for chorus and orchestra
Liber Usualis (L)
This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.
Royal Albert Hall, London
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Manchester Chamber Choir, Northern Sinfonia Chorus, Rushley Singers / Juanjo Mena
Choral level of difficulty: 4 (5 greatest)
This is a large-scale work but using a fairly economical orchestra. Perhaps surprisingly it is also MacMillan’s first setting of the Creed. As he has pointed out, musical settings of the Creed in a liturgical setting are no longer viable and so this work is conceived as a concert piece. As MacMillan’s programme note details, the Credo is cast in three movements reflecting the Trinitarian nature of the text:
The short first movement begins with a high intonation, evoking liturgical practice. Most of the choral writing here is syllabic and homophonic with orchestral interjections that are busier or fanfare-like.
The more substantial middle movement begins with a festal theme in layers of different tonalities and pulses. Some of the choral writing is now more ornamented and florid, and that is taken up by the instruments too. In the central section, at the holiest words et incarnatus est and thereafter, the choir is accompanied by three high solo violas. The opening fanfare motif returns in different colours towards the end.
3) Spiritus Sanctus
The final movement is the longest, beginning with mysterious buzzing chords, first on wind and then on strings. The historical hinterlands of plainsong, motet and cantus firmus are the inspirations behind much of this music. After the final Amen, there is a brief joyous coda for the orchestra.
As MacMillan has continued to change and develop over recent years he has also done what few composers of his stature have bothered with and that is to realize that a choral work will stand far more chance of repeated performances by a variety of choirs through making his demands on them reasonable. This is true in Credo. While there are plenty of divisi, and the choir needs to be confident and to balance with a strong orchestra, the notes are not essentially difficult for a competent choir. Familiar issues do occur which will test some. The canonic ornamental chant in Filius between altos and tenors, for instance. But these hold few terrors in reality, and familiarity with the style will bring knowledge of how to deal with the grace notes and ornamental turns. They should not be done so quickly that they can’t be heard (a common fault in performance). Pacing and tonal weight need thought.
There are beautiful passages in this work as well as dramatic outbursts and timeless chanting. MacMillan’s ability as a contrapuntist brings an extra layer to the choral writing (let alone the orchestra…) and the powerfully emotive unaccompanied section for the ‘Et resurrexit’ is a wonderful piece of writing. The dancing ‘qui ex patre’ in the final movement is electric and has something of the B minor Mass Sanctus about its triplet exuberance – and talking of the Bach Mass, the cantus firmus-like Confiteor in MacMillan’s third movement seems also to take its cue from Bach’s powered cantus firmi in his own movement however different the sound world may be. Emphatic and exciting Amens close the work.
Repertoire note by Paul Spicer