A deep dive into MacMillan's Christmas Oratorio

Find out more about the MacMillan Christmas Oratorio, ahead of the London Philharmonic's Saffron Hall performance on 5 December with these insightful programme notes from Joanna Wyld

Just a day after the UK premiere, Sir Mark Elder conducts a classic in the making.

Sir James MacMillan was born in Kilwinning, Ayrshire and studied at Edinburgh and Durham. He was initially drawn to modernist techniques, but favoured the music of figures such as Lutosławski and Penderecki, who represented the most human side of the avant garde. When MacMillan returned to Scotland in 1988, he renewed his relationship with his Scottish roots and with his Catholicism. This led to an ethos that embraced both the socialist and patriotic feelings stirred by Scotland, and the form of Catholicism epitomised by Latin American ‘liberation theology’ – in which faith is lived out through practical political engagement. MacMillan has sought to reflect those values in his music, often in a more openly expressive language than his earlier modernist tendencies would have allowed. Even so, unlike some of his ‘holy minimalist’ contemporaries such as Arvo Pärt, MacMillan has not eschewed those modernist roots, frequently adding spicily dissonant flavours to enrich or contrast with the sweetness of modal or tonal elements.

On the subject of faith and music, MacMillan observed in 2008 that: “Even in our post-religious secular society, occasionally even the most agnostic and sceptically inclined music lovers will lapse into spiritual terminology to account for the impact of music in their lives. Many people will still refer to music as the most spiritual of the arts.” MacMillan added that classical music, even if not overtly religious, demands reverence: “The serious, open and active form of listening necessary for classical music could be said to be analagous to contemplation, meditation or even prayer, in the way that it demands our time.” For MacMillan, music gives us “a glimpse of something beyond the horizons of our materialism or our contemporary values”.

MacMillan has composed many Advent and Christmas works that anticipate or celebrate the birth of Christ: numerous O Antiphons (the Magnificat antiphons sung at vespers on the last seven days of Advent), Christmas carols such as Seinte Mari moder milde, New-made and a Dutch carol for children’s choir, and even his first percussion concerto, Veni, veni, Emmanuel, composed in 1992 for Evelyn Glennie. But the Christmas Oratorio is MacMillan’s largest-scale work on this subject to date.

The work is in two Parts, each divided into seven movements, and is scored for soprano and baritone soloists, SATB choir and an orchestra augmented by harp and celesta. In keeping with the oratorio tradition, each of the two Parts is bookended by orchestral Sinfonias (four in total), in this case creating a palindromic structure (the same forwards as backwards).

MacMillan sets an array of texts embracing Latin liturgical texts, poetry, and passages from the Bible for the two tutti tableaux at the heart of each of the work’s two main sections. These texts are loosely grouped into different musical categories: the Latin texts are mostly reserved for the choruses, although the last of these is the Scottish lullaby. Two poems by Southwell and those by Donne and Milton – all of them dating from the 16th or 17th centuries – are used for the arias, which offer moments of reflection and which, in MacMillan’s words, are “firmly based in the oratorio tradition”. The soloists have two arias each and also join the choir for the tableaux, which are settings of Biblical accounts from Matthew’s Gospel in Part 1, and John’s Gospel in Part 2.

As MacMillan has explained: “There are various characteristic elements and moods throughout”, starting with “the ambiguous opening which mixes resonances of childhood innocence with more ominous premonitions, pointing to later events in the life of Jesus.” This opening Sinfonia begins with mysterious clarinet trills and a carol-like tune that, when heard on the celesta, takes on an ethereal quality, contrasted with an arresting timpani solo. The effect is at once childlike and haunting: we are dealing with the metaphysical; the Incarnation. MacMillan emphasises that this is not the world of a feel-good nativity play, but real engagement with the extraordinary profundity of God made Man. Many of these opening materials will recur later in the work, but will also be contrasted with sections that exude what MacMillan describes as “intermittent moments of joyfulness and the childhood excitement and abandon of Christmas”.

