02. Music List 29/03/20
Sunday 29th March 2020
My choice for this morning’s music list is one which may not be familiar to you: it is a piece I have performed many times, and one which never fails to enthrall audiences, congregations, and performers alike: James MacMillan’s Miserere mei, Deus.
I have had the privilege of working closely with James on a number of occasions over the past few years. He is an
incredibly humble and sincere man, an absolute joy to work with. He is also a devout Catholic, whose faith shines through his music. He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest choral composers of all time.
For Passion Sunday I have taken a text which has been set by many composers over the centuries, most famously by Gregorio Allegri: Psalm 51 (‘Have mercy upon me o God, after Thy great goodness’). James’s setting is hauntingly beautiful. The hallmarks of his music can be found throughout the work – consonant harmonies playing off against each other; scotch snaps; outpourings of emotion followed by moments of stillness – but the overall feeling one comes away with is of it being a simple and deeply personal prayer. The E minor opening appears out of nowhere, an internalised, almost inaudible plea for mercy, and grows through a glorious crescendo to ‘misericordia’ (forgiveness). The two soprano parts (marked “keening, crying” in the score) then start a flowing, melodious canon, highlighting the water used to “wash me throughly from my wickedness”.
The music then grows to the first passionate outpouring, at the text ‘Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean’, followed immediately by a beautiful and tender harmonic shift to A major for ‘thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow’. The next section is a moment of rapt stillness, a very simple harmonisation of the plainchant, followed by a desolate, but achingly beautiful, repeat of the first section (“O give me the comfort of thy help again; and stablish me with thy free Spirit”). The final section of the piece again incorporates the plainchant, sung by each voice in turn against a drone, with a soloist singing a simplified version of the original soprano tune. The piece ends with a message of hope, the opening music transformed into a radiant E major.
James dedicated the work to Harry Christophers and The Sixteen – here is their recording of it: Click here.