Oct 162015

It is one of the enduring ironies of classical music that so much of today’s repertoire was written by such a small number of people. This post is the fourth in a multipart Arts Fuse series dedicated to reevaluating neglected and overlooked orchestral music. Comments and suggestions are welcome at the bottom of the page or to jonathanblumhofer@artsfuse.org.

James MacMillian. Photo: Andrew Crowley

Composer James MacMillan—though he’s widely performed and regarded, especially in Europe, his music is a relatively rare presence on American orchestral programs. Photo: Andrew Crowley.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Just as Dmitri Hvorostovsky is “the” Siberian bass, James MacMillan has, for upward of a quarter-century now, been “the” composer from Scotland. Whether or not this is the fairest of appellations is debatable, but MacMillan’s Scottish identity certainly marks much of his music. It’s there in the rhythms and folk-like gestures that fill many of his scores: sometimes, as in Cumnock Fair, there are outright quotations of traditional tunes; in others, like the despondent Tuireadh, the influence is more atmospheric and general.

The Scottish sway is also abundantly present in the themes on which MacMillan’s music is based. His wildly triumphant first calling card, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, is a requiem for a woman accused of, condemned, and executed for witchcraft in Scotland in 1662. The Meditation on Iona focuses on providing “an impression of…[the] stark and desolate beauty” of the titular Scottish Isle. His clarinet concerto Ninian commemorates one of Scotland’s founding Christian fathers, the eponymous St. Ninian. And so on.

In addition to the echoes of Scottish Nationalism, MacMillan’s music is also often marked by the composer’s Roman Catholic faith. Like Messiaen, Elgar, and Bruckner before him, MacMillan’s faith is writ large, both in explicitly sacred scores and in his more abstract works. There are, thus far, a pair of Passion settings—St. John (given its US premiere—and only American performances to date—in Boston by Colin Davis and the Boston Symphony in 2010) and St. Luke; the striking cantata Seven Last Words from the Cross, for chorus and strings; a Little Mass; Magnificat, Nunc dimittis, and Credo settings; and numerous other works, big and small. Among the former must stand his greatest “hit,” the percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, which is based upon the eponymous Advent chant.

In all, it’s a huge body of music, often dynamic, wildly inventive, filled with color and pulsing rhythms, engaging both the mind and the heart. As with most highly prolific composers, MacMillan’s output can also be uneven. The instrumental final movement of the St. John Passion straddles, not always successfully, the line between art and kitsch. And there are pieces—A Deep but Dazzling Darkness and A Scotch Bestiary among them—in which his formidable sense of invention and compositional technique doesn’t result in music of much lasting expressive force. But the emotional content and impact of MacMillan’s music, on the whole, is remarkable: he’s one of precious few contemporary composers who has unabashedly embraced elements of the avant-garde, written music that at times can be uncompromising in its grittiness, and still found a wide audience.

Why, then, is this not-unknown, forgotten, or neglected composer part of a survey of overlooked repertoire? There are a couple of reasons. First, though he’s widely performed and regarded, especially in Europe, MacMillan’s music is a relatively rare presence on American orchestral programs. Take The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, which was widely acclaimed by audiences and critics after its 1990 BBC Proms premiere. This 20-minute score has entered the repertoire of 12 professional American orchestras since then. A decent number, for sure, but, between them (and two college ensembles), it has received only 25 performances here since its US premiere in 1993; 12 of them have been led by one conductor, Marin Alsop. The Piano Concerto no. 2, has only turned up on two programs on these shores (the most recent being in 2008. Its successor, the Third Concerto has fared better: no doubt it helped that the piece was commissioned by Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra). MacMillan’s Triduum—arguably one of his magnum opuses—has been heard in this country only once (again, thanks to Alsop’s advocacy).

