<dir=ltr align=left>The concert Requiem, as it developed from the 19th century, is a particularly European form 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 is the case with my work, which is not a memorial for a loved one but rather a general response to this vivid text, coloured by a realism and wistfulness at the passing of deep cultural resonances.
It attempts to fuse the Requiem with symphonic form in a single continuous movement, moving between the sections of text via linking orchestral episodes. As the work is non-liturgical, 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).
Whereas Brahms stepped out of line to use German texts overtly in Ein deutsches Requiem, it may be somewhat ironic that the language I feel drawn back to is Latin, which represents for me the common European language that existed before nationalist barriers were erected. It was the lingua franca 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. Setting texts in Latin may now seem counter-cultural to many, but for me it represents the ideal rediscovering of our common heritage.
James MacMillan, 2016
Commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival and supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Choral level of difficulty: 4-5 (5 greatest)
It was an unfortunate coincidence that the day after the British vote to leave the European Union (‘Brexit’) the world premiere of this work was given at the Oregon Bach Festival in June 2016. MacMillan has therefore had to spend a lot of time and effort insisting that his Requiem has no overt political motivation but, rather, was a desire to write a work in what he saw as a particularly European form which composers have turned to ‘when they identify with a sense of loss, often as much within themselves, as prompted by a specific death’. MacMillan has described the work as attempting ‘to fuse the Requiem with symphonic form in a single continuous movement, moving between the sections of the text via linking orchestral episodes’. He also states that, as a non-liturgical work, he has not used Gregorian chant although obvious references do surface in melodic lines especially in the In Paradisum at the end.
The scoring is for counter-tenor (or alto) and baritone soloists, chorus, full symphony orchestra with three percussion players as well as timpani and harp. The work lasts for about 40 minutes.
MacMillan makes the interesting point about the text saying that Brahms stepped out of line when writing his German Requiem in his own language but MacMillan feels more drawn to Latin ‘which represents for me the common European language that existed before nationalist barriers were erected…Setting texts in Latin may now seem counter-cultural to many, but for me it represents the ideal rediscovering of our common heritage’.
We have seen time and again MacMillan’s instinctive feel for voices, his wonderful ear for textures, his melodic genius often based in his mind on the contours of Gregorian chant, his wonderful way with harmony which can be achingly beautiful at one point and gut-wrenchingly discordant at another. There is everything here in this work from the shouted Hosannas at the end of the Sanctus and Benedictus sections to the beautiful eight-part writing in the earlier Requiem near the start, and the heart-breaking, gentle Agnus Dei in which time seems to stand still. The Libera me is almost frightening in its energy and intensity where the In Paradisum is simply beautiful. As always, his orchestral writing colours, balances, contrasts and supports the voices by turn and is always fascinating for the imagination it demonstrates. How interesting, too, that he would choose a counter-tenor as a soloist, rather than (by choice) a female mezzo or alto. This, surely, is also, like the use of Latin, a glance over the shoulder at the centuries of tradition where male singers would take these higher voice roles in sacred music and thus rooting this overtly contemporary music in a long distant past.
The vocal parts are not as complex as in some of MacMillan’s larger-scale works. It is the context which can make this work challenging for any but ‘professional’ symphonic choruses. But then it is likely that it will only be those kind of musical bodies which could afford to mount such a work with the necessary rehearsal time. However it is hoped that many such bodies all over the world would take this work to their hearts.
Repertoire Note by Paul Spicer