Proms 2017: James MacMillan – A European Requiem (European Première)

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James MacMillan’s latest religious blockbuster, A European Requiem, was given its first performance in Europe at the Proms a couple of days ago. The piece is a little over a year old (premièred in July 2016 in Oregon), and although its concert hall life has taken place in the midst of Britain’s decision to withdraw from the EU, it was of course composed prior to the onset of that madness. MacMillan has therefore been in the unfortunate position of having to stress that his work is not in any way a response to the UK’s ongoing political inanities. Instead, his concern is very much more generalised, not to say vague; he speaks of the piece looking back to the requiems of Brahms, Fauré and Verdi, and if it responds to anything specific, it’s to Roger Scruton’s book The Uses of Pessimism. Whether or not MacMillan believes ‘Europe’ (however that term is defined) to be ‘dead’ (ditto) he doesn’t say, though he evidently holds the view that it has lost something, which he describes as a “culture of mercy and forgiveness”.

Is there any compelling proof that Europeans are less merciful and forgiving than they were in past generations? Is this a malaise not suffered beyond the bounds of Europe? Regardless of these questions, there are rather more pressing concerns to grapple with in A European Requiem, before one even makes it to any potential subtext and its implications.

The words and the music each present issues. For the text, MacMillan has – no great surprise – taken refuge in Latin, citing it as bound up in the foundation of Europe and as such representing “the ideal rediscovering of our common heritage”. MacMillan accepts this decision may be deemed “counter-cultural”, but i wonder whether that’s a strong enough term. Describing the common tongue of a dictatorial empire that sought European and ultimately global domination through ruthless conquest as “ideal” may not sit comfortably with everyone. But then, it does tie in very nicely with the comparable attitude exhibited over the centuries by the Roman Catholic Church, wherein lies the second textual issue to deal with. A requiem is a requiem of course, but i wonder to what extent the fantastical language of the requiem mass continues to carry any weight in terms of making anyone actually reflect seriously. It might make us lament – as it should – but will it act to provoke us to ponder the supposed dearth of mercy and forgiveness MacMillan wishes to restore? It surely only can if one is remotely in sympathy with its religious sentiments. Considering the extent to which many regard not just Christianity but all religions as, at best, superstitious nonsense, and at worst, dangerously malevolent dogma, this seems increasingly unlikely. From the perspective of its text, perhaps the best A European Requiem can hope for is to preach to the converted.

From the perspective of its music, the work is equally problematic. It’s always tended to be MacMillan’s default position, but throughout A European Requiem he adopts what i can only describe as a kind of ‘musical Manichaeism’: a yin-yang of polarised ideas, where everything is either white or black, good or evil, pretty or unpleasant, consonant or dissonant. One expects a simplified, dualistic trope such as this in film scores (the weaker ones, at any rate), yet while MacMillan does sometimes get away with employing such a naive palette as this, it makes A European Requiem sound over-familiar, old-fashioned, hackneyed. Here, too, there’s a strong sense of preaching to the converted. Existing fans of MacMillan’s music will be sated with all his traditional fare: melodies derived from a mixture of plainchant and folk music (grace notes present and correct) and smatterings of ersatz eastern chants; loud percussion-driven clatter mollified by smooth, soft choral caresses; rude, crude wind and brass angularity answered by pensive string meditations, tightly bound in narrow contrapuntal clusters. While none of this is intrinsically unpleasant, hearing the choir and orchestra swing so wildly between behavioural extremes – there’s not really anything in between – becomes trying, having the subtlety of a Sunday school parable or a fairy story (tautology?).

Nothing MacMillan does is without its merits, and A European Requiem attains something rather nice in the Agnus Dei, its exhausted sensibility concluding with oblique wind and brass counterpoint that’s strange and unsettling, both within the local context and the work as a whole. Avoiding the obvious money-shot of setting the Dies irae is a wise move; veering off at this point to a passage from Psalm 130 (“De profundis”) is unexpected and one of the work’s most striking episodes. MacMillan instead makes the Libera me the location for the work’s most orgiastic burst of pandemonium, and again it’s the conclusion that sells it, displaying a telling air of desperation through the final words (‘et lux perpetua luceat eis’). As for the rest, though, same old. Same. Old. However, bearing in mind where MacMillan’s coming from, perhaps the most fitting way to respond to the piece is with mercy and forgiveness.

The European première of A European Requiem was given by soloists Erin Wall (soprano), Sonia Prina (mezzo-soprano), Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor), Simon O’Neill (tenor), Jacques Imbrailo (baritone) and Alexander Vinogradov (bass) with the CBSO Chorus, BBC National Chorus of Wales and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Xian Zhang.


James MacMillan - A European Requiem
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Programme Note

The concert Requiem, as it developed from the 19th century, is a particularly European form that composers have turned to when they identify with a sense of loss, often as much within themselves, as prompted by a specific death. That is the case with my work, which is not a memorial for a loved one but rather a general response to this vivid text, coloured by a realism and wistfulness at the passing of deep cultural resonances.

