The Common Good
July-August 1996

Arias of True Devotion

by Scott Robinson | July-August 1996

James MacMillan's operas draw on liturgical roots.

The odd thing about “High Church Christianity” is its historical association with the needs of workers and peasants....One justification for the chanting, the incense, and the gorgeous choral music was that these things would convey a feeling of hope to the workers oppressed in dark satanic mills and mines. The popish ceremonies and music were supposed to help the common people feel like important participants in an important act. —Thomas Day, Why Catholics Can’t Sing

In one of the most striking scenes in the opera Ines de Castro, Death appears to the Spanish mistress of the Prince of Portugal in the form of a tired old woman. As the woman assures Ines that there is nothing to be afraid of, that she is her friend and Ines must come with her in the end, an offstage chorus echoes her words, giving her operatic lines a liturgical resonance. It is reminiscent of a preconciliar Catholic priest quietly intoning the Ordinary of the Mass because he is required to, while the many voices of the choir in the loft do the real work of transforming consciousness.

“I’ve always been interested in liturgy and inspired by it since I was a boy,” explains James MacMillan, the composer of the opera. “Its non-narrative aspect has influenced my liturgical music. Having said that, there is that in me which is interested in pure potential creative conflict in those two approaches to theatricality—that is, the stylized, ritualistic, non-narrative sense of theater, and a human dimension that goes underneath the artificiality, or the stylized nature, of pure liturgy.”

Most of MacMillan’s sentences begin with the word “and”; the thoughts come out steadily and almost seamlessly, with constantly shifting contours that nevertheless continually outline basic ideas—not unlike the notes and rhythms of the Gregorian chant he loves. The day after the American premiere of his cantata, Seven Last Words From the Cross, featured in the final concert of the annual University of Minnesota Bach Festival, he shares his thoughts about this new opera, which will premiere at this year’s Edinburgh Festival in September.

“For an operatic subject I’ve always been on the lookout for something that had the dimensions of Shakespeare or the ancient mythologies, but which was neither, because both are well-trodden paths as far as opera is concerned. When I discovered this play, I found something that was by a contemporary Scottish writer, but which had the depth of classical theater in it, and had the presence and gravitas and violence and lyricism of the archetypal theater of Greek and Roman myth.”

INES DE CASTRO, adapted by MacMillan from a play by John Clifford, tells the story of the 14th- century Spanish mistress of Prince Pedro of Portugal. “It’s a story that has become imbedded in the Portuguese consciousness in the way that in Scotland the William Wallace story or the Robert the Bruce story has become like a national iconographic myth,” MacMillan explains. “And everyone in Portugal grows up with this story from a very young age.

“It’s my first piece for a long time that doesn’t deal directly with religion or politics, although, as far as liturgy is concerned, there is certainly a subliminal presence all the way through—it’s the kind of undercurrent behind the narrative.”

The narrative itself is a powerful current in its own right, and the libretto has an austerity and spareness from which many would-be librettists could learn. “There’s a simplicity of language about John’s writing,” MacMillan says; “there’s no histrionics, no indulgence, and it’s all the more powerful for that. For a musician it’s perfect, because then I can build on it.

“Because Ines was Spanish, the court in Portugal regarded her as the enemy, and the prince as literally sleeping with the enemy. And Pedro’s wife was barren, so Ines was producing bastard Spanish children for the Portuguese throne, endangering the whole independence of the Portuguese crown.

“The politicians in the court conspired with the king to have Ines and her children murdered, and to send Pedro to war against Ines’ people. They expected him to be killed. When Prince Pedro came back unexpectedly victorious, he found Ines murdered, and the two children with their heads cut off.

“When Pedro eventually became king of Portugal, he exacted a terrible revenge, and there were various gruesome executions and murders involved. And when he was crowned king of Portugal, he exhumed the corpse of Ines and had her crowned queen alongside him and forced the court and the nation to pay homage to her.

“I love stories that go tragically and horribly wrong, laden with so many extreme possibilities for music. And I am drawn to extremes—extremes of good and evil, of tranquillity and violence.

“But [this story] is underlaid by a kind of musical liturgy, because John asked for a sense of ritual in his play. So I looked at possible texts, and used the Stabat Mater [a 13th-century plainsong hymn often associated with the Stations of the Cross] more or less all the way through; it underlies all the narrative with other dimensions, other significance. Sometimes there’s a correlation between Ines and the Virgin Mary, seeing her offspring in danger and killed; other times it’s just a general theological significance about the vale of tears.

