About this Recording
8.554167 - MACMILLAN: Veni, Veni Emmanuel / Tryst

James MacMillan (b. 1959)
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel; Tryst (1989)

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 message.

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 heartbeat.

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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