Sir James Macmillan at St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh
Tuesday 23 April 2024
Review by Adrian Porter sj

To attract an audience of 300-plus on a cold and rainy midweek night for a lecture on the somewhat niche topic of the origins of western music in plainsong is an astonishing feat.  But the draw this past week was Sir James Macmillan who appeals to three distinct audiences: he is the local hero who has made it on the world stage; a Catholic who is not shy to share his Catholic faith and practice and to engage in discussion about the religious quality of music as an art form; and a composer and conductor of international repute.

Macmillan is patron of music at St Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral in Edinburgh and this was Macmillan at his best.  He began by drawing attention to the fact that the religious content and inspiration of what he terms “art music”, music written for the concert hall, seems as strong or stronger than ever compared to the accelerating decline of religious belief and practice in the west.  Other art forms seem to mirror that decline beginning in the 19th century but music, “the most spiritual of the arts”, is still greatly invested in religious ideas, forms and expression.

Macmillan illustrated this with reference to Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, first performed at La Scala in 1957 – an opera that is one of the great, popular and acclaimed works of the century but which takes as its theme the triumph of faith over secularity, mysticism over reason, martyrdom over common sense.  He spoke also of Messiaen’s work, calling him one of two theological composers (alongside Bach of course).  Poulenc and Messiaen explore ideas of faith and specifically, the Roman Catholic religion, in ways that still attract huge interest and engagement.  And many others can be added to the list: Stravinksy, Schnitke, Britten and Pärt.  Composers of deep spirituality which finds expression in their music.  Even musicians who are not themselves believers can and do engage with religious music in a way that does not seem to be true of other art forms.

So, where does what Macmillan termed the “religious DNA” of music as an artform come from?  His talk proposed that the roots are to be found in the plainsong of the Christian church which reigned supreme from the early centuries until the middle ages and beyond.  And where did that musical treasure of the church come from?  Macmillian suggested the chanting of the psalms in Jewish worship.  He picked up the comment in Matthew’s account of the last supper that “after psalms had been sung” Jesus and the disciples “left for the Mount of Olives” (Mtt 26:30) there to be betrayed and taken into captivity.  These psalms were surely the Hallel psalms (psalms 113-118) that are sung to this day by observant Jews on the first day of the festival of Passover.  Macmillan highlighted some of the verses of those psalms – texts that are so poignant with the knowledge of the events of the passion that would unfold over the next 24-hours.

Musicologists, such as William Mahrt (The Musical Shape of the Liturgy 20120), have researched the music used for the singing of the Hallel in isolated Jewish communities in Yemen, uncontaminated by developments and influences more easily felt elsewhere.  These distinctive melodies sound very like some of the more primitive plainsong tones used for the psalms as Macmillan illustrated by singing for us.

As Christianity developed and gradually cut its ties to the synagogue and became the religion of the Roman Emperor in Constantine and then the Roman Empire under Theodosius I, chant developed its own modes and forms.  Macmillan showed how these were often the inspiration for the polyphonic music of the Renaissance and beyond.  Of course, chant was never lost to the church, although more and more ornate styles came to dominate.  Chant was preserved in the monastic houses and it was at the abbey of Solesmes, among others, in the 19th century that the great return to sources and the publication of new and scholarly editions of the chant emerged.

The liturgical revision set in train at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) recognized “Gregorian chant as something special to the Roman liturgy which should thus be given a place of primacy” (Sacrosanctum Concilium n.116) while at the same time preserving and developing “the rich heritage of music in churches” (n.114) which ran considerably beyond chant.  But the contrary reforming motion of the widespread introduction of vernacular languages (n.36.2) saw chant almost entirely disappear from the experience of most Catholics’ ordinary worship.  Macmillan observed that the Anglican church has a great tradition of combining chant and the vernacular and encouraged the use of chant, whether in Latin or English, alongside the other music written for the liturgy.  He noted the observation of the great liturgist Josef Jungmann sj that chant raises text from the mundane and presents it “as on a platter of gold”.  This was what Jesus did before he left for the Mount of Olives and worked the salvation of the human race.

The whole hour’s talk was wonderfully illuminating, clearly thought through, and encouraging to those charged with the ministry of music in worship.  The lecture attracted many parish musicians as well as the great and good in the music world of the university, city and churches of Edinburgh.  It is good to see and to celebrate the many hours of isolated work that characterize the consistent and prolific output of a composer such as Macmillan brought into the light and shared so generously with an audience.  The extended applause at the end said everything.

Adrian Porter sj is parish priest of Edinburgh Jesuit Church and current Chair of the Society of St Gregory.

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