In his “constant, restless search for new avenues of expression,” the eminent Scottish composer, Sir James MacMillan (b. 1959), embraces tradition. MacMillan, whose catalogue includes five symphonies, six operas, a handful of concerti, and numerous sacred choral works, cites Scottish folk music and “the timeless truths of Roman Catholicism” among his influences. His Larghetto for Orchestra transforms the orchestra into a series of choirs, with echoes of ancient plainchant and contemplative liturgical chorales.
Commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in honor of the tenth anniversary of its Music Director, Manfred Honeck, the Larghetto is an orchestral transcription of Miserere, an a cappella choral piece that MacMillan wrote in 2009 for the London-based ensemble, The Sixteen. The text, taken from Psalm 51, is part of the Tenebrae liturgy of the Catholic Holy Week.
Although virtually identical, the Larghetto and Miserere unfold as different pieces. The literal associations of the original music fade into the background and the orchestra, with its array of tonal colors and expanded dynamic range, becomes a celestial wordless choir:
Here is James MacMillan’s Miserere, performed by The Sixteen:
Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness. According to the multitude of Thy mercies, do away mine offences. Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my faults …
- MacMillan: Larghetto for Orchestra, Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra reference recordings.com
- MacMillan: Miserere, Harry Christophers, The Sixteen thesixteenshop.com
Featured Image: “The old Caledonian Railway Viaduct at Kilwinning, North Ayrshire, Scotland,” photograph by Roger Griffith