ON A cold and very wet evening in Cumnock, East Ayrshire, people were gathering in St John’s Roman Catholic Church to hear the superb choral ensemble Tenebrae under the direction of Nigel Short. Twenty minutes before the concert began, all the best seats were taken. Amid all the excitement, I noticed one person was sitting in silent contemplation at the very back in semi-darkness. It was, of course, Sir James MacMillan.
I pondered the potential synergy that might result from the pairing of MacMillan’s music with J. S. Bach’s, especially the Scottish première of I saw Eternity, designed to be sung in tandem with the Bach motets, which arguably represent the pinnacle of unaccompanied choral writing.
MacMillan introduced the concert. Darkness and suffering, central to the events of Holy Week, would be called to mind by many of the works to be performed.
The programme, “I saw eternity”, placed MacMillan’s new work, a setting of the 17th-century Welsh Metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan’s poem “The World”, at the concert’s emotional heart, if placed towards the end of the programme. Vaughan, an Anglican writing during the Commonwealth period, was certainly alert to darkness and suffering.
The programme was in three sections. Bach’s Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden was followed by the motet Komm, Jesu, komm. The central section featured MacMillan’s three Tenebrae motets of 2006: Tenebrae factae sunt, Traiderunt me, and Jesum tradidit. The final section began with Bach’s substantial and sublime motet Jesu, meine Freude. This was followed by the first performance of MacMillan’s setting of the first stanza of “I saw Eternity” and would conclude with his Miserere of 2009. At a first reading of the programme, the placing of this piece at the end intrigued me.
Standing alongside the first basses was an expert in British Sign Language. The church became silent. The lights dimmed. After a brief pause, the starting note was gently hummed. The 14 singers forming Tenebrae were quite superb. Here, I simply note the quality of voices, young and more mature within voice parts and across voice parts, the synergy achieved in the musical textures featuring a foreground and a background, the range of vocal techniques employed by MacMillan, especially in the Tenebrae motets, and the varied textures and scoring utilised by both composers. For example, the antiphonal opening of Komm, Jesu, komm was electric.
Short is an inspiring animateur, guiding, encouraging, and affirming his singers. They clearly delighted in his expert holding of the space. The attention given to communication undoubtedly stemmed from immaculate rehearsal and an instinctive response to the musical enhancement of the text. Yet that was not all. At the end of Jesum tradidit, a soprano sang a mesmerising solo and quietly left her place in the choir. She slowly moved further towards the darkened east end of the church behind the altar, and the whole of the audience followed her every note. Her singing then stopped. All was quiet, as at the end of Holy Week and Christ’s death. The moment was reflected in the face of two of the singers, a young bass and one of the tenors. They were fully immersed in the experience.
The Vaughan is distinct from MacMillan’s other works sung here as it is not the setting used liturgically or a biblical text. MacMillan sets the first of the three stanzas. From this text, MacMillan creates three connected and yet distinct sections plus codetta, the third a reprise of the opening section. The musical setting is characterised by internal pedal points and the repetition of key words set to simple melodic cells, for example “Eternity”, and phrases such as “like a great ring”.
One feature is the pairing of voice parts, introduced at the very beginning when the first bass and alto sing the opening text, “I saw eternity”. They present a lush diatonic melody. MacMillan employs unison voices in a simple but dramatic descending melodic sequence as he ends the first section with “And all her train were hurl’d”. The final cadence, like the whole of the setting of “while his eyes did pour upon a flow’r”, is of a gentle beauty. For me, it recalls the feeling of Parry’s Songs of Farewell, which also includes Vaughan’s poem “My soul, there is a country”.
Within the flow of the programme, the setting of Psalm 50 (51), Miserere, reflected something of the tension within Vaughan’s poem, between the divine and the carnal, darkness and light. MacMillan’s setting, performed at the Cumnock Tryst by The Sixteen in 2014, alluded to the place of plainsong in Allegri’s famous setting. This provided an uplifting and radiant conclusion to the concert.
The staff of the Cumnock Tryst provided a warm welcome and greeted the audience as they left joyously into the night. One small comment. I wonder whether next year the programme might have just a little more detail, including the names of the performers and the texts sung, with, if relevant, a translation.