman Catholic Chaplain at Strathclyde University, and myself. We drew the Strathclyde University Chamber Choir into an ongoing project at the Chaplaincy, and now at St Columba's Church in Maryhill, that they would come a few times a year and sing the liturgy for us and I would write a series of new Communion motets for them.
Rebecca Tavener: Has the connection with the University of Strathclyde in some way informed the way you write, or was this entirely dictated by the strengths and characteristics of Strathclyde University Chamber Choir? Has the scoring, se of divisi etc been influenced by the make-up of that choir?
James MacMillan: I think so. I'm aware that some of my choral music that has been commissioned by or for groups such as Cappella Nova, Westminster Cathedral or the BBC Singers, is of a technical difficulty that some very good church choirs can find quite awkward at times, so I wanted to do experiments on a technical level, but maybe dropping the difficulty notch just a little bit, maybe not as much as the Missa Brevis, but just enough so that good church choirs or good amateur concert choirs could have a go at without causing them too much stress. I also wanted to write music that would work for the liturgy - our liturgy at the University and also at the Dominican Parish in Glasgow - and which also might have a life beyond the liturgy, and also beyond the Roman Catholic Church, so that other denominations and even secular choirs would be able to take this music on.
I have noticed a change in style: the sparse, strictly contrapuntal style of the Missa Brevis has evolved, and there's a greater concern for colour, I think, and also a different approach to time - liturgical time - maybe because of having spent a lifetime attending liturgies and being interested in what a choir can bring to sacred worship, especially while people are in quiet meditation after receiving Communion.
Rebecca Tavener: Does their position in the liturgy, within the drama of the Mass, inform their style? It seems to me that they share, to a greater or lesser extent, a mystical quality - designed to hang in the air at that most mystical moment as people are receiving the host - do you think about the communicant's personal response at that moment?
James MacMillan: I think so. Having heard these motets in context, there's a kind of suspended animation about them. They don't seem to go anywhere, they kind of float as an entity, and there are one or two ideas that sort of ease into being and just exist, and then it stops. For that reason I have noticed a different mood and a different sensation about these motets.
I'm getting more and more interested in what liturgy is, and exploring what might work best for Mass, either in the music that I write or the music that I use, because I have my own little choir at St Columba's now. There are important node points in the Mass that seem to attract some sort of spiritual energy. One of those is the Sanctus, where the congregation on earth is united, as it were, with the choirs of angels and saints in heaven in a kind of cosmic liturgy. Something changes there, and of course the culmination of that great movement in the liturgy is the sacrifice of the Eucharist andthe reception of the Eucharist, so that in a sense the culmination of all that is this moment of reflection where the communicants and congregation are deep in introspection as individuals, and also as a community, reflecting on this mystical but loving union that they have.
Rebecca Tavener: There's a strong link here to the medieval concept of earthly choirs joining with the heavenly chorus - Hildegard of Bingen believed, for example, that this mystical conjunction occurred when all sacred music was sung. So far, you have concentrated on Communion motets, in other words each text is the Latin ‘Proper' for the feast concerned that would have been sung for many centuries in Gregorian Chant at the moment of Communion. Did you set out only to write Communion motets? Did you prefer those texts to the other Propers, or was the decision simply practical?
James MacMillan: I wanted there to be a common denominator in the first batch, but also the nature of the liturgy at the University and St Columba's allowed me to really explore the text at that point. I knew there would be silence in the church - Catholic churches can be very noisy places sometimes because of the children and all the movement - but usually at communion it is quiet, so it seemed the best time to have the singers do something a little bit more complex.
Rebecca Tavener: There is an obvious comparison to be drawn with William Byrd's monumental collection of Gradualia - is there a game-plan here or are you just seeing how it goes? Are settings of the other Propers on the cards? This could be the most significant British collection of Latin motets since Byrd!
James MacMillan: Well I am seeing how it goes! I'm sure Communion motets will continue but I'm branching out - one possible new direction might be a forthcoming BBC broadcast from St Columba's which looks as though it may be morning prayer - Lauds rather than Mass - in which case what I'd really like to do for the SUCC is a setting of the Benedictus, the Canticle of Zachariah, that's not usually set to music.
Rebecca Tavener: Byrd lived through a time of religious persecution and his music was the fruit of deeply-held faith expressed against a back-drop of danger. Those intense levels of persecution may be a thing of the past, but do you feel there are any significant obstacles put in the path of a Roman Catholic composer today?
James MacMillan: It's not just an issue for Roman Catholic artists, but we live in a time of renewed secular aggression about religion and a lack of understanding of the nuances of religion born out of perceived fundamentalism in a number of different religions. We live in a time of religious fanaticism as well, and the mainstream churches: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian etc, are taking the brunt of this, not just in the world of the arts but also in the wider world, and there is a kind of secular fundamentalism, almost as a counterpart to the religious fundamentalism, which has taken root in the public debate. This is very worrying and it doesn't make for a complex and nuanced understanding or even discussion about religious matters.
