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James MacMillan: A European Requiem and Stabat Mater

(June 2016)

James MacMillan introduces two new works for choir and orchestra, premiered at the Oregon Bach Festival and a Barbican day of his music in London.

What aspects of the Requiem led you to compose the new work?
The concert form of the Requiem, as it developed from the 19th century, is a particularly European phenomenon that composers have turned to when they identify with a sense of loss, often as much within themselves as prompted by a specific death. That’s the case with my work, which is not a memorial for a loved one but rather a general response to the realism and vivid colours of the text.

Why do you call it A European Requiem?
I was thinking about what cultural heritage other composers have tried to capture in their Requiems. For instance Brahms stepped out of line to use German texts overtly in Ein deutsches Requiem, and in some respects I wanted to go the other way, from vernacular back to Latin as a lingua franca. It was the language used by the European founding fathers, whether in Roman times or in the Church, and provided a source of common identity for a millennium and a half, in international relations, education and the sharing of ideas.

So, do you see the use of Latin today as counter-cultural?
Setting texts in a ‘dead’ language may seem that to many, but for me it is very much alive and represents the ideal rediscovering of shared roots. I also wanted to capture a certain wistfulness that the echoes of these deep cultural resonances are becoming less distinct as the centuries pass and we’re challenged by questions about our European identity as never before.

Do you view the composition in a liturgical context?
No. I may write a liturgically focussed Requiem in the future, but this is much more symphonic in concept. I’ve largely avoided building the material from Gregorian plainsong, though allusions to chant inevitably surface as we approach the final In Paradisum (Chorus Angelorum). It’s cast in a single, continuous movement, moving between the sections of text via linking orchestral episodes.

The Stabat Mater seems a text you’ve been circling in preparation for your new work.
That’s true. In my St John Passion it crops up where Mary addresses her Son on the Cross and their life together is complete – we hear both the sound of a mother comforting her new-born son and her cry of pain as she watches him die. I also quote the Stabat Mater at the beginning of my opera Inés de Castro, where the Latin text provides an anxious underlay to a choral scene where the Portuguese people are gathering for prayer under the looming threat of war with the Spanish. So there are twin aspects to this 13th century hymn: on the one hand the very human relationship of parent and child and, on the other, Mary as an intercessor between Man and God.

Were there particular models you had in mind?
I seem to have grown up with the Stabat Mater, singing it as a boy, and having my perception of the Crucifixion coloured by its beauty and sadness. There are many great musical settings from history by Josquin, Palestrina, Pergolesi, the two Scarlattis, Vivaldi, Haydn, Rossini and Dvorák, and from the 20th century there are settings I find particularly inspiring by Szymanowski, Poulenc and Arvo Pärt.

You’ve composed a cappella works like O Bone Jesu and Miserere for The Sixteen but this is your first large-scale score for them.
Yes, they also sang Seven Last Words from the Cross with me in Amsterdam in 2009, and that was the springboard for composing a substantial hour-long work. Stabat Mater starts with the cluster that ends the earlier work, and then heads from these dying embers in a new direction. I’ve set the complete Stabat Mater text with 20 verses cast into four movements: the challenge for the composer is the similar sorrowful mood throughout, so I’ve teased out the differences provided by words and imagery.

Have your working relationships with The Sixteen and the Britten Sinfonia shaped the composition?
Knowing the singers and the string players personally had a major impact on the score. For instance I was aware that The Sixteen’s singers often perform as soloists as well as chorally, which has allowed me to move from tutti to solo sections, with divisi sopranos tumbling over each other, or a section highlighting the four tenor voices alone. Harry Christophers and the performers also understand my style intimately, so the premiere of Stabat Mater should be ideal from a composer’s perspective.

Interviewed by David Allenby


James MacMillan
A European Requiem (2015) 30’
for counter-tenor (or alto) and baritone soli, mixed chorus and orchestra
Commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival

2 July 2016 (world premiere)
Silva Concert Hall, Oregon
Christopher Ainslie/Morgan Smith/Berwick Chorus and Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra/Matthew Halls


Stabat Mater
(2015) 60’
for chorus and string orchestra
Commissioned by the Genesis Foundation for Harry Christophers and The Sixteen

15 October 2016 (world premiere)
Barbican, London
The Sixteen/Britten Sinfonia/Harry Christophers


> Further information on Work: Stabat Mater

Photo: Richard Campbell

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