“This gave me another way of structuring the piece, so it can be seen on a couple of levels: There’s certainly a narrative going on, there’s something else, an almost timeless quality. And at points of high crisis, the background sometimes filters through into the foreground—there are offstage choirs and onstage ecclesiastical scenes as a counterpoint to the drama.”

HEARING A COMPOSER speak so lovingly of liturgy and theater calls to mind the church operas of another British composer, Benjamin Britten, to whom MacMillan is already being compared. (“They say that about everybody,” he disclaims. “It’s all hype.”) Britten’s works—like Noye’s Fludde and The Burning Fiery Furnace—pick up where the sung medieval church drama left off, synthesizing such liturgical elements as processions and plainsong with theatrical storytelling; for besides having written a great deal of religious music, Britten was also one of the foremost opera composers of the 20th century. Is there the same rich cross-fertilization between liturgical and theatrical music for the young Catholic composer as there was in the Anglican Britten’s work?

“My liturgical music is almost nil—I hardly write any liturgical music. The Catholic Church in Scotland until recently has not been very interested in me—the Catholic Church generally has not been very interested in me. But I’m very interested in them.

“The church has been very worried about the power of music, thinking that it can mislead people or lead people away from the central core of what the liturgy’s about. And maybe that sometimes happens, but I think [church leaders] fail to see that music is a kind of midwife to true religion, and music and the arts can nurture a sense of the divine which mere words and ceremonies and the kind of pared back emptiness of the Roman Catholic liturgy nowadays fail to achieve.

“There has been a misreading of what Vatican II was actually all about regarding liturgy—people have tended to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and there’s been a green light for a terrible iconoclasm in the Catholic Church. If you really look at the documents, you’d see that chant is valued, and Gregorian chant is held up as a very valid avenue to true devotion. We’re certainly not told to abandon the great repertoire of polyphonic music in the Catholic Church.

“But there seems to be an embarrassment in the Catholic Church about the wealth of music that Catholic history has generated. This has led to an alienation in the church that isn’t actually talked about a lot—people talk about the alienation of many different types of groups within the Catholic Church, but they never talk about the musicians’ alienation from the church, because a musician can be alienated and yet stay within the boundaries of the church. I am very much a supporter of Vatican II, very much a supporter of lay involvement in the liturgy, but there should be a balance—we should not throw out all this beautiful music from the past, and we should not ignore the desire of many Catholic musicians to be engaged again.

“For example, I’d love to write congregational masses, because I regard the artisan nature of composing as important as the artistic nature of it—I like to be part of a community, I like the whole idea of being able to write for non-specialists. And I’ve done that a lot, for amateurs and young people, youth orchestras, youth choirs.

“[Some people] are embarrassed that someone from the serious arts, from the world of art music, could have any input at all into church life, because they value the ‘folk’ quality, the ‘music of the people,’ which to them is this soupy, sentimental, lowest-common-denominator kind of music.”

This is not the first time MacMillan has inveighed against a pop mentality in the church, or in society generally. Of course, this kind of criticism is exactly what irks many church people about trained musicians. But there are greater dangers inherent in an unquestioning acceptance of commercial culture than lackluster congregational singing and banal “contemporary” church music, and MacMillan is very interested in raising the level of liturgical discourse, at least in his native Scotland.

“My worry is that I think a lot of people are very uncritical when it comes to the nature of popular culture, and they don’t see that it’s ubiquitous, over-powerful. And because it’s there all the time it has edged many other artistic possibilities out to the very fringes of the culture, [which] makes it even more difficult now for those arts to impinge on the consciousness of the general populace.”

AT THE MOMENT, and for the past two or three years, liturgical music is popular music. Despite the out-of-context packaging of the Gregorian plainsong, the out-of-style layering of New Age-y synthesizer accompaniments on exquisitely austere monophonic melodies, and the out-of-control exploitation of everyone from the professed religious that record it to the worldly professionals who buy it, the Propers of the Latin Mass have become as common as the coffeehouses in which one may hear them played, over sound-systems almost as intrusive as the ones in most churches (see “Chants of a Lifetime,” May-June 1995).

It is possible that the “Holy Simplicity” style of composers like Arvo Part, John Tavenern, and Henryk Gorecki—whose Third Symphony has become a staple of the more enlightened public radio stations—has done nearly as much to bring art music to public consciousness as Leonard Bernstein’s television broadcasts did. People are hungry for “compact disc spirituality.” Do the threads of chant woven through MacMillan’s musical tapestry betray an awareness of that?

“It’s on this very issue that I sometimes draw fire back home. The British are very cynical people, and when they see people in the limelight, they tend to think the worst; they think ‘manipulation.’

