Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and throughout the next seven weeks, among other things, i’ll be featuring a selection of pieces suitable to the season. To begin, a recording of the world première of James MacMillan‘s anthem Domine non secundum peccata nostra, given by the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. Directed by Andrew Nethsingha, the performance took place on Ash Wednesday last year, and also includes a solo violin, played here by Margaret Faultless. The piece is structured as a simple rondo, in which the refrain—heard three times—focusses on the essence of the text, words adapted from verse 10 of Psalm 103:
Domine, non secundum peccata nostra quae fecimus nos, neque secundum iniquitates nostras retribuas nobis.
(“Lord, do not repay us according to our sins or our iniquities.”)
MacMillan keeps the refrain relatively subdued, the words emerging from extended melismas over simple harmonies (the use of harmony throughout is simple). The violin nags away at the periphery, picking at notes, arpeggiating them, finally becoming a complementary melodic entity in its own right. There are two episodes, and both contrast strongly with the refrain, projected with much greater force. The first is highly assertive, the choir’s plea (drawing now on verses 8 and 9 from Psalm 79) taking a turn for the desperate:
Domine, ne memineris iniquitatum nostrarum antiquarum: cito anticipent nos misericordiae tuae. Quia pauperes facti sumus nimis.
(“Lord, do not hold our old sins against us; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need.”)
The second episode focuses on the men, initially in unison, who almost violently hurl out the imploring final phrase of the text:
Adjuva nos, Deus salutaris noster: et propter gloria nominis tui, Domine, libera nos. Et propitius esto peccatis nostris, propter nomen tuum.
(“Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your name; Lord, deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake.”)
The violin falls silent through this, returning for a lengthy solo only once they’ve finished; it’s a strange moment, and i still can’t quite decide whether it’s the work’s weakest or strongest point. Certainly, the connection of its largely gestural material to the surrounding music is hard to sense, but on the other hand, the intrusion of a purely instrumental passage makes a marked impression. Overall, it’s a measured, thoughtful piece, one that sits well at the outset of the church’s most sombre season.