The use of palindromic structures for the two Parts is significant in providing a basis for these moments of contrast, which play out via juxtapositions between solos and chorus, and between the Biblical texts of the tableaux and the arias’ poetic reflections on those Biblical stories. There are contrasts, too, between the rich sweetness of the chorus singing a capella (unaccompanied), harking back to Renaissance polyphony, and the dazzling power, even theatricality, of MacMillan’s orchestral writing. The obvious comparison to make is with J.S. Bach’s similarly generous and rich Christmas Oratorio, but a wealth of references are also made to liturgical and secular styles of different eras – with a sense of embrace rather than parody or borrowing; the language is distinctively MacMillan’s own throughout.

Following the mystical excitement of the opening Sinfonia, we hear the first chorus: O, Oriens, a setting of one of the O Antiphons welcoming the “radiant dawn”. The purity of the choral writing is lent added gravitas via weighty brass sonorities and more of the imposing timpani beats we heard in the first Sinfonia, while widely-spaced choral textures might almost evoke the Russian choral tradition. The fragility of the first soprano aria, to Robert Southwell’s Behold a Silly, Tender Babe, suggests an influence closer to home, in its Brittenesque string undulations especially.

The great light anticipated in the opening chorus connects it with the monumental first tableau, in which the wise men are guided by the star towards the Light of the World – alongside the unflinching treatment the horror of the Massacre of the Innocents. Again, MacMillan’s emphasis is on the extraordinary nature of these events. Anyone feeling numbed by the over-familiarity of the Christmas story is bound to be jolted into a fresh realisation of its enormity –whatever one’s beliefs. Events of spiritual magnitude, of prophecy fulfilled, play out via a very human drama of perilous travel and the vulnerability of childhood and poverty.

“Stars and wise men will travel to prevent / The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom”; words from John Donne’s Nativity, used in the warm, magical baritone aria that follows and which in many respects matches stylistically the earlier soprano aria. MacMillan injects some “childhood excitement” into the next chorus, Hodie Christus Natus Est (the Magnificat antiphon for Christmas day), an electrifying piece that inhabits a similar soundworld to the energetic minimalism of John Adams but with added Scottish fiddle. Part 1 is rounded off with a festive Sinfonia in which the percussion section is to the fore; over-excited strings suggestive of children who have consumed too much sugar are calmed by dream-like celesta and rich orchestral chords, returning us from the giddiness of a secular Christmas to the other-worldly yet earthy profundity of the nativity.

MacMillan refers to “a sense of mystery in both orchestral and choral textures, such as in the setting of the O Magnum Mysterium text in Part 2” and, following the churning, whirling opening Sinfonia of Part 2, O Magnum Mysterium does indeed plunge us into a thrillingly mysterious setting punctuated by glissando harmonics and swirling woodwinds.

Several stanzas from John Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity are set in the baritone solo that follows, after which comes the noble second tableau to John’s astonishing, poetic Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word.” Messiaen-like slabs of colour punctuate this section and an animated soprano aria on Southwell’s The Burning Babe; a visionary description of the blazing light of the Christ-child illuminating a snowy night. The final chorus is a masterstroke: after all the drama and intensity comes the quiet profundity of a Scottish lullaby, its refrain, simply: “Hallelujah”.

As MacMillan puts it: “The oratorio ends reflectively in Sinfonia 4 with the orchestra alone, highlighting a small ensemble of string soloists amid the larger textures”. The result is a gossamer-textured movement in which strings and harp are interwoven to create a profound sense of the mysteries we have just heard unfolding before us, as though for the very first time.

© Joanna Wyld - Notes Upon Notes

Book tickets now

Lemn Sissay: My Name is Why

Thursday 1 December 2022, 7.30pm
An unmissable evening with poet playwright, memoirist, performer and broadcaster Lemn Sissay

Cory Band

Saturday 3 December 2022, 7.30pm
Cory Band bring their spine-tingling, blockbuster brass sound from the Welsh Valleys to Saffron Hall for the first time
Black and white photo of a man playing a saxophone which is slightly distorted with motion blur

Foyer Jazz: Dan Forshaw Quartet

Friday 2 December 2022, 8pm
Enjoy a relaxed evening in the foyer with street food, a bar and live music