A Christmas Story Still To Tell
A new Christmas Oratorio by James MacMillan looks back to Bach and ahead to cheerier times. KEN WALTON reports
Assuming he is allowed out of the country, Sir James MacMIllan will be a happy chappy. He’s scheduled to conduct the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus on Saturday 16 January in the world premiere of his epic Christmas Oratorio at the world-famous Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.
But when we spoke there was no guarantee. “I’m slightly wary about what may happen in the next few days. I’m going for a Coronavirus test on Saturday [9 Jan] at Edinburgh Airport. It’s a special arrangement where I get the results on Sunday night. All being well I fly to Holland on Monday [11th], so it’s quite tight,” he says. “If I can’t get there, there’s a deputy standing by.”
He desperately wants to be make it. The new 90-minute oratorio – co-commissioned by the Dutch orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic – has been a true labour of love, but has already fallen foul of Covid when the originally-intended world premiere in London last month had to be abandoned.
“I’ve been pestering the Dutch about whether the Amsterdam performance will actually happen. They assure me it will,” says an optimistic MacMillan. “There have been concerts in the Concertgebouw constantly since August, some with socially distanced audiences. But they’re being very strict about this one, and there will be no audience as such. It’s going out on live stream.”
Being there to conduct will mark the culmination of a major creative process that preoccupied MacMillan’s thoughts throughout 2019 and into the early months of 2020. “A whole year of my life went into this piece but I’ve heard nothing of it, only the thoughts in my head or by plonking the odd few notes on the piano. In my work that represents a big gap at the moment.”
Like the sacred Passions he has written in recent years, the Christmas Oratorio is part of a long-term aspiration by the composer to complete a series of large scale religious compositions that summarise his lifelong interests in Catholicism, theology and spirituality as expressed in worldly contexts through his music. There is also, in these works, the unavoidable ghost of JS Bach, whose own Passions and Christmas Oratorio are totemic within the genre.
Did Bach’s oratorio – a progressive package of six cantatas – weigh on his mind? “I know the Bach quite well”, he says, having played third trumpet in a Troon church performance as a 17-year-old Ayrshire schoolboy. “I suppose there was a ghostly memory of it, which the four orchestral Sinfonias that top and tail each of Parts 1 and 2 exemplify, but I wanted to present the vocal material in different forms, so the choruses are mostly Latin liturgical text, apart from the last which is an arrangement of a Scottish lullaby.”
What MacMillan presents structurally is a major coupling of complementary palindromes. Both constituent parts open and close with the orchestral movements. At the heart of each is a lengthy tableau setting biblical text, the first from the gospel of St Matthew, the second from that of St John. Each tableau is preceded by a chorus and aria, followed in reverse by an aria and chorus. The composer describes the lead up to each central tableau as three short “hors d’oeuvres”.
Equally personalised is the choice of texts, more comparable to, say, Britten’s 1962 War Requiem than to Bach. Like Britten’s juxtaposition of the sacred and secular, Latin and vernacular, MacMillan includes settings of Christmas poetry from the 16th/17h century by Robert Southwell, John Donne and John Milton.
“I spent a long time sifting and looking, trying to decide what I wanted”, he explains. “I wanted a wide range of different texts so there would be some narrative. But the choice of poetry was important. I eventually closed it down to this wonderful period of English poetry, especially that of Southwell, a Jesuit who was hung, drawn and quartered. That’s an amazing story in itself.”
Another shift from the direct influence of Bach is in the “mood” of the piece, not least the sense of mystery encapsulated in the Christmas Matins text, O magnum mysterium. This is not all joy and gladness. “There are some really dark moments,” he reveals. “Once you get into the Christmas story, especially St Matthew’s account, it’s pretty stark, like the slaughter of the innocents. Some of the moods are quite ambiguous from the start, looking forward to later events in the life of Jesus. But there’s joyousness too, and a kind of childlikeness in a setting of Hodie Christus natus est that has some of the most joyous music I’ve written.”
Expect, too, a nod to the secular carol tradition, “the same dancing rhythms you find in Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day and The Holly and the Ivy”. At which point, MacMillan confesses to some mischievous thoughts. “Should I have a quote from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, or When Santa Got Stuck Up the Chimney”? I even thought of throwing in some sleigh bells, but took them out.”
Above all, he adds, this is “a very personal” response. “But I think the shared nature of Christmas, whether you’re a believer or not, was a primal motivator in me doing this piece at all. It’s something everyone can share in, in the way we all do before Christmas, which is as much a great secular festival as a religious one.”
The irony there, by dint of the pandemic, is that the London premiere never happened before Christmas as planned. “That would have been lovely, but in Europe, where they keep their Christmas trees up till early February, the Feast of the Presentation, the timing is perfectly valid. We don’t think that way.”
Certain consequences of Covid have inevitably made their mark on the Amsterdam performance. The normally 80-strong Dutch choir – a professional group attached to the national broadcasting orchestra – will be cut to 38 voices. “There are a lot of a cappella and gently scored sections, so I don’t see that being a problem with these trained voices,” says MacMillan. “There will be moments, though, when we’ll need to be careful with the balance.” Such caution won’t apply to the two colossal soloists, soprano Mary Bevan and baritone Christopher Maltman.
With any luck, the follow-up performances in Melbourne, New York and a rescheduled London premiere, all now planned for November/December 2021, will present the work in its fullest glory.
But MacMillan is no less seized by the significance of next week’s world premiere. “I’ve been obsessed with this piece and preparing it for months. This represents a huge symbolic gesture in trying to bring new music back at a time when there’s a genuine despair in the musical world about what’s going to happen.
“Yes, it will be strange to perform to an empty hall, but the audience has the potential to be huge as a result of the live streaming. In that sense, it’s really exciting.” And subject, of course, to MacMillan getting on that plane.
James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio can be heard live on NTR Radio – https://www.nporadio4.nl/live – on Saturday 16 January at 1.15pm (GMT)