Symphonies – one minute you think that no-one’s really writing them anymore, and then suddenly three of them turn up in quick succession. Of course, in reality the apparent lack of them may well be more to do with the fact that composers today are reluctant to title a work ‘Symphony’ (embodying as it does such an accumulation of historical connotation and baggage) in favour of something more personal and snappy, and less to do with a reality in which music that could be described as ‘symphonic’ is becoming a thing of the past. Either way, in the last few months three works bearing the name ‘Symphony’ have received their first performances, which i’ll be exploring in my next few articles.
James MacMillan‘s Symphony No. 5, premièred in August, takes as its theme the religious notion of the Holy Spirit. To this end, MacMillan structures the work in three movements each of which is devoted to one of its mythical physical attributes: wind (or breath), water and fire. The subtitle of the work, Le grand Inconnu (the great unknown), is an associated term, borrowed from the French because MacMillan could not find an equivalent in English. It’s a choral symphony, involving both a chamber choir and a chorus, but instead of directly setting a text MacMillan has taken words from the Bible, John of the Cross, and the 9th century hymn Veni Creator Spiritus to form a composite text mingling English, Latin, Hebrew and Greek.
One really needs to consider this work from two perspectives, symphonic and thematic. If we accept the idea that ‘symphonic’ music is still to a large extent articulated primarily (but absolutely not exclusively) via harmonic movement and convolution, then the piece clearly aligns itself with this historical paradigm. It’s probably stretching a point to think of it as a ‘symphony in C’, but C major is clearly the work’s principal tonality, underpinning the first and last movements and emerging prominently during the otherwise A major-emphasised central movement. That seems good from a symphonic perspective, but i can’t help feeling that using such a crystal clear harmonic language as this actively works against the unfathomable nebulosity encapsulated in the symphony’s subtitle. Heard thematically, there’s not very much about Symphony No. 5 that could be described as ‘unknown’. That’s also due in part to the familiarity and predictability of certain aspects of the piece. Many of its melodies contain MacMillan’s trademark grace note turn, sounding as if they could have been copy-pasted from any of his previous works. And anyone with more than a passing interest in new music will be able easily to guess the way that the first movement, ‘Ruah’ (the Hebrew word for ‘wind’), begins. Of course, that doesn’t mean its sequence of intense, halting in- and exhalations aren’t effective or interesting, just that they’re another manifestation of the ‘knowability’ of the music.
In fact, this opening portion of the work is strikingly lovely: after the breaths have subsided, vocal oscillations over a deep C drone grow into a network of high glissandi and strange hanging chords. Of course, that in itself is something of an overworked idea, but any idea that’s overworked must have something going for it, and here it provides a compelling five-minute invitation into the piece. Yet the rude breaking of this opening spell is the first of many examples in the symphony of how its symphonic and thematic aspects are working at odds with each other. Out of this blissed out introduction suddenly erupts a huge bombastic tutti, the voices practically shouting rather than singing, its tone and language the very epitome of convention, even cliché. It turns out that the whole first movement is essentially a behavioural oscillation between drone-based floridity and massive outbursts like this. It’s tough to say to what extent it’s the fault of the symphony itself or this first performance specifically, but despite their obvious size and the way they yank the harmony these immense tuttis feel strangely pedestrian. They don’t really involve us; it’s like hearing someone describe a transcendent experience, a second-hand account that leaves one shrugging blankly from a distance.
Akin to these overblown episodes are several sequences where the work actively depends on either the faith, or at least the generosity of spirit, of the audience. This is always an issue with overtly religious compositions: no composer can assume the audience will share their beliefs, and to create music that presupposes such inevitably leads to a breakdown of some kind. It’s what plagues so much of the output of John Tavener and Arvo Pärt (among others). In Symphony No. 5 it manifests particularly in various passages where words or phrases are articulated in such a way that MacMillan is clearly trying to combine solemnity with zeal. The second movement, ‘Zao’ (ancient Greek for ‘living water’), features quite a lot of this, from the halting instances of the word ‘Zao’ early on – which, though rather nice in the way they insert Eb chords into the A major tonality nonetheless sound a touch amusing – to the fevered insistent repetitions that appear later: “the joy is yours”, “the light the light the light” and so on, the seriousness of which makes them sound enormously silly. It wouldn’t matter if it made sense musically but these sequences don’t function in that way, depending on an outer acceptance of some implied inner power. The gentle plinky plonk material that begins and recurs throughout this movement is far more engaging, particularly when MacMillan renders it distant and mysterious later on, but the middle movement is mainly characterised as an exercise in presumptive potency with a large central slice of cheese.
