The penultimate work in this year’s Lent Series is one that ended up having to wait over a quarter of a century from the date of composition to receive its first performance. James MacMillan completed his orchestral piece The Keening in 1987, while studying for his PhD at Durham University. Despite being the most ambitious work in his portfolio, the piece was not performed, and as MacMillan subsequently found significant success in the immediately following years (particularly after the première of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at the 1990 Proms), the piece was somehow forgotten, and eventually quietly withdrawn. In the early 2010s MacMillan returned to the work – it’s not clear whether he revised the piece, though a quick comparison of his original handwritten score with the published edition shows no appreciable differences – and it was finally given its first performance in 2014.
In the introduction to his PhD portfolio, MacMillan comments on the qualities of the works within, concluding by noting
one other major trait: a desire to give expression to received cultural characteristics from my own background, which is Scottish and Celtic. This is achieved either by absorbing some element of Celtic traditional music or by employing some extra-musical subject matter as an ingredient…James MacMillan, Music Composition, Introduction
However, MacMillan clarifies that this is not due to any desire to write ‘national’ music but towards the end of attaining “an individual voice”. For The Keening MacMillan turned to the Scottish lament tune Murt Ghlinne Comhann (the Massacre of Glencoe), also known as ‘Great is the cause of my sorrow’, as both an emotional and musical source. However, MacMillan’s use of the word “absorbing” above is crucial; his approach is not simply to use the melody as an obvious source to be embellished or developed, but in a more subtle way, using its shape and contour as the basis for allusive explorations. To that end, The Keening is structured as a kind of abstract arch, with a number of episodes at the start and end that utilise the lament in some way, surrounding contrasting sections that avoid it entirely.
The opening uses the contour of the lament as the basis for a gentle series of echoes and overlaps, demonstrating a real sense of intimacy in the strings. Glissandos and foreign pitches appear, though the music retains its sense of stillness even when infiltrated by hopping staccato notes, leading to a quiet climax with the melody in the midst of a ‘shining’ corona.
In the first contrasting section (4:42) the brass break everything apart through brusque fanfaric gestures and a large amount of clamour, though this is cancelled out out pretty quickly, reducing to just a single violin which leads the piece back to the second lament section. Here (6:05) the strings band together again, now using the lament canonically, a process aimed at evoking the rhythmic elasticity of Gaelic psalm singing, being as it is the product of actual keening, in which (in MacMillan’s words) “mourners (led by a principal) break into an impromptu chant, expressing their grief and describing the character and virtues of the deceased and the circumstances of his death”. It’s a beautiful and poignant passage, individual lines winding around each other while the overall heat of the music is dramatically increased, at its high point going beyond mere shining into a very different kind of incandescence, fuelled by distress.
The centre of The Keening (9:02) moves away from the melody, entering an 8-minute sequence that initially withdraws into an ominous dronescape where everything sounds poised, out of which a brass motif slowly starts to rise and grow in intensity. (The music is modestly suggestive of Wagner, and that’s entirely deliberate: MacMillan cites the opening of Act 2, Scene 4 of Die Walküre as an additional inspiration.) It pulls back into a strange, floating environment that seems to suggest placidity, though that’s undermined by the orchestra becoming suddenly exercised, never letting rip but highly energised nonetheless. This leads to the core of The Keening, a lengthy section (11:53) where each burst of activity at first pauses on a sustained chord. Though ostensibly fast, the pace of the music is challenged by its lurching quality and the fact, barely a minute later, that the piece almost blows itself out, progressing as a series of highly volatile surges, swells and brute force poundings. MacMillan still avoids letting rip, though, eventually tilting things back into shadow where they just about keep going as quiet energy. The sense of mayhem during this middle section is remarkable, and while the intention behind it is to contrast with the melody-focused passages, it nonetheless goes a long way to articulate the enormity of the emotions that impel the lament in the first place. The conclusion of the central section (16:38) returns to activity halted by sustains, before moving headlong into a heightened collection of crashes, ended with angry sounding muted brass.
The return of The Keening to the lament (17:47) is far from obvious, and it’s not until doleful brass cries that the piece starts to move away from the implacable agony at the work’s centre. The melodic contour again takes precedence, becoming a loud, lengthy violin line during which the rest of the orchestra falls entirely silent. The coda (20:35) complicates into a weird atmosphere of clumsy clusters and low brooding, ending as a subdued, hurt music coloured by low chimes and tam-tams.
The world première of The Keening took place on 11 January 2014 at City Halls in Glasgow, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by James MacMillan.
Commentary and original full score
(the text and score have been extracted from MacMillan’s freely-available PhD Portfolio)