The second reason is that, while MacMillan’s output is significant, his reputation rests on a relatively small number of works. This means that there are (potentially, at least) plenty of deserving pieces in his canon that might go unnoticed. One of those, in my estimation, is Tryst, a 1989 symphony-in-all-but-name that draws on a rather peculiar source: MacMillan’s setting of a love poem by William Souter called “The Tryst.” If you know much of MacMillan’s other music, you’ll be aware that this song has turned up in several other works of his, too, including a mass and a theater piece. It features a lovely, simple, folk-like tune that you can listen to here:

Unlike The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, there’s no programmatic element at work in Tryst, at least none MacMillan has admitted to. Rather, it’s an abstract work, one that recalls Stravinsky perhaps more than any other composer in its dry, acerbic punchiness and rhythmic energy. There isn’t anything overtly Catholic about it, either, though the influence of Scottish folk music is heavily apparent, in part in references to “The Tryst,” which turns up most recognizably in the work’s haunting middle section. Let’s take a look at the score in some depth to gain a better understanding of what makes it all click.

There are five clearly marked sections to Tryst. The first is essentially a rondo, opening with a brief, rhythmically driving refrain that’s of important motivic significance to the entire piece. Six “verses” appear between each iteration of the refrain, and, in them, the building blocks of the whole piece appear: caterwauling glissandos, percussive thwacks from string and timpani, embellishments of the refrain motto, and the stirrings of a chorale among them. The latter figure drives the short second movement, which begins wailing and dissonant in the woodwinds and is transferred, through a scurrying string figure, to the violins. After this striking exchange, the third section, Tryst’s emotional heart, begins.

It starts with the violins continuing their wandering, chorale-like perambulations, but underneath this a gentle, diatonic layer of chord progressions in the low strings is heard loosely outlining B-flat major. After the chords fade away, the most aurally stunning section of the piece ensues. First come a series of folk-fiddle-like motives that recall MacMillan’s original “The Tryst.” This builds through a series of rich, heterophonic textures made up of quintuplets against triplets of various rhythmic values against an underlying pulse of steady quarter-note beats; it’s a glorious, shimmering haze. Rooted prominently on the overtone series of the D and G strings, the effect of this section—punctuated as it is by bells and pedal tones in the low strings and brass—comes as close to approaching the mystical as just about anything MacMillan’s written. Gradually, as these things do, the music dissolves into the shards of the fiddle-ish music heard earlier, now more aggressive in character. A big crescendo of timpani and strings functions almost like an alarm clock rousing you from a reverie: the trumpet chorale that bridges this movement to the next has an almost bitter aftertaste.

The last two parts of Tryst return to the propulsive, rhythmic character of the opening rondo. Open fifths dot the fourth section, providing it moments of folk-like pause, though the overriding mood is one of inexorable urban energy. The closing music refers back to the last section of the rondo, with melodic writing passed between multiple groups of instruments while, underneath, a recurring chaconne bass intones a figure that recalls the chord progressions heard at the beginning of the third movement. These two types of music continue on for several minutes until, suddenly, 27 iterations of a tone cluster in the highest register of the winds and strings abruptly concludes that melody. The bass line continues on for three more bars before it enigmatically fades away.

Now listen to the piece in full:

So, what might we make of Tryst? Unlike the first three scores we’ve encountered in this survey, it has received its share of performances, especially in Europe and Australia (where, unsurprisingly given its combustible energy, it’s turned up with notable frequency as a ballet). But the score has rarely been heard live in the United States: according to MacMillan’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, it’s only been played twice on these shores, both readings coming on the same day in 2004 courtesy of the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra conducted by (who else?) Marin Alsop. Clearly, MacMillan needs more champions among conductors of American orchestras. His non-Isobel Gowdie and Veni, Veni, Emanuel scores would also benefit from greater advocacy by artistic administrators who plan orchestral seasons years in advance. At the end of the day, Tryst is a work on the fringes of the modern repertoire, but one that would do well to be brought in from the shadows: with its lively melodic interplay, galvanic energy, and ear-catching handling of the orchestra, it’s too good to languish outside the limelight.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.


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