Rebecca Tavener: Does this have the potential to erode the church's traditional role as a patron of the arts?
James MacMillan: Yes, well there's a lot of suspicion about the religious artist but there needn't be, and in the artistic world music especially has always held a candle for the sacred right through the 20th century. Perhaps in the other arts they've gone down other roads, round corners and even into cul-de-sacs, but in music composers especially have always been on a search for the sacred - whether it's actually writing for the churches or not. You can detect this degree of searching in Shoenberg, Stravinsky, even in the work of John Cage with his interest in eastern religions, and in British composers like Britten, Leighton, John Tavener, and Jonathan Harvey and so on ... and you see it in eastern Europe too - when the Iron Curtain came down this whole abundance of religious composers: Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Silvestrov, Arvo Pärt etc. Music has always held this candle for the sacred and for that reason I feel quite confident in what I'm doing. I feel very much part of the mainstream rather than a kind of rebel.
Rebecca Tavener: You've also been producing quite accessible and simple Introits and Responsorial Psalms as you go along for your own choir at St Columba's, and we've included one such item, the Introit "Give me Justice", on the disc - it seems to us that there would be a great demand for a formal collection of similar congregational items from you, perhaps covering the major festivals?
James MacMillan: It is a distinct possibility - I had been thinking of gathering a full Psalter before doing anything about it but I decided that would take years. What I've decided to do is put together a collection of disparate items that I've written for the congregation and for the SUCC, and bits from here and there. There's stuff I've written for an Edinburgh parish: a new setting of the Our Father, a Doxology and the Great Amen. There's another thing I wrote for my eldest child's First Communion which is sung in some parishes - just items that have collected and they work for RC parishes and choirs, but I think they have a life beyond in other denominations as well. Choirs are always looking for something simple to sing and I can see these working in many different ways as well as fulfilling the need for quite elementary choirs to sing something new.
Rebecca Tavener: In a recent interview about your new opera for Welsh National Opera, The Sacrifice, you spoke of a liturgical influence on your operatic choral writing, has this influence been working the other way? One review of Cappella Nova's performance of Videns Dominus at the St Magnus Festival mentioned its operatic intensity, do you see any real difference in writing for a church choir or opera chorus?
James MacMillan: I hadn't thought about the cross-fertilisation of the two worlds, but I'm sure it must be there - I'm certainly aware of the different sound worlds and traditions, and was aware of the different sound quality that the WNO Chorus produces, and the fact that they would be involved in a very dramatic narrative - very much part of the action in the new opera - but I'm sure that some cross-fertilisation is going on. The big piece I'm writing just now is a setting of the St John Passion and there is a very liturgical influence occurring, with almost chant-like writing for some of the choruses, especially for the narrator's choir, but the composition of this has just come off the back of completion of the opera so it is very dramatic and theatrical. There is a kind of hybrid world, some conscious and some subconscious.
Rebecca Tavener: So there is musical baggage travelling around between small and large-scale works and, perhaps, unfinished business from one work that gets rounded off in another?
James MacMillan: I think so, that's right, absolutely.
Rebecca Tavener: When you use self-quotation it is not usually in a very obvious way. When we spot such self-quotation the listener is bound to feel some resonance from the earlier work. For example, you seem to refer to the ‘It is finished' chords from The Seven Last Words in Dominus dabit benignitatem, is there a theological significance there?
James MacMillan: That's the first time I've realised that, so it certainly wasn't conscious. Yes, I can see that it's there, especially in that similar repeated cadential formula. Now you mention it I can see it, although it wasn't deliberate.
Rebecca Tavener: Amongst the Strathclyde Motets, In splendoribus sanctorum stands alone in having a semi-improvised trumpet accompaniment. How did that come about and do you have plans for incorporating instruments into future works in the cycle?
James MacMillan: I'll certainly be thinking about it. This was the odd-one-out for a couple of reasons. It was written for my own little ad hoc choir at St Columba's rather than the visiting SUCC. That's a choir who come together because they love singing but who maybe don't have the skills of a regular group. Some members read music but most don't, so there's a lot of note-bashing involved, and so I wanted to write something that would be much more simple. It's a kind of repeated chant, there's not much in the way of harmonisation, just a couple of drones and a shifting middle part. There was a request from the clergy for a motet for Midnight Mass so I wrote a fairly virtuosic trumpet part and we got a student along to give the first performance. St Columba's has a beautiful acoustic and I think we'll be wanting to use it more for music and we might have students from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama involved as instrumentalists, which could impact on what I write in the future.
