My 3rd Piano Concerto, The Mysteries of Light, attempts to revive the ancient practice of writing music based on the structure of the Rosary. The most famous example of this is the collection of the Rosary (or Mystery) Sonatas for violin by Heinrich Biber, written in the late 17th century. These consist of 15 movements based on the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries. In 2002 another set of meditations were introduced by John Paul II, the Luminous Mysteries, and these are the basis of the five sections of this concerto;
1) Baptisma Iesu Christi
2) Miraculum in Cana
3) Proclamatio Regni Dei
4) Transfiguratio Domini Nostri
5) Institutio Eucharistiae
However, the music here is in no way geared towards liturgy, or devotional in any accepted, traditional sense. Rather, each image or event becomes the springboard for a subjective reflection, and proceeds in quasi-dramatic fashion, not too distant in concept from the musical tone poem. The fusion of symphonic poem with concerto forms has long been a favourite pursuit of mine in earlier works. The music is in one single, continuous span, comprising five distinct portions;
1) A snatch of plainsong acts as a refrain around which the piano plays fast, virtuosic episodes accompanied by a tolling bell and an ominous cantus firmus.
2) Speeds fluctuate here, but the general mood is celebratory and dance-inspired. A more solemn chorale theme is heard intermittently on lower instruments.
3) After an initial flourish and trumpet proclamation, the general tone is serene and intimate, with a cantabile melody on the piano, decorated with upper ornamentation and resonance. Momentarily the mood darkens more boisterously before subsiding.
4) This fast movement begins in the lower orchestral registers and gradually rises, adding more layers and activity before a climax. Only then does the piano appear, with music contrasted and mysterious, accompanied by tuned percussion and harp.
5) The finale is joyous and rhythmic, framed by syncopated ‘dance’ refrains. This is interrupted by a more declamatory, incantatory episode, where the piano writing is more ruminative, freer and cadenza-like. In the final moments the opening plainsong idea makes a last appearance.
James MacMillan, 2011
This programme note may be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer.
"...a wild ride, overflowing with color and incident - turbulent, incantatory and, at moments, luminous."
- Larry Fuchsberg, Star Tribune
"...there's no doubt that MacMillan knows his way around an orchestra. His score is a cascade of instrumental coloration. There were times, for instance, when the performance shimmered in a tingling shower of ethereal voices... the piano's voice is often eerily doubled by chimes, vibraphone or other instruments, creating a sonority that is at times tingling. In all, it's a masterfully challenging piece for performers and listeners."
- David Hawley, St. Paul Pioneer Press