Proms 2021: James MacMillan – When Soft Voices Die (World Première)

by 5:4

Last night the 2021 Proms season began, featuring – as has been the custom for many years – the world première of a new piece. When Soft Voices Die is a choral work by Scottish composer James MacMillan that brings together two texts by Shelley, Mutability (also known as ‘The flower that smiles today’) and To– (better known as Music when Soft Voices Die). MacMillan set the work for a collection of soloists – soprano, alto, tenor and bass-baritone – who take turns throughout the texts.

While no-one would ever seriously accuse MacMillan of being anywhere remotely close to the more radical and / or provocative regions of contemporary music, even by his modest standards When Soft Voices Die is constricted into an especially tight-fitting corset of stylistic conservatism. That being said, the work’s opening came as a nice surprise, the bass-baritone intoning “The flower that smiles to-day / To-morrow dies” with such forceful solemnity one briefly wondered if MacMillan might have sought finally to embrace the darkness and compose a post-pandemic dirge bewailing the futility of life and the finality of death. Not exactly.

Woodwind filigree and chirpy rhythms almost seem to be poking fun at the baritone like boisterous kids mucking about in class while the teacher tries to be serious. It’s an idea that quickly takes root, spreading throughout the orchestra, leading to an ongoing tension between each successive voice putting forward their declamatory reflection on the transience of life, love and happiness (the tenor, in particular, sounding utterly distraught), and this instrumental proclivity to become riled up and energetic, paying little more than lip service in terms of sympathy, not so much accompanying the voices as appearing to want to rise up and overthrow them. Certainly the two elements of the work often seem to play out in parallel – juxtaposed rather than integrated – and each time i’ve listened to the piece i’ve found myself unavoidably gravitating towards one or the other.

It’s a tension that perhaps mirrors an ideological one between poet and composer, Shelley’s forlorn words of bleakness colliding against the (presumably) indefatigable optimism of MacMillan’s religious beliefs. And yet the very fact that MacMillan chose this poem indicates he was interested in at least confronting some gritty realism, even if it’s subsequently trounced by the nature of the music. The second Shelley poem doesn’t exactly undermine the first in this context, but it does suggest that, in spite of the end to which we all are tending, life, love and happiness are all possible and contain much to be celebrated.

Ultimately, it’s a tension that stylistically undermines the work itself. The movement of the piece towards its subdued but more positive conclusion brings with it an ever-increasing tone of unalloyed triadic purity, with some quantities of strong cheese added in its latter stages, which, depending on your perspective, either makes the music ring hollow or simply makes it sound downright phony. Perhaps this is all some people can cope with after the ravages of the pandemic – which, lest we forget, are very far from over – but it’s disappointing that a piece so ostensibly geared up to engage deeply with serious, highly relevant, emotionally-charged fears and concerns should so effortlessly shrug them aside as if they were nothing of substance or consequence. Religious dogma may have convinced MacMillan that this is true, but his musical attempt to do the same isn’t anywhere near so plausible.

The world première of When Soft Voices Die was performed by soloists Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano), Jess Dandy (alto), Allan Clayton (tenor) and Michael Mofidian (bass-baritone) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dalia Stasevska.

As always, you can express your own view about each of the premières using the poll below. Once the season has come to an end, i’ll be exploring the results to see how you all voted.


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Programme Note

When Soft Voices Die was written for the first night of the BBC Proms in July 2021, the first Prom concert with a live audience after the pandemic and lockdown. It is scored for voices and orchestra and the choice of texts is a response to the idea of music coming back after a forced absence. The work is a setting of two short poems by Shelley – The flower that smiles today, and Music when Soft Voices Die.

The first of these deals with the brevity of all things – all our hopes and desires, and the delightful things which we encounter in life are short-lived and doomed to die. Everything is fleeting and transitory. The second poem is about human memory: music especially lives on in our memories after the sound has died, or in our contemporary situation, after it has been forced to stop. The final stanza reminds us that love itself outlasts the beloved.

Although there is a wistful melancholy in both poems they nevertheless remind us of the things that are profoundly important to us, especially in times of trial and loss – beauty, virtue, friendship, love and music. When these things are taken away from us, such as happened during COVID, we are reminded just how precious and indispensable they truly are.

The first three voices, baritone, tenor and alto sing a verse each of the first poem:

The flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow dies;
All that we wish to stay
Tempts and then flies.
What is this world’s delight?
Lightning that mocks the night,
Brief even as bright.

Virtue, how frail it is!
Friendship how rare!
Love, how it sells poor bliss
For proud despair!
But we, though soon they fall,
Survive their joy, and all
Which ours we call.

Whilst skies are blue and bright,
Whilst flowers are gay,
Whilst eyes that change ere night
Make glad the day;
Whilst yet the calm hours creep,
Dream thou—and from thy sleep
Then wake to weep.

The soprano then takes the first verse of the next poem and all four join together for the final verse:

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory—
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the belovèd’s bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.

The short work can be performed with four solo voices or with a choir, both with orchestral accompaniment.

—James MacMillan


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