Rebecca Tavener: In the Tenebrae Responsories the level of technical difficulty for the singers rises perhaps another two gears! Your setting is madrigalian (in the purest sense) in its episodic, close attention to the words, and virtuosic - did you find the commission to write for eight soloists rather than a choir liberating from a technical point of view?
James MacMillan: Yes, in that case in particular I knew who the singers were going to be, and there's no point in shirking the realities of these commissions - that some commissioning bodies, in a sense, invite you to write for their strengths - their professional strengths and their virtuosic strengths, whether its Cappella Nova or the BBC Singers or The Sixteen. You rise to those challenges with the hope that the piece will have a life beyond the first performances, of course, but I think its important both for the composer and the choral world to have different levels of difficulty, and I've certainly enjoyed over the years
writing those virtuosic pieces like Mhairi that I wrote for the BBC Singers some time ago, but that still that leaves a vacuum for simpler pieces. As far as the Tenebrae Responsories are concerned, I was aware of the great historical settings by Victoria and Gesualdo and they overruled my head a bit.
Rebecca Tavener: How did you select from all the texts on offer? I think I suggested anything from the three great Holy Week Offices of Tenebrae, opening up possibilities that included all twenty-seven Tenebrae Responsories, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, penitential Psalms such as the Miserere etc. What was it about these three texts that compelled you to select them?
James MacMillan: I think I decided to focus on the Good Friday Responsories, but I didn't want to set them all from the same Nocturne (each Office contains three Nocturnes, each of which contains three Responsories), but I may go back to them in the future and write more. I wanted to spread the chronology a bit on the Friday by choosing two from one Nocturne and one from another.
Rebecca Tavener: Did you feel the weight of the great Renaissance masters who set these words bearing down on you at all? I'm thinking particularly of Gesualdo, of course, whose anguished way with harmony you seem to be making a tribute to in passages such as ‘et sicut gigantes'.
James MacMillan: I think I was very aware of that context behind me, also the Responsory texts have been with me a while. I even used bits and pieces in The Seven Last Words at moments where those texts are interpolated. Even in the Passion setting, as well as the St John narrative, I'm interpolating Latin motets at moments of reflection throughout, and most are from the Good Friday liturgy, and there's also an extra one. I'm hoping eventually to siphon off these motets so that they can be done separately. One of them is the Judas mercator which would also work on its own, and it came from the same experience as writing for Cappella Nova, the same sort of world.
Rebecca Tavener: What about more recent composers such as Poulenc? Was his influence present at all?
James MacMillan: Yes, I think he has to be. I've conducted some of his choral music quite recently, and he brings a different, non-British perspective, and it's important to remember this other world beyond the great wealth of British repertoire. In the 21st century now it seems as though the great 20th century French choral tradition of Poulenc and Duruflé has died, or is dying, which is a great shame. But now we have the Baltic states with composers like Pärt etc, so its important to be open to those different worlds. Poulenc's music is so colourful and expressive in different ways - there's a great joy in his music, and I'm very attracted to it.
Rebecca Tavener: This is not Cappella Nova's first MacMillan premiere, of course, it's the third, in fact. We were touched and delighted that the work is very ‘us', to hold much of our own history as a group in it. We found references, we felt, to The Seven Last Words and to the ornamental virtuosity of the maverick late-medieval Scottish genius Robert Carver - the latter particularly in the trio sections - were you thinking of him?
James MacMillan: I think so, he has been very much in the background of my thoughts for lots of reasons, but particularly since writing my own O bone Jesu for The Sixteen when I made a study of the Carver. Carver is such an important figure for Scottish music - he's the great Scottish pre-Reformation composer who gives us this wealth of music, and I think Scottish musicians hungrily look back to his music and that era as a time of great outpouring of fruitfulness.
Rebecca Tavener: This work contains a number of stylistic features that are appearing in your choral music at the moment, the most significant being the ornamentation which reflects both Celtic and middle-eastern traditions. This east/west feeling comes together particularly at the cantorial lament at the end of the Tenebrae Responsories but, as far as I am aware, these highly ornamented lines have been a feature in your work for more than a decade. Did this arise out of your interest in Scottish traditional music?
James MacMillan: I think so, yes, I used to play and sing a lot of Scottish and Irish traditional music, when I was younger, in a band that went round the pubs and clubs. I think that was a very useful way of absorbing that world and the musical style got under my skin. Initially I began by making allusions to it very consciously, but it's become more unconscious ever since, so it has got under my skin and I'm glad its there. But it also has connections with the middle-eastern world. The two traditions share a similar concern for ornamentation, which I'm getting more and more interested in.
