James MacMillan’s “Seven Last Words from the Cross” and “Miserere”

The Scottish composer James MacMillan is popular, prolific (over 200 pieces composed in the past twenty-five years), occasionally controversial, and unapologetically Catholic. He composed the settings for the Mass celebrated in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI for the beatification of John Henry Newman, and then later explained how his compositions were nearly rejected by trendy—if the Seventies can be considered trendy—liturgical experts:

Unknown to me the new setting was taken to a “committee” which has controlled the development of liturgical music in Scotland for some time. Their agenda is to pursue the 1970s Americanised solution to the post-Conciliar vernacular liturgy, to the exclusion of more “traditional” possibilities. They have been known for their hostility to Gregorian chant, for example, but have reluctantly had to get in line since the arrival of Benedict XVI. They also have a commitment to the kind of cod-Celticness that owes more to the soundtracks of The Lord of the Rings and Braveheart, than anything remotely authentic. … It became clear that my new setting had not gone down well with this group. The music was felt to be “not pastoral enough” and there were complaints (yes, complaints!) that it needed a competent organist.

The music, not surprisingly, was excellent. While I struggle to enjoy and enter into some of MacMillan’s earlier works (his piano concerto, The Berserking, for example), his choral works are excellent and often exceptional. As many critics have noted, MacMillan has a gift for seamlessly combining modern motifs and elements with the immediacy and accessibility of more traditional forms. He touched on this fact in this 2009 interview with The Telegraph:

What does he think about Richard Dawkins’ campaigning for atheism? “He’s a great scientist but a c–p philosopher. He’s a great deal to contribute in his field, but he’s become a kind of street fighter, who doesn’t think in a very subtle way.”

The real puzzle is how a man so wedded to “traditional wisdom”, as he puts it, can still see himself as a modern. I tell him that to my ears the music seems more and more traditional in its embrace of tonality.

“I absolutely disagree,” he says mildly. “What I’m trying to find is the communicative core in music, and that can be done just as well in modernist noises as in common chords. And just because I’m a religious composer doesn’t mean the conflict and stress you get in modernism isn’t relevant, in fact it’s the reverse. For me religious faith is rooted in the mess of real life, and my music has to be true to that experience.”

In this recent interview with The Guardian he discussed the threats to music and the artists and art that inspires him:

What’s the greatest threat to music?

The fact that our society is obsessed with the visual and the verbal. Film, TV and the written word are huge competitors for a reflective art like music. Music is a powerful force that conveys itself quite mysteriously, but it can be a battle to get that message across.

Which artists do you most admire?

Palestrina and Bach. Counterpoint teaches living composers so much, and they were the masters.

What work of art would you like to own?

Salvador Dalí’s Christ of St John of the Cross. I’m ambivalent about Dalí, but this is in the Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow, and I see it a lot. It stops you in your tracks.

Is there an art form you don’t relate to?

Mime has always puzzled me.

Indeed. Trying to explain mime can render a man speechless, grasping for words.

Speaking of words, there are two compositions by MacMillan that deserve mention during Holy Week: Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993) and Miserere (2009). The first was my introduction to MacMillan’s work  (the 1995 RCA recording, which I bought shortly after it was released); the second is the MacMillan composition I have been listening to quite often over the past few weeks, sung by the amazing Scottish group, The Sixteens. The earlier work is more obviously modern, with sudden stops, starts, and shifts, yet all at the service of incredible beauty and profound emotion. It is not an easy work, and it certainly isn’t background music. In the words of one reviewer:

Despite its difficulties, despite some curious choices (most of which become more logical upon repeated exposure), despite its stark nature, this may well be the best Anglo-American large-scale sacred composition I have heard since Adams’ El Niño and Lauridsen’s (somewhat sweet) Lux Æterna (both of which The Seven last Words actually predates). Far more inspired, inspiring, and moving than the samba, mambo, salsa-influenced, maracas-touting, semi-mediocre, pseudo-religious Masses and passions that have been performed and recorded in the last decade.

The entire piece can be heard (in its seven parts) in YouTube.

Miserere is more immediately and consistently accessible, and seems to draw to some degree from Eastern liturgical music, in addition to the more obvious plainchant influences. The AllMusic.com review states:

Miserere, recorded here for the first time and dedicated to Christophers, is a real stunner in its powerful use of simple means and its transcendent climax. It, like many of these pieces, takes plainchant as its basis. In splendoribus sanctorum, with a solo trumpet accompaniment, is a real show-stopper, creating an awesome, ceremonial sense of majesty. The three Tenebrae Responsories, liturgical descriptions of the crucifixion, are the most dissonant pieces and also among the most powerfully astonishing and expressive works on the album. Coro’s sound is characteristically clean, warm, detailed, and well balanced.

For more about MacMillan’s life and work, visit the Intermusica site.

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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