“From Josquin and Palestrina, composers have delved into Gregorian chant to build new music, to build new context for it; and all through history composers since then have been drawn to Gregorian repertoire. My love for that early Renaissance and pre-Renaissance music has made me think about the possibilities of doing it myself. It’s much more at the surface with them—it’s much more easily traceable in their music. With me, it’s simply a means to get started.”

Though he uses chant more as a theological than a musical rooting device, his music, while often strikingly original, is sufficiently informed by tradition to be comprehensible to audiences. For example, his orchestral work, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, a sort of tone-poem about a Scottish woman tortured and burned as a witch during the Reformation, premiered during the 1990 London Promenade concerts—between Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and Sibelius’ Violin Concerto—and was an instant success.

His Seven Last Words From the Cross, commissioned by the BBC, premiered on television over the seven successive nights of Holy Week last year. Each of the movements, true to a centuries-old tradition for works of this type, is a setting of one of the sayings, or “words,” of Jesus during his crucifixion. But MacMillan has also added other texts that amplify the basic ones—excerpts from the Responses for Tenebrae, for instance, and from the Good Friday Reproaches.

Dense layers of complex choral writing are suddenly undercut by deceptively simple plainchant; a short, repeated chord progression in the string orchestra serves as the foundation for a relentlessly intensifying dramatic set-piece. At its American premiere, before a stark Lenten cross of logs in a Lutheran church, the audience—most of whom had come to hear Bach—were swept away both by the power of the music itself and by the work’s “raw emotion connected with the death of Christ.”

UNFORTUNATELY, the passion story is only one among many subjects of raw emotion facing the church, and though it is a universal one, it seldom evokes the intensity of feeling that the more divisive issues do. About these—we begin with the ordination of women to the priesthood—MacMillan is circumspect.

“Well, I’m quite ambiguous about all that; I wouldn’t like to air my confusion about it too publicly. I can see both points of view, and I think that’s probably the position of most Catholics. The liberal position, especially in our part of the world, does not necessarily represent the general Catholic community.

“But on the other hand, there is a distinct perceived need for new thinking on the role and significance of priesthood, and to find new types of priesthood. Perhaps the solution to this in the Catholic Church is for the whole idea of ministry to be opened up, not just women but to lay people of all types.

“But I must add to that that I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as a liberal Catholic. I’m liberal in certain things—my political view is liberal; that’s the way Catholics are generally in Scotland. If you grow up a Catholic in the west of Scotland, you absorb a clutch of values from your culture which is generally left-of-center. We tend to support the Labor Party in Britain and so on.

“However, there is within the Catholic Church and the Catholic community a theological orthodoxy, and this sometimes leads to confusion outside because we are known as a very left-wing community. On matters of theology, we tend to follow our bishops, who are—I wouldn’t say reactionary at all— certainly quite orthodox on these matters. So I regard myself as quite a traditional Catholic actually.”

MacMillan is also hesitant to discuss the political content of his new opera, preferring the role of artist to that of ideologue.

“There are certain political dimensions to it that are probably best left untouched as far as any preview is concerned. I’m very careful about art being hijacked for political purposes, and though these pieces come from heartfelt humanitarian feelings, they must stand on their own two feet as pieces of art.

“I suppose what I’m saying is that I’m not leading people by the nose on this one; as far as the deeper significance of it, I’m not going to presume that my interpretation is the only one.”

But the artists do not leave us comfortless. At the end of the opera, when Prince Pedro crowns the corpse of his beloved queen, the Ghost of Ines whispers her commission to a little girl, one of a Chorus of Ordinary People around whom the momentous events of the story swirl like so much incense:

They will lie to you. They’ll say I had to die, that love is not enough. They’ll tell you that they have to kill, that they cannot avoid committing crimes. Do not believe them for a moment. Remember, remember that there is another way.

A James MacMillan Discography

The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jerzy Maksymiuk. Koch Schwann CD 310502.

The Exorcism of Rio Sumpúl. Paragon Ensemble, conducted by David Davies. Continuum CCD 1031.

Piano Sonata. Rolf Hind, piano. Factory Classical FACD 326.

Visitatio Sepulchri. BBC Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Ivor Bolton. Busqueda. BBC Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by James MacMillan. Catalyst 09026-62669-2.

Veni Veni Emmanuel. BBC Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducting by Jukka Pekka Siraste. Ruth Crouch, violin; James MacMillan, piano; Evelyn Glennie, percussion. Catalyst 09026-61916-2.

The Berserking. Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Markus Stenz. Sowetan Spring, Brittania, Sinfonietta. Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by James MacMillan. RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-68328-2.

SCOT ROBINSON is a doctoral student in composition at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and is former music director of the Pennsylvania Renaissance Fair.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)