Rebecca Tavener: It seems to be what the human voice naturally wants to do, a kind of inbuilt vocal instinct that crosses cultural boundaries. More recently still, humming is becoming a regular colour. In the Tenebrae Responsories I interpreted this as a device used to signify almost inexpressible feelings that go beyond words - was this a fair analysis? It reminded me at times of a work for humming solo octet by Rihm, Mit geschlossenem Mund, in which the composer was trying to express the voicelessness of political prisoners.
James MacMillan: The closed mouth thing has begun to enter my palate, as it were, and I'm trying to remember where I first used it. I think it might have been in The Quickening, actually, where there's a line that talks about ‘the dumb choirs of Pentecost' and I think that had a big influence. I also think it's a way of, in a purely practical sense, extending the palate and making another almost orchestral colour available to the choir, especially when you combine normal singing with humming so you've got a kind of background and foreground effect.
Rebecca Tavener: Yes, there's a particularly interesting and unusual moment in the Tenebrae Responsories where the sopranos are humming up high above the stave while the rest are singing below - the opposite in pitch terms of how these effects are usually created, but have I oversignified the effect of the corporate humming moments such as the end of the second Responsory by suggesting the ‘helplessly voiceless' interpretation?
James MacMillan: In the political sense, yes, it's more about pushing more and more possibilities out of the sound of a choir without going into perverse territory, I want these things to be a natural extension of what the voice can do.
Rebecca Tavener: You have now produced a vast corpus of Holy Week works in varied scorings such as: voices with instruments (Seven Last Words); orchestral (Triduum); a cappella (Tenebrae Responsories) and now the large-scale St John Passion. Do you think that you will be returning again and again to the narrative of Holy Week and its liturgies as a major ongoing creative influence?
James MacMillan: Probably. It certainly has been the case that I've been circling around those days in a series of different ways, not just the ones you have listed. There's also Visitatio Sepulchri which is a masque-type opera - I'm re-working that as a choral piece, actually - and then things like Fourteen Little Pictures for piano trio which represents the Stations of the Cross. I will keep going back, one way or another, and there are always new seams of territory there: the Lamentations of Jeremiah that you mentioned earlier might be something for the future.
Rebecca Tavener: What role does today's creative artist have in interpreting or promulgating the concept of spirituality in art? Is there an element of exegesis, like a priest interpreting scripture through a sermon, in the music when you set Biblical and/or liturgical texts? Looking at your back-catalogue, works such as Cantos Sagrados seem to have a subtext of Liberation Theology - was or is this still important to you?
James MacMillan: Certainly there was - Cantos Sagrados was written at the time of Busqueda in the late 1980s and there was something in the Church and the wider world about Liberation Theology: some simply call it the ‘preferential option for the oppressed', which has transformed itself. Liberation Theology has had its day and become an historical thing, but the experience the church is going through has been invaluable because it has reminded us of the central importance within the Gospel of taking the poor's side, as it were, and that's not a political statement, it's in with the bricks of the Gospel.
I think that lots of people, regardless of what they believe, if they are lovers of music, think of it as the most spiritual art-form, and I think that's absolutely true. You can see even in our own times this search, as I was saying earlier, by so many different types of composers with different world-views to explore the reality of what music as a spiritual art-form means. So for me, I'm just another of those people involved in that journey to discover, or rediscover, the sacred in our world through music.
My approach to text is very instinctive and comes from the kind of person I am. I never set these texts simply as a musical exercise, I am inspired or pushed to write the music in the first place by the text and its theology and its background, so it's absolutely rooted in the tradition - an inspiration that comes from the tradition and from the scripture and a desire to interpret it. I never want my music to ‘preach', and I don't use my music to push some kind of agenda. I am a lay Dominican and the Order is called the ‘Order of Preachers', and it is an interesting concept in a world where preaching is such a loaded and negative word that you have to remind yourself continually of the charisms of St Dominic. What he and others such as St Thomas Aquinas and St Catherine were about was witnessing the love of God through their own lives, one way or another, and you become aware of other ways of being witnesses, not just by what you say but also through what you do. What I do is write music, so in that sense I see it as flowing from a kind of Dominican charism, and therefore it's probably best to avoid the word ‘preacher' and see it in terms of the word ‘witness'.
Rebecca Tavener: Finally, can you give us a hint about any future a cappella works in hand or in mind?
James MacMillan: I'm actually involved in writing a few choral pieces just now, some with organ accompaniment, one of which is for a Presbyterian church in the USA, and there's a setting of a Psalm in German I'll be doing for Helmut Rilling. I'm also writing something for Nigel Perrin's choir the Bath Camerata - a kind of hybrid piece with texts mostly from the Stabat Mater but also bits of carols, actually.
Rebecca Tavener: Another Holy Week work?
James MacMillan: Absolutely.
Recorded in Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, 18th-21st April 2007
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Post-Production by Julia Thomas at Finesplice Ltd
Cover photograph by John Haxby, courtesy of The Art Surgery
Design by John Haxby