Wednesday’s Prom concert featured a new work from James MacMillan, a setting of the Creed from the liturgy of the Mass. Composers rarely set the Creed to music, not, i think, simply because it’s such a long and convoluted text (although it is, and this may also in part account for the dearth of contemporary Te Deums). What makes the Creed so different from the rest of the liturgy is its shift of emphasis away from God, focusing instead on oneself. “I believe” are its opening words, and all that follows embeds that personal belief into each of the facets that form the firmament of the Christian faith. So maybe its deep, direct expression of something so personal as faith may cause both composers and audiences to shy away from it. That’s a concert hall thesis; within the context of the actual liturgy, the same situation arguably arises as much from the fact it’s best to allow these words to come from the congregation rather than just the choir. But this Creed is a concert work; and that fact alone is perhaps cause for some celebration.
MacMillan adheres to the structure of the text by dividing the work into three sections corresponding to the passages concerned with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit respectively. Ever a composer with a somewhat peripatetic sense of style, for Credo MacMillan has contrived a kind of synthesis of Verdi and Samuel Sebastian Wesley—in other words, highly episodic with lashings of melodrama. This is heard in the midst of the first section, ‘Pater’, where a volley of “Patrem” outcries shatters the work’s soft introduction. It’s a bold and effective initial statement, becoming more so retrospectively in its pensive wake, where a spacious brass melody provides a contemplative counterpart. It works because of its brevity; and the undoing of the second section, ‘Filium’, is partly due to its length. While the text felt a little loose earlier (and was all the better for it), now the music clings desperately to it, as though to deviate might damage or at least sully its potency. The music thereby feels slavishly word-painted, becoming both predictable and convoluted, having to twist continually to follow the contours of the (occasionally esoteric) narrative. Only towards the section’s end do things open out; the concluding lines referencing the Resurrection and Ascension introduce a light-handed counterpoint that’s refreshing. (Here, and elsewhere, MacMillan occasionally seems to hint at the music—or, at least, the orchestrational style—of Berlioz’s Requiem.) The tailing off of the section’s last words—”whose kingdom shall have no end”—is an interesting touch, as though the very idea is too immense to contemplate. Credo concludes with ‘Spiritus Sanctus’, a second brief section that returns to the bullish tone from the start. It’s not always convincing; as in Bob Chilcott’s The Angry Planet, the homophonic repeated passages come across as forced and uninspiring, as though the liturgy were nagging us to empathise. Yet, conversely, the brute force of “Qui ex Patre … Qui cum Patre” (“who, from the Father … who, with the Father”) is a very telling point of well-judged emphasis. The lightness that ended ‘Filium’ does the same here, but is squashed flat under the overbearing weight of the final “Amen”, its wild obliquity staking a claim of conviction.
Bearing in mind what i said at the start, Credo does not feel like a strongly personal piece of music. As a concert work, it’s disappointing MacMillan felt compelled to cleave to ecclesiastical Latin; English might have offered an unexpected jolt of immediacy that could have benefited the work. Admittedly, there’s an argument to be had that the mere act of devoting 25 minutes of oratorial time to this singular text is itself a significant acknowledgement of belief; yet, as it stands, Credo feels rather too proper and correct—sanctioned even—to convey the uniquely personal touch that could have made it both profound and truly challenging.
The world première of James MacMillan’s Credo was given by the combined forces of Manchester Chamber Choir, Northern Sinfonia Chorus and Rushley Singers with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena.
HAVE YOUR SAY
James Macmillan - Credo
- Loved it! (25%, 7 Votes)
- Liked it (18%, 5 Votes)
- Meh (25%, 7 Votes)
- Disliked it (11%, 3 Votes)
- Hated it! (21%, 6 Votes)
Total Voters: 28
After three consecutive plays of this piece, I’ve REALLY come to love it. Macmillan is, after all, the one British composer that I make a point to listen to all his works. And I love 90% of them, and have heard them several times over. – I don’t think I voted “loved it” in the poll, but if I could, I would change my vote. – The chorus’ are not perfection, but that’s just nit-picking. This piece is a MUST LISTEN; and it’s very much a James Macmillan piece…no doubts about that!
Thanks for the comment, James. As a few weeks have passed, maybe i’ll give it another go…