"I have long been uncomfortable with the notion that contemporary music should have no connection with the world around us, that the concern to achieve integrity in the abstract is somehow an activity which exists in blissful amoral isolation."
James MacMillan's music speaks even more clearly than his words in making connections and enacting that paradoxical ideal of so much great art: the ability of the work to transcend the specifics of its origin and achieve multiple relevances.
My previous two essays centered on one aspect of the 20th century's avant garde MacMillan obliquely rejects. The 2nd Viennese school and the atonal, 12-tone, über-modern music of Schoenberg and his disciples--to Boulez and his circle of renegade ultra-abstract modernists--was certainly preoccupied with "integrity in the abstract."
A devout Roman Catholic, the Scottish composer turned 50 in 2009. He is one of the most vibrant and engaging composers in classical music, and though he has composed successfully in all genres--symphonies and concertos, operas, chamber music--he is especially beloved by professional choral musicians, as his choral output is prolific, and as varied as it is substantive.
That connection to the world around us is nowhere more apparent than in the miniature Communion motet he wrote in response to the Dunblane tragedy. A Child's Prayer is at the heart of the Chorale's upcoming Young Singers Project concert, and is one of many poignant entry points into MacMillan's world. The haunting 4' elegy was written following one of the first school shootings outside the U.S. In 1996, a gunman entered a Scottish elementary school and killed 16 children, a teacher, and himself. MacMillan's musical response was one of the most significant anthems to enter the choral repertoire in a generation.
The a cappella work is framed by a sequence of sustained 5-part chords on the word "Welcome." The piquant dissonances form an impressionist foundation from which an ethereal treble (soprano) duet emerges.
The welcome is addressed to "Jesu" as the solo voices lift the prayer, as if on gossamer wings, upwards: "Deep in my soul forever stay." The middle section of the piece features a recurring device in MacMillan's music--motives derived from Scottish laments--cries and sighs set as turns, mordents or appoggiaturas. The sole word "Joy" inspires a gripping page of music where the duet yields to the full-throated power of the choir divided into 6 sections. As the choir returns to the opening ground-bass like homophony, the angelic duet completes the prayer: "Joy and love my heart are filling/On this glad communion day."
MacMillan was born 300 years after Henry Purcell, one of the great composers in the history of English music, and famous for his austere ground-bass harmonies. No fewer than three exceptional recordings of MacMillan's choral music appeared last year. Two of them are by the outstanding British chamber choir, The Sixteen. And one of those is a live recording pairing MacMillan and Purcell. In addition to A Child's Prayer, MacMillan's stunning motet, O bone Jesu, is featured alongside two other Latin motets from his collection dedicated to the Strathclyde University choir.
The Sixteen commissioned O bone Jesu and first programmed and recorded it with the 16th century work that inspired it, by MacMillan's Scottish "ancestor" Robert Carver. Carver's 19-part setting of O bone Jesu features 20 repetitions of the word "Jesu," each followed by silence giving the congregants time to bow their heads. And while MacMillan's sacred works speak directly to the heart of the Christian faith, that faith is not a prerequisite to an appreciation or response to his music. Still, it is fascinating to notice how listeners--regardless of creed or culture--often describe the experience of certain types of classical music. "Numinous" and "transcendent" and "mystical"--all terms with religious connotations--are assigned to composers from Bach and Beethoven, to Mahler and Messiaen.
In a recent lecture, MacMillan made a similar observation:
"Even in our post-religious secular society, occasionally even the most agnostic and sceptically inclined music lovers will lapse into spiritual terminology to account for the impact of music in their lives. Many people will still refer to music as the most spiritual of the arts."
I couldn't agree more. And his secular works are as committed and engaged as the sacred works like A Child's Prayer. Following Benjamin Britten--whose pacifism inspired "music of conscience" [my term for works connected to social, historical &/or political events] MacMillan belies the notion that great art must be abstract, and created "for its own sake."
His orchestral masterpiece, The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie, is a case in point. Isobel Gowdie was a 17th century Scottish woman accused and tried for witchcraft. MacMillan's symphonic poem depicts the inflammatory nature of such trials while working on a purely musical level as a contemporary example of an orchestral form beloved by composers since the 19th century. One can listen to this work and make associative leaps to modern day witch-hunts (like Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible--an allegory for the McCarthy era) and one can listen to it as work of symphonic music, significant for purely aesthetic reasons. Either way, it is well worth the time!
And that brings me to the title phrase of this little essay on one of my favorite composers from any period.
"The serious, open and active form of listening necessary for classical music could be said to be analogous to contemplation, meditation or even prayer, in the way it demands our time."
The first and last phrases concern me most. The "open and active" listening that "demands our time." That is one of the points I have been repeating incessantly to my Young Singers, as they prepare for concerts next weekend of MacMillan's work in a concert devoted to "music of conscience." It has been a challenging process as it is a demanding program.
And while we have been working on a program--largely built around MacMillan's motet--one of the Young Singers Project mentors and our dear friends is in critical condition following bypass surgery. The other recording by The Sixteen is dedicated to Padre Pio's Prayer. Padre Pio was canonized in 2002, and since his death in 1968, his tomb in Italy is the 2nd most popular Christian shrine in the world. MacMillan's setting of this beloved prayer charts a journey from fear and anxiety to "warmth, confidence...and peace."
The direct and earnest prayer, with the recurring petition, "Stay with me" is a favorite of the founder of the Genesis Foundation. This charitable arts organization commissioned MacMillan and two other British composers, Roxanna Panufknik and Will Todd to compose choral settings of Pio's prayer.
Over 1000 miracles have been claimed on Padre Pio's behalf. Our arts community is united in love and support for our friend, as we hope for another. And while we wait, the connection between music and life is more palpable and vital than ever.