One Friday in late April Lynne and I headed to Rome to hear a performance of my Stabat Mater in the Vatican on the Sunday evening.
The concert was given by the original performers, The Sixteen and the Britten Sinfonia. It was premiered by them in Britain a few years ago, a commission from John Studzinski. This extraordinary man had then convinced everyone, right up to Pope Francis, that the work should be performed (with a live feed on Classic FM) in the Sistine Chapel.
There was an invited audience of about 500, mostly Brits but not all. Studzinski’s Genesis Foundation had flown out the choir, orchestra and composer and had laid on a lunch for special guests, a private tour of St Peter’s Basilica and a Mass at the very tomb of St Peter underneath.
At the rehearsal on Sunday afternoon an English member of the Sistine Chapel Choir showed me the balcony where papal choristers have sung for hundreds of years. Palestrina, Allegri and Josquin des Prez would have stood among them. The latter had even carved his signature on the wall, perhaps bored during a four-hour Vespers. I was in composer’s heaven – and pinching myself.
In the audience was my friend Cardinal Vincent Nichols (whom I am interviewing at the Boswell Book Festival on May 5), and I spotted members of the Curia, as well as members of the Upper House: Lord Heseltine, Lord Alton and Baroness Kennedy (who said the event made her proud to be Scottish.
Shucks). Janis and Emma from my publishers, Boosey and Hawkes, were there, as was an old university pal, Pauline. (Emma lost her partner a few months ago.) Lynne and I used to be lay Dominicans and there was a comforting smattering of white robes in the audience, as well as clergy from the English, Scots and American Colleges in Rome.
When the musicians began their rehearsal, there was a palpable sense of delight among them at the incredibly intense acoustic in the chapel. Their performance later, conducted by the amazing Harry Christophers, was powerful and unrelenting. Under the Michelangelo frescos and his gigantic painting of the Last Judgment, my Stabat Mater unfolded as the singularly most significant spiritual moment of my life. The last movement asks Mary to intervene on our behalf before God on the Day of Judgment.
As we listened, we looked up at Mary beside her Son as the judging unfolds. After the performance an elderly gent approached me and told me that his wife had died three weeks ago. He had just seen her soul rising into heaven, and asked me if I had ever experienced a grief similar to what he was going through. Yes, I replied, as I dissolved into silent tears of sadness. And joy.
I addressed an international music conference in London last week on the question: “Have we forgotten our sense of place?” Can we tell the difference between a piece written in Scandinavia and one written in South America just by listening to it? Should we be able to? How much does geography dictate compositional output?
In his recent brilliant book The Road to Somewhere, David Goodhart talks about “somewhere people” and “anywhere people”, and it got me wondering if we can also talk about “somewhere composers” and “anywhere composers”. The reason we ask ourselves about a composer’s sense of place today is due to the rise of a cosmopolitan, international aesthetic in musical modernism (and indeed postmodernism) which for many decades now has attempted to strain out any vestiges of localism in preference for a sophisticated, pan-national contemporary music style.
When I attended the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik at Darmstadt, the Scandinavian music sounded very like the South American music, which sounded very like the Korean music, which sounded very like the German music, and on and on it went, round and round. They all prided themselves on this, and a particular ire was reserved for those composers who didn’t fit the template.
I remember Wolfgang Rihm’s music being booed, mainly by other German composers, because it sounded German. The floating C minor chords here and there brought back old memories perhaps – and they didn’t like it.
I was only a provincial undergraduate when I was there, and I couldn’t work out why the Germans especially were accusing their country’s greatest living composer of fascism and Nazism. It was clear though that many among the up-and-coming musical and cultural elites were marking out some new restrictions and guidelines on what new music should and should not be.
It is not necessarily reactionary and old-fashioned to be interested in the vernacular traditional music of one’s own culture, or even someone else’s. The Scottish composers who utilise local folk music in their work, for example, don’t do it as a genuflection to the past or as an obeisance to the way things used to be, but as a genuine search for new expressions. Think Judith Weir. Think James Dillon. Think Peter Maxwell Davies.
Sir James MacMillan is a composer and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald
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