The symphonic tradition, and Beethoven’s monumental impact on it, is an imposing legacy which looms like a giant ghost over the shoulder of any living composer foolhardy enough to consider adding to it. Perhaps not fully knowing what writing a symphony “means” any more, some of us are drawn towards it like moths flapping around a candle flame.
My fifth symphony turned out to be a choral symphony, if very different to Beethoven’s. It came on the back of my Stabat Mater and was commissioned from the same source and involved the same performers. The philanthropist John Studzinski has taken a great interest in The Sixteen and has a special concern for sacred music. It was he who, along with Harry Christophers, suggested I write my own Stabat Mater. After that he began talking to me about how the concept of the Holy Spirit has been handled in music.
There are, of course, many great motets from the past which set texts devoted to the Third Person of the Trinity, and in the 20th century the one piece which sticks out is the setting of the Veni Creator Spiritus in the first movement of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. But it still feels like relatively unexplored territory, so perhaps now is the time to explore this mysterious avenue, where concepts of creativity and spirituality overlap? There is a real burgeoning interest in spirituality in our contemporary post-religious and now post-secular society, especially in relation to the arts. Music is described as the most spiritual of the arts, even by non-religious music lovers, and there is today a genuinely universal understanding that music can reach deep into the human soul.
It makes sense surely that a Catholic artist like myself might want to explore this in music, perhaps even beyond the usual hymnody and paeans of praise associated with liturgy. My fifth symphony is not a liturgical work. It is an attempt to explore the mystery discussed above in music for two choirs and orchestra. It began when John Studzinski gave me a copy of ‘The Holy Spirit, Fire of Divine Love’ by the Belgian Carmelite Wilfred Stinissen. It was a good point of entry, theologically, but it also called to my attention some visionary poetry by St John of the Cross. This line from the book in particular drew me in; “Even his name reveals that the Holy Spirit is mysterious. The Hebrew word ‘ruah’, the Greek word ‘pneuma’ and the Latin ‘spiritus’ mean both ‘wind’ and ‘breath’”, and these words provided the very first sounds heard in my symphony.
The work, to begin with, is less a traditional setting of text and more an exploration of elemental and primal sounds and words associated with the Spirit. The first movement is called ‘Ruah’, the second ‘Zao’ (ancient Greek for living water) and the third is ‘Igne vel Igne’ (Latin for fire or fire). So, each has associations with the physical elements connected to the Holy Spirit (wind, water, fire). These became vivid sources of visual and sonic inspiration. The fifth symphony has a subtitle – ‘Le grand Inconnu’ a French term used to describe the mystery of the Holy Spirit which I cannot find replicated in the English spiritual tradition.
Sound associations and impressions guided the choice of texts in each of the three movements and often dictated the overall structure; which bits of St John of the Cross to use, which corresponding moment in Scripture might amplify or reflect the general direction, which sounds to use in the orchestra as well as extended vocal sounds in the choir which were not necessarily sung. As well as breathing noises, there are whisperings and murmurings, devised to paint the required element from moment to moment.
The two choirs in the fifth symphony are a chamber choir and a large chorus. At the end of the second movement I divide these two ensembles into 20 parts, offering a parallel to the multi-voice writing of Vidi Aquam, a 40-part companion piece to Tallis’s Spem in Alium that I was composing at the same time as the symphony, and providing a means to continue communing with the English Renaissance master.
James MacMillan, 2019
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer.