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ClassicsOnline Home » MACMILLAN: Veni, Veni Emmanuel / Tryst
BBC Music Magazine
By David Hurwitz
James MacMillan (b.
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel;
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, a concerto for percussion and orchestra is in one
continuous movement and lasts about 25 minutes. Dedicated to my parents, it is
based on the Advent plainsong of the same name and was started on the 1st
Sunday of Advent 1991 land completed on Easter Sunday 1992. These two
liturgical dates are important as will be explained later. The piece can be
discussed in two ways. On one level it is a purely abstract work in which all the
musical material is drawn from the fifteenth-century French Advent plainchant.
On another level it is a musical exploration of the theology behind the Advent
Soloist and orchestra converse throughout as two equal partners and a
wide range of percussion instruments is used, covering tuned, untuned, skin,
metal and wood sounds. Much of the music is fast and, although seamless, can be
divided into a five-sectioned arch. It begins with a bold, fanfare-like
'overture' in which the soloist presents all the instrument-types used
throughout. When the soloist moves to gongs and unpitched metal and wood the
music melts into the main meat of the first section – music of a more brittle,
knottier quality, propelled forward by various pulse rates evoking an ever-changing
Advancing to drums and carried through a metrical modulation, the music
is thrown forward into the second section characterized by fast 'chugging'
quavers, irregular rhythmic shifts and the 'hocketting' of chords between one
side of the orchestra and the other. Eventually the music winds down to a slow
central section which pits cadenza-like expressivity on the marimba against a
floating tranquillity in the orchestra which hardly ever rises above ppp. Over
and over again the orchestra repeats the four chords which accompany the words Gaude,
Gaude from the plainsong's refrain. They are layered in different
instrumental combinations and in different speeds evoking a huge distant
congregation murmuring a calm prayer in many voices.
A huge pedal crescendo on E flat provides a transition to section
four which reintroduces material from the 'hocket' section under a virtuoso
vibraphone solo. Gradually one becomes aware of the original tune floating
slowly behind all the surface activity. The climax of the work presents the
plainsong as the human presence of Christ. Advent texts proclaim the promised
day of liberation from fear, anguish and oppression, and this work is an
attempt to mirror this in music, finding its initial inspiration in the
following from Luke 21: “There will be signs in the sun and moon, and stars; on
earth nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves;
men dying of fear as they await what menace, the world, for the powers of
heaven will be shaken. And they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with
power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold
your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand.”
At the very end of the piece the music takes a liturgical detour from
Advent to Easter – right into the Gloria of the Easter Vigil in fact – as if
the proclamation of liberation finds embodiment in the Risen Christ.
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel was commissioned by Christian Salvesen plc for the
Scottish Chamber Orchestra and first performed by them with Evelyn Glennie and
Jukka-Pekka Saraste on 10th August 1992 at the Royal Albert Hall.
A few years ago I came across a love poem by William Soutar written in
broad Scots, called The Tryst which I set to a very simple melody. This
melody has persistently appeared, in various guises, in many works composed
since – a congregational Mass setting, a tiny fragment for violin and piano (After
the Tryst) and more recently in my music theatre piece Búsqueda. Not
only has it cropped up again in this piece, but it has provided both the title
and the emotional core of the music.
Its melodic characteristics, matching the original words, seem to imply
many very strong associations – commitment, sanctity, intimacy, faith (it is
used specifically in the Credo section of Búsqueda), love, but it
is also saturated with a sadness as if all these things are about to expire.
The music is in one continuous movement, but divided into five clearly defined
sections, the slow middle section being the point where the melodic potential
of the original tune is again explored. It is here elongated and ornamented on
the strings, behind which one hears pulsating, throbbing colour chords The
opening section of the work is fast, energetic and rhythmic. The second section
begins with slow homophonic wind chords which are interrupted by fast, violent
interjections on the strings. These interjections gradually become more
pervasive and expansive while the wind music transforms itself into shorter
more brutal intrusions (i.e. the two musics influence each other so that one
eventually becomes the other and vice versa).
After the slow third section, the melodic material from the opening is
now presented in a quick, rhythmically brittle, but simple structured verse and
refrain form. The final section combines fast music with solemn chordal ideas
from the middle section. Tryst is dedicated to Susan Loy, my
grandmother, who died in 1989.
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MACMILLAN: Veni, Veni Emmanuel / Tryst