It attempts to fuse the Requiem with symphonic form in a single continuous movement, moving between the sections of text via linking orchestral episodes. As the work is non-liturgical, I’ve largely avoided building the material from Gregorian plainsong, though allusions to chant inevitably surface as we approach the final In Paradisum (Chorus Angelorum).

Whereas Brahms stepped out of line to use German texts overtly in Ein deutsches Requiem, it may be somewhat ironic that the language I feel drawn back to is Latin, which represents for me the common European language that existed before nationalist barriers were erected. It was the lingua franca used by the European founding fathers, whether in Roman times or in the Church, and provided a source of common identity for a millennium and a half, in international relations, education and the sharing of ideas. Setting texts in Latin may now seem counter-cultural to many, but for me it represents the ideal rediscovering of our common heritage.

—James MacMillan

Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine:
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion,
et tibi reddetur votum in Ierusalem:
exaudi orationem meam,
ad te omnis caro veniet.
Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine:
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
A hymn, O God, becometh Thee in Sion;
and a vow shall be paid to Thee in Jerusalem:
hear my prayer;
all flesh shall come to Thee.
Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
Kyrie, eleison.
Christe, eleison.
Kyrie, eleison.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine:
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
In memoria æterna erit iustus:
ab auditione mala non timebit.
Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord;
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
The just shall be in everlasting remembrance;
he shall not fear the evil hearing.
Absolve, Domine,
animas omnium fidelium defunctorum
ab omni vinculo delictorum.
Et gratia tua illis succurrente,
mereantur evadere iudicium ultionis.
Et lucis æternae beatitudine perfrui.
Absolve, O Lord,
the souls of all the faithful departed
from every bond of sin.
And by the help of Thy grace
may they be enabled to escape the avenging judgment.
And enjoy the bliss of everlasting light.
De profundis
De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;
Domine, exaudi vocem meam. Fiant aures tuæ intendentes
in vocem deprecationis meæ.
From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplication.
Domine Iesu Christe, Rex gloriæ,
libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum
de pœnis inferni et de profundo lacu:
libera eas de ore leonis,
ne absorbeat eas tartarus,
ne cadant in obscurum:
sed signifer sanctus Michael
repræsentet eas in lucem sanctam:
Quam olim Abrahæ promisisti, et semini eius.

Hostias et preces tibi, Domine,
laudis offerimus:
tu suscipe pro animabus illis,
quarum hodie memoriam facimus:
fac eas, Domine, de morte transire ad vitam.
Quam olim Abrahæ promisisti, et semini eius.

O Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory,
deliver the souls of all the faithful departed
from the pains of hell and from the bottomless pit:
deliver them from the lion’s mouth,
that hell swallow them not up,
that they fall not into darkness,
but let the standard-bearer holy Michael
lead them into that holy light:
Which Thou didst promise of old to Abraham and to his seed.
We offer to Thee, O Lord,
sacrifices and prayers:
do Thou receive them in behalf of those souls
of whom we make memorial this day.
Grant them, O Lord, to pass from death to that life,
Which Thou didst promise of old to Abraham and to his seed.
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.

Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis.

Holy, holy, holy,
Lord God of Hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.
Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed is He Who cometh in the Name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Agnus Dei
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi: dona eis requiem.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi: dona eis requiem.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi: dona eis requiem sempiternam.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, grant them rest.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, grant them rest.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, grant them eternal rest.
Lux æterna luceat eis, Domine:
Cum Sanctis tuis in æternum:
quia pius es.
Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine:
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Cum Sanctis tuis in æternum:
quia pius es.
May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord,
with Thy Saints for evermore:
for Thou art gracious.
Eternal rest give to them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them:
With Thy Saints for evermore,
for Thou art gracious.
Libera Me
Libera me, Domine, de morte æterna, in die illa tremenda:
Quando cæli movendi sunt et terra:
Dum veneris iudicare sæculum per ignem.
Tremens factus sum ego, et timeo, dum discussio venerit, atque ventura ira.
Quando cæli movendi sunt et terra.
Dies illa, dies iræ, calamitatis et miseriæ, dies magna et amara valde.
Dum veneris iudicare sæculum per ignem.
Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Deliver me, O Lord, from death eternal in that awful day.
When the heavens and the earth shall be moved:
When Thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.
Dread and trembling have laid hold on me, and I fear exceedingly because of the judgment and of the wrath to come.
When the heavens and the earth shall be moved.
O that day, that day of wrath, of sore distress and of all wretchedness, that great day and exceeding bitter.
When Thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.
In paradisum
In paradisum deducant te Angeli:
in tuo adventu suscipiant te Martyres,
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem.
Chorus Angelorum te suscipiat,
et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.
May the Angels lead thee into paradise:
may the Martyrs receive thee at thy coming,
and lead thee into the holy city of Jerusalem.
May the choir of Angels receive thee,
and mayest thou have eternal rest with Lazarus, who once was poor.

