James MacMillan — Since it was the day of Preparation…

mi0004072841I’m loath to review music because of how difficult it is to describe, especially as a layperson. Yet in this work composer James MacMillan has taken on the opposite challenge: how to explain one of the most remarkable and confounding texts through music. Somehow, he does so with incredible clarity and majesty, in what is one of the greatest sacred works in decades.

Since it was the day of Preparation… depicts the burial and Resurrection of Christ, and the sightings and miracles that came after. The text is taken word-for-word from the bible (RSV, not Latin), giving musical context to what is a difficult biblical passage to comprehend. What are we to make of the fact that so many miracles were left untold, for instance? The Gospel of John, from which the words are taken, ends incredibly: ‘But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written’. As if the story up to that point were not mysterious enough.

I say this as someone who is yet unable to believe in God. The Resurrection is perhaps an even stranger story to me, then, as it’s so outside the secular world I live in. But it is through music like this that I find myself tentatively rediscovering Christianity, or at least desiring it, having been born into a kind of limp, undefined Catholicism. This is what music is best at — conveying and compelling one towards the mysterious.

MacMillan has said that it is a stranger narrative than the Passion, and that for this reason the music had to be stranger. But this doesn’t mean the music is weirdly dissonant, as one might expect. Rather, it owes its strangeness to the odd instrument choices, and the beauty that comes from them. 

This is because the ensemble is surprisingly intimate for a story so great. Indeed, it’s the most miraculous of stories, yet the music is the opposite of what you’d expect: a small ten-person ensemble rather than an impressive orchestra. The instruments, performed by the Hebrides Ensemble, are a peculiar mixture: cello, clarinet, horn, harp and theorbo (a type of lute with a longer neck and, thus, a greater range). In addition there are five solo voices. The performance is remarkable, with an especially powerful performance by bass Brindley Sherratt, whose awesome vocals make it impossible for you to mistake them as anything other than the voice of Christ.

There are moments of astounding beauty, more so than any other work I’ve heard by Macmillan. Rather than flood the screen with adjectives, I’ve embedded an excerpt from the work. Christ is singing, telling Mary Magdalene to return to the disciples and tell them of his Resurrection. Notice how Christ is ‘haloed’ by the bells. When he first appears Christ twice sings a minor seventh interval — F to Eb — as he does here. Later, when appearing to the disciples, Christ instead holds a single note — D — but with the accompaniment playing D to G#, a tritone, or the so-called ‘devil’s note’. It demonstrates the Burkean idea that fear and the sublime are bound together eternally. Anyway, here’s the clip:

So few instruments, yet so much sound.

Every other movement of the work is an interlude, sometimes played by the five instruments or, more frequently, by a solo instrument. These are sort of like cadenzas, wild and virtuosic moments for each instrument. But each one is much more than an extravagant solo. The accompanying notes in the CD describe them ‘as monologues, or perhaps soliloquies; at all events, they provide extended points of deep reflection, both musical and theological, on the unfolding of the story’. The most beautiful of these is the harp, which follows when Mary Magdalene sees Christ, alive, outside his tomb. It wrenches at many dissonances, then the confusion and anguish passes and the simple, soothing melody from the last movement is played: Jesus is alive, and the mourning is over.

The piece ends in A minor, what always sounds to me, perhaps superstitiously, as the purest key. I often see it called the ‘natural’ minor, the sixth mode of C major. The music fades on a single note of A. Both mysterious and simple simultaneously.

I’ve listened to it several items this week, and am beginning to see it as a masterpiece. Even if that is too strong, this is undoubtedly MacMillan at his best. Recently he wrote a brilliant essay on the quest to rediscover the sacred in modern music. In this piece, he may have found it.

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A Proms Alternative

In my frustration with much of the BBC Proms programme, I keep devising my own dream concerts. This one I’m rather fond of:

Gloria Coates — Symphony No. 4

This is dark, slow, minimalist music. It is highly complex – buts its complexity masquarades as simplicity. She bucks the 20th century trend, where despite the growing complexity of works, they seemed ever less designed and ever more chaotic. Coates’ symphony is the opposite: comprehensible, ingenious, microtonal majesty.

George Tsontakis — Violin Concerto No. 2

Tsontakis’ Violin Concerto is a pretty concise work at just under 20 minutes long. But it is an immense and poignant battle between violin and orchestra. One of the remarkable musical achievements of this century. (However, this video of the third and fourth movements, the only one around, does not do it justice, sadly.)

