In many of the hymns & carols sung throughout the Christmas season, alongside the idyllic, intimate nocturnal depictions of stables & shepherds can be found pointed references to the bleak fate of the child lying in the manger. Sometimes, these are sung again during Passiontide, making for a particularly painful connection: “see the child” becomes “behold the man”. With that in mind, then, the next piece in my Lent series is Thomas Adès’ setting of the anonymous 15th century ‘Fayrfax Carol’. Adès wrote the piece in 1997, as that year’s commissioned work for the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. From the perspective of Christmas music, you’d be hard pushed to find a piece of more anguished character.
The text describes a dream featuring the Holy Family. The recurring refrain, as spoken by Mary, is a touching lullaby to her son, but this is interspersed with some terse comments between Mary & Joseph. Mary’s feelings are ambivalent—“She sang lullay / And sore did wepe”—& she seems to find the context in which her son (no less than “a Kyng / That made all thyng”) has been brought into the world to be unfitting of his status. Yet the infant himself intercedes, imploring his mother to “Amend your chere”, explaining that not only is it his Father’s will, but that he is destined for very much worse, remarkably described as “Derision, / Gret passion / Infynytly, infynytely”. The child’s words end with clarification, that his dreadful end will achieve something utterly triumphant: “Man to restore”. Read more
The next piece in my Lent series i’m including more as a curiosity than as a work i deeply admire. James MacMillan‘s St John Passion was composed in 2007 & premièred in April the following year. MacMillan structures the work in 10 movements, grouped into two parts; the first (movements I to IV) documents Christ’s arrest & trial, the second (movements V to X) his Crucifixion & death. Two movements break from the unfolding narrative; VIII is a setting of the Reproaches & the final movement is an instrumental epilogue.
Taken as a whole the work is, to be frank, downright weird — which is perhaps reason enough to find it at least interesting. Whatever else may be true of this piece, though, insincerity is not one of its faults; indeed, i’m not sure i’ve ever heard a composer try harder to produce something that compellingly lives up both to their own & others’ expectations, in addition to the not inconsiderable weight of tradition (& religious tradition at that). But in striving to create something utterly worthy, MacMillan ends up aggrandising every word of the text, resulting in an eccentric kind of melodrama, the protagonists of which too often become a clutch of musical ham actors (imagine Brendan Fraser attempting to convince in a film by Cecil B. DeMille). Everybody struts about, shouting & striking wildly exaggerated postures; the ‘baddies’ of the piece are obvious to the point of absurdity—Pilate could almost be twirling his moustache while sporting a maniacal grin. It’s exacerbated by MacMillan’s musical language, which on this occasion frequently sounds like a Walton/Turnage mashup with some John Stainer moments thrown in: “The Crucifixion of the Three Screaming Belshazzars” – or something like that. The attempts at grotesquery, liberally distributed throughout the work, are largely restricted to copious amounts of glissandi & wildly dissonant, ludicrously LOUD tutti eruptions, which can only be effective for so long, their returns diminishing rapidly; by the sixth movement (‘Christ’s garments divided’), the repeated downward glissandi in the choir seem irritating & awkwardly comic. Read more