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Colin Rose

Am I allowed to comment without even bothering to listen? Good review on your part. It will make the correct gestures that represent profundity, it’s a product and will sell well. Rather makes me think of Range Rovers parked outside a church on Sunday which rather reminds me of Scruton. Leave them all too it.

Chris L

Hmmm…don’t think I’ll be bothering with this one, regardless of what other reviewers might say: it sounds like further proof, if proof were needed, that MacMillan has long since given up on any attempt to surprise his audience. Was it just that he peaked early, and it’s become too easy for him to try repeatedly to recapture that early success using the same “worn-out tools”, secure in the knowledge that there’s a readymade market for his efforts? Certainly, when my choir recently sang his (very!) early Missa Brevis (with, *ahem*, yours truly as the priest at the start of the Gloria), what rapidly became apparent was how much of the mature MacMillan was already present-and-correct in the 17-year-old.

In fairness, and with a certain irony, he still can surprise when forced into the supposed straitjacket of pre-existing folk material (his a cappella settings of O My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose and The Gallant Weaver, for example, are lovely and striking in equal measure), but too much of the rest sounds like pale rehashes of his “big three” from the early ’90s (Gowdie, Veni, Words), with which I can foresee myself increasingly sticking…

James Chan

I would’ve tagged this with ‘unforgivable just crazily inept bullshit’ tbh. For one thing the orchestral writing is just… not good. I was getting second hand embarrassment listening to that.

Peter George

‘prior to the onset of that madness’


Do we really need to use this forum as a platform to air political and anti-religious hang-ups? What a perfect example of your own gratuitously scathing ‘dangerously malevolent dogma’ label!

I, for one, as an ardent European and as an economist, was alarmed that we ever joined the previously-named European Economic Community, and I shall feel just as European when we have managed to extricate ourselves from its successor behemoth, the more explicitly protectionist and pro-federal EU. Just concentrate on the music and spare us your prejudices; then I’ll put mine aside too.

Ahmed Aleskerov

over-weighted, over-charged electrically piece.


I worry about MacMillan. His earlier music had a directness that he has now lost. Part of the problem is that his music always seems to be a response to some political or philosophical book he’s read. And the music becomes merely illustrative of the ideas. He’d be better off ‘just’ writing music.

You are so right about the tiring manichaeism of his sound world. The same thing sank his St John Passion. The thing is, when he does ratchet up the violence and the darkness, the vocabulary he uses to do so sounds dated and contrived. There’s something trite and parochial about his eruptions of violence. They’re not actually *musically* violent, they’re just combinations of loud sounds and clanging rhythms. It has become slightly embarrassing to listen to.

Large orchestras are not his friend: he pulls as many styles and colours as he can from them, but never with any sense of coherent design. If he were an artist his canvases would be a godawful mess.

He seems truly stuck in a rut. I don’t think he’ll ever reinvent himself now.


I can’t disagree with that. I remember sitting through a live performance of his ‘Quickening’ and being knocked sideways by it. But after two or three further hearings I realized the piece was essentially substandard Vaughan-Williams with a very shallow surface varnish of modernity. Reminiscent of the cruel story about Ives going through his scores and adding ‘wrong’ notes to render them avant-garde.

John Belton

James MacMillan is the most ANNOYING composer alive at the moment and this is why: he’s a sort of musical-Politian.

His works are not written to execute any clearly thought-out artistic idea but rather to hoover up as many ‘votes’ from the various musical styles and tropes and agendas out there. So this piece has:

An opening with the drum-kit a bit like Turnage: hipster box-ticked.

It’s got some nice choral sounds: neo-romantic/neo-tonalists box-ticked.

It’s got some loud Birtwistle-like clusters in the orchestra: old-fashioned modernist box-ticked.

It’s got some high string sounds: we all like ‘Peter Grimes’ box-ticked.

Some moments like John Adams: minimalist box-ticked.

It’s a religious text/contains plainchant: Catholic box-ticked.

It’s got some folky moments: Scottish-composer (as he used to stylise himself) box-ticked.

It’s somehow (not sure quite how!) a response to a book by Roger Scruton: conservative intellectual box-ticked.

And of course the title ‘A European Requiem’ is deliberately vague (no I don’t believe him when he says it has nothing to do with the EU referendum) so that if you are a Remainer it’s a Requiem for the EU. If you are a leaver it’s a Requiem for ‘The Strange Death of Europe’; All political positioned covered and boxes-ticked.

And with all these votes he has won the compositional election for Britain’s ‘greatest living composer’.

Macmillan is really just a canny Scot, deliberately exploiting a lot of people’s musical philistinism so he can dress himself up as ‘a great composer’, but HE ISN’T. He really isn’t.

But for those of us with ears and taste, I think we can agree that musically it’s just an incoherent ramble which dishes up the usual Macmillan clichés and a few new ‘influences’ stolen from other composers and thrown into the mix (a mix which doesn’t hold together). He’s even ripping off John Rutter in a few moments I thought…!? Cheesy Anglican choral tradition box-ticked.

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