Pyotr Tchaikovsky — Symphony No. 6 (‘Pathetique’)

I’m sure a million other people feel this, but pathetique is my symphony. How everything is ruined by an anxious state of mind, how one goes through extreme bouts of energy accompanied by much more prolonged periods of doubt, how – just like the waltz in the second movement – while everyone else dances to three, I dance to five, nearly tripping up at the end of each bar. This symphony changed all symphonies that came after. Symphonies became even more introspective. Instead of festive celebrations of the world around us they became worlds in themselves. It is so heartening to see that this performance has been watched two and a half million times.

The Prejudice Against Classical Music

Quiet seems rarer than ever before. Televisions blare, phones make these tinny squeals, car engines moan, people chat over the humming and grunting of omni-present technology; and others are inconsiderate of the fact that, when listening to music, many of us do not wish to be disturbed. Music is an activity in itself, and not a supplement to one’s daily activities. If anything, daily life seems hostile to classical music.

I’m starting to think modern society has, knowingly or not, designed itself in sharp opposition to classical music. The topic came to mind when I was listening to a work — a concerto — on my iPhone the other day, and it was described as a song. I hadn’t noticed this before. When I scrolled through my library, every track was in fact described as a song. Songs make up the bulk of popular music but are probably a minority of classical music.

This is a trivial example, but it gets the ball rolling. There is a clear divide between classical and popular music, and the latter has dominance. Popular culture has prioritised music that makes you move over music that makes you feel. The focused, intense and active listening experience is fought against at every turn. The listener is expected to do no work except to let their body react in whichever rude way it wants. Any music without explicit, pulsing metres and immediate accessibility is a big no, then.

The ‘loudness war’ is a side effect of this, whereby the dynamics of all modern recorded music is squashed and raised in order to produce the most bombastic physical effect possible. The dynamic range of classical music is a rude shock to many. It just isn’t as dense and loud enough to block out surrounding noises.

What should be a rude shock to many, but is instead the vulgar norm, is the importance of sexuality in popular music. Even in the most awful Peter Sellars operas, you won’t see a nearly-nude model twerking frenetically. This is so bad that it’s become a novelty in popular culture to see an not-so-attractive person sing well (Adele at the very beginning; at the extreme end, Susan Boyle). Classical performers are not only less sexual, but much of the genre itself is not at all visual either.

The emphasis on performers has denigrated the role of the composer. The era of singer-songwriters (despite the fact many don’t actually write their own songs) means that few understand and appreciate how a classical work is delivered — i.e. how musicians interpret the composer’s work and why that’s important. The worst of this is when someone thinks that classical musicians are dinosaurs, rigidly sticking to a score without any individuality and expressiveness. No, I lie: the worst is when ill-informed people don’t even distinguish between composer and performer.

Perhaps I’m being too much of a miserabilist. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. I must admit I was left hopeful a month or so back when seeing the Aurora Orchestra perform in the streets of Norwich. They are quite an exciting young orchestra who abide by two popular conventions: they play standing up, and they play from memory. A portable orchestra, as it were.

Playing in the gardens, a shopping mall and outside the imposing Millennium Library, they attracted a large interested audience who sat through the entire performance of the outer movements of Beethoven 5. The orchestra did not seem too out of place, and the public clearly enjoyed it. It was Beethoven, so the sounds of cars (although less of a problem in a city like Norwich) and pedestrian traffic had stiff competition. I was close up, so it was doubtless better for me. But still, with the noticeable background noise I didn’t enjoy the music as much as I had when listening to recordings at home.

What I did enjoy, however, was other people enjoying the music. A woman behind me was humming away to the fourth movement; I couldn’t tell if she knew it already or had simply picked up the melody. I yielded to temptation and joined in. I heard another woman, upon the performance ending, say to her friend, ‘luvly jubbly!’

As wonderful as this all is, many people were interested by the performance, I suspect, because it was a novelty. Towns and cities are not spaces conducive to classical music, with many lacking a dedicated concert hall. I enjoyed the event so much because such events are odd in modern life, because classical music is odd in modern life.

I remember walking back, and past the gardens at which the orchestra had earlier played. There now was a ghastly rock band attracting a much larger crowd. And gone was my flirtation with hope.