Psalm 51:3-21 (L)
Choral level of difficulty: 4 (5 greatest)
This is a big piece and intended for a high achieving group (the premiere was given by The Sixteen). The psalm MacMillan sets in Latin is the same as that set by Allegri which has become so popular: ‘Have mercy upon me, O God, according to they great mercy’.
MacMillan’s beautiful setting mirrors the words in all their variety and colour with great drama at one end and melting beauty at the other. He also has a section of free chant (in harmony) which divides the work in two and provides an extraordinary aural shift before bringing back the opening material in a different key and different voices but with the same ‘desolate and cold’ expression marking. The ending, coming out of more chant but this time with ‘wistful’ soprano, alto and bass solos seemingly ruminating on what has just been sung, is wonderfully effective, building to a huge slow climax and winding its way down again to a beautiful E major cadence.
The notes are not particularly difficult to master in this work, but the overall conception needs a sophisticated approach, expert handling of the chant sections, good soloists, choirs capable of divisi work with good blend and balance, and a real mastery of MacMillan’s trademark melodic approach.
Repertoire note by Paul Spicer