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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