Sir James MacMillan offers listeners access to the transcendent and intimate experience of faith
Earlier this month, Sir James MacMillan’s Symphony No. 5 received its London premiere at the Barbican, alongside the UK premiere of his work commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Fatima apparitions, The Sun Danced. It was a remarkable evening, at which Sir James confirmed again his standing as the leading lay Catholic voice in these isles, and his ability to hold an audience spellbound with music inspired by faith. It seems remarkable in these times that a packed London concert hall could receive the messages of Fatima and give a standing ovation to a symphony about the Holy Spirit, but that is what happened.
The Sun Danced was first performed in Fatima in 2017 for the centenary, and it really is astonishing that it could be received so well in London. It is a rather compact piece which makes use of the words and prayers of the angel of Portugal and the messages of Our Lady of the Rosary, and lacks the narrative connections which would make sense of these. This would work for a performance in Fatima, but one wonders what audience members who do not know the story made of the Angel’s prayer of reparation for offences to the precious Body and Blood of our Our Lord, or Our Lady’s repeated injunctions to ‘pray the rosary every day’. These were delivered by soprano Mary Bevan in an impassioned and poised performance, supported by a radiant Britten Sinfonia and the Sixteen and Genesis Sixteen fully committed to the music.
The climactic dance of the sun was vividly illustrated by the orchestra and punctuated with cries from the choir (setting the words of the crowd at Fatima), and the work’s final soprano solo was sung in a Gregorian-chant like arioso by Bevan to hair-raising effect. If it were not a moving work in itself, at the very least it would be a great inspiration to those who have not heard of Fatima to seek the story out, and for those Catholics in the audience who, like me, were attending with a non-Catholic, to explain it during the interval.
The Fifth Symphony is subtitled ‘Le Grand Inconnu’, a French name for the Holy Spirit which means ‘the great unknown’, and it is MacMillan’s first choral symphony. Its three movements explore images and concepts associated with the Spirit from scripture and tradition, namely ‘Breath’, ‘Living Water’ and ‘Fire’; fittingly for the Spirit of Pentecost, the work embraces various languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English.
MacMillan’s trademark masterful use of the orchestral and choral forces communicated the scriptural passages and selections from the works of St John of the Cross in a typically powerful way, from the sound of wind and breathing to the sparkle and flow of water and the brilliance and danger of fire. As a choral symphony, naturally one thinks of Beethoven’s ninth, and as a symphony about the Holy Spirit, Mahler’s eighth is another point of comparison. But this, despite its length and size, is a much more intimate work than either, and throughout breathes a warmness and intensity which comes from MacMillan’s ardent faith, expressed again through music.
In its ardour, intensity and warmth, the Fifth Symphony did indeed recall a phrase from Beethoven’s ninth symphony: ‘Seid umschlungen, Millionen!’, ‘Be embraced, you millions!’ Both The Sun Danced and the Fifth Symphony offer listeners access to the transcendent and intimate experience of faith and present an invitation: allow yourselves to be embraced. Sir James MacMillan is not only a great composer, he is also a prophetic voice, who can command an audience for evangelisation wider than many in a world which desperately needs the Holy Spirit, ‘le grand inconnu’.