Thematically speaking the final movement, titled ‘Igne vel Igne’ (Latin for ‘fire or fire’) is perplexing as the one thing it could not be described as is ‘fiery’. Considering what i said before about predictability, that’s arguably a good thing, though making sense of this final movement is a challenge. A slow, considered paean from the choir – perhaps the symphony’s most beautiful section – is followed by a strangely random collection of ideas that, no matter how many times i’ve listened to them, still sound as if they’ve been designed and positioned to juxtapose as disjunctly as possible. It does give the movement some sense of poise, inasmuch as all of these ideas – falling scalic ‘peals’, low string tremolandi, deep grinding repetitions (very nice!), crashy bursts of col legno – sound as though they’re not to be focused upon per se but point towards or indicate the possibility of something yet to come. Fire, perhaps? What MacMillan delivers is another bombastic eruption and, soon after, a lilting, sugar-sweet pretty episode that leaves one wondering not only where on earth it came from but also what the title of this movement really connotes. That’s not all there is; through a series of contorted harmonic gear changes MacMillan engineers the to-be-expected full-on final climax (in D major, suggesting the piece will finish a little higher than where it began) that articulates something of the fire possibly hinted at earlier. It’s quite stirring stuff, although the scurrying denouement and final tonic chord (the harmony having finally sagged back down to C) make for a decidedly overfamiliar, underwhelming conclusion.
James MacMillan’s Symphony No. 4, first heard at the 2015 Proms, was a real triumph, so it’s a shame that his latest doesn’t in any meaningful way live up to it, let alone surpass it. The word ‘symphony’ promises a lot; adding the words ‘Le grand Inconnu’ only intensifies that promise. It’s therefore hard not to feel more than a little let down by MacMillan’s recourse to such well-known, tried and tested (hackneyed) techniques in his Symphony No. 5. Its fervency is obvious, and from a symphonic perspective its credentials are impossible to question, but thematically speaking, i’m not sure the supernatural has ever sounded so ordinary and prosaic.
The world première of James MacMillan’s Symphony No. 5 ‘Le grand Inconnu’ took place at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, given by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, The Sixteen and Genesis Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers.
The symphonic tradition, and Beethoven’s monumental impact on it, is an imposing legacy which looms like a giant ghost over the shoulder of any living composer foolhardy enough to consider adding to it. Perhaps not fully knowing what writing a symphony “means” any more, some of us are drawn towards it like moths flapping around a candle flame.
My fifth symphony turned out to be a choral symphony, if very different to Beethoven’s. It came on the back of my Stabat Mater and was commissioned from the same source and involved the same performers. The philanthropist John Studzinski has taken a great interest in The Sixteen and has a special concern for sacred music. It was he who, along with Harry Christophers, suggested I write my own Stabat Mater. After that he began talking to me about how the concept of the Holy Spirit has been handled in music.
There are, of course, many great motets from the past which set texts devoted to the Third Person of the Trinity, and in the 20th century the one piece which sticks out is the setting of the Veni Creator Spiritus in the first movement of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. But it still feels like relatively unexplored territory, so perhaps now is the time to explore this mysterious avenue, where concepts of creativity and spirituality overlap? There is a real burgeoning interest in spirituality in our contemporary post-religious and now post-secular society, especially in relation to the arts. Music is described as the most spiritual of the arts, even by non-religious music lovers, and there is today a genuinely universal understanding that music can reach deep into the human soul.
It makes sense surely that a Catholic artist like myself might want to explore this in music, perhaps even beyond the usual hymnody and paeans of praise associated with liturgy. My fifth symphony is not a liturgical work. It is an attempt to explore the mystery discussed above in music for two choirs and orchestra. It began when John Studzinski gave me a copy of ‘The Holy Spirit, Fire of Divine Love’ by the Belgian Carmelite Wilfred Stinissen. It was a good point of entry, theologically, but it also called to my attention some visionary poetry by St John of the Cross. This line from the book in particular drew me in; “Even his name reveals that the Holy Spirit is mysterious. The Hebrew word ‘ruah’, the Greek word ‘pneuma’ and the Latin ‘spiritus’ mean both ‘wind’ and ‘breath’”, and these words provided the very first sounds heard in my symphony.
The work, to begin with, is less a traditional setting of text and more an exploration of elemental and primal sounds and words associated with the Spirit. The first movement is called ‘Ruah’, the second ‘Zao’ (ancient Greek for living water) and the third is ‘Igne vel Igne’ (Latin for fire or fire). So, each has associations with the physical elements connected to the Holy Spirit (wind, water, fire). These became vivid sources of visual and sonic inspiration. The fifth symphony has a subtitle – ‘Le grand Inconnu’ a French term used to describe the mystery of the Holy Spirit which I cannot find replicated in the English spiritual tradition.
Sound associations and impressions guided the choice of texts in each of the three movements and often dictated the overall structure; which bits of St John of the Cross to use, which corresponding moment in Scripture might amplify or reflect the general direction, which sounds to use in the orchestra as well as extended vocal sounds in the choir which were not necessarily sung. As well as breathing noises, there are whisperings and murmurings, devised to paint the required element from moment to moment.
The two choirs in the fifth symphony are a chamber choir and a large chorus. At the end of the second movement I divide these two ensembles into 20 parts, offering a parallel to the multi-voice writing of Vidi Aquam, a 40-part companion piece to Tallis’s Spem in Alium that I was composing at the same time as the symphony, and providing a means to continue communing with the English Renaissance master.