Duruflé was far from being the last composer to use Gregorian chant in his works. Plainchant continues to fascinate contemporary composers.
Last night's live concert on BBC Radio 3 heard a performance of two of my favourite pieces by James MacMillan, his Kiss on Wood and Seven Last Words from the Cross. Seven Last Words from the Cross is a substantial cantata for double chorus and string orchestra, lasting some 45 minutes. Its magnificent third movement ("Verily, I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise") makes fine and extensive use of the lovely Good Friday chant Ecce Lignum Crucis.("Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the Saviour of the world"). The beautiful string writing here shows the Romantic side of the composer, but there are modernist elements too (the collage-like climaxes, the dissonant part-writing that suggests Stravinsky, etc). Christ's words appear only at the end when two sopranos sing them to the accompaniment of high violins. The other work, Kiss on Wood - a short work for violin and piano, sometime heard arranged for cello and piano or, as on Radio 3 yesterday, in an arrangement (not by MacMillan) for cello and orchestra - is based almost entirely on Ecce Lignum Crucis. It makes sense for it to be so, given that the subject matter of Kiss on Wood is love as expressed through the Good Friday tradition of kissing the cross. MacMillan spins a fantasy on the old melody that, despite the glinting Messiaen-inspired piano chords that accompany the violin's opening flourishes, soon becomes a rapt and rapturous outpouring of modal lyricism of considerable warmth. The composer's characteristic melismas, drawn from his keen interest in Scottish folk music, here add an intriguing (and apt) near-Eastern flavour to the music.
Seven Last Words from the Cross has become a favourite with performers and audiences. It's hard not to fall for such a direct yet imaginative work. Its opening movement shows how the composer marries simplicity - the continually-repeating and affecting figure heard in the strings at the very start and the simple but beautiful rising phrase sung by the sopranos ("Father forgive them") - with complexity, as other voices begin to pile in (Charles Ives-like) with different kinds of music. It is a magical moment when the other voices stop and leave the sopranos singing a simple phrase. The second movement ("Woman, behold thy Son") opens with a memorable phrase for full chorus that is made even more striking by MacMillan's dramatic use of silence. The strings steal in darkly as the voices cry out again and again. In one of those moments that makes listening to MacMillan so good for the senses comes when the music's struggle finally results in a blaze of unalloyed, hard-won major key beauty. This soon dissolves again however into agony - an uncomfortable ending for the listener, and properly so. The fourth movement ("My God, My God, why have you forsaken me") emerges from the depths (after the high, luminous ending of the third movement) and rises slowly and painfully into the heights where it laments before sinking back into the darkness again. It's a bleak, tough listen - but a powerful one that meets the demands of the words it sets. The fifth movement ("I thirst") uses long-drawn-out notes on violin harmonics, monotonous chanting and slow-moving harmonies to evoke the the scene of the parched Christ hanging in the late morning heat of Golgotha. It's a typically graphic idea and it works. The sixth movement ("It is finished") offers another example of MacMillan's ability to be graphic yet powerful as he evokes (at the very start) the hammer blows that nailed Jesus to the cross. This blows are a contrasting counterpart to the cries that opened the second movement and their are several echoes of the opening soprano phrase of the first movement to be heard here to. The closing movement ("Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit") only uses the choir for its first couple of minutes (including more echoes of earlier movements) before allowing the strings to have the final say with a long postlude, where the lament has strong overtones of Scottish traditional music - and where you will hear clear echoes on Kiss on Wood and its take on Ecce Lignum Crucis.
James MacMillan's Seven Last Words for the Cross has become such a fixture at Easter here in the United Kingdom in recent years that it's fame can only continue to grow. I wish it nothing but luck with that.
The same concert also included another contemporary work by a religiously-motivated composer, namely Sir John Tavener and his piece inspired by Good Friday's veneration of the cross, Popule Meus for solo cello, strings and timpani. (You can hear this work until next Friday here). Like MacMillan, Tavener is unafraid to be graphic. Unlike MacMillan, his strong bias towards simplicity is rarely balanced by any interest in complexity. So here the solo cello is God, the timpani represent Evil and the strings are us poor humans, torn between God and Evil. You can't get simpler than that! (Some might say 'simplistic'). The drums bang away, the solo cello sings slowly and raptly and the strings either join the timpani in their periodic outbursts of brutishness or faithfully support the sweet neo-Romantic song of the cello. The crudeness of Tavener's scheme in action is quite something to hear! That said, the sweet song of Tavener's God is pleasant enough. Next to a James MacMillan on form though, such an under-par piece never stood a chance. Sir John might have been trying to revive the spirit of his popular The Protecting Veil, which inhabits much the same piece of musical space (albeit rather more convincingly.)
The other item on the programme, Palestrina's timeless setting of the Stabat Mater, however, never had a need to worry. Its beauty was (like Allegri's Miserere) so prized by the Vatican that they kept it as their own preserve for centuries. The work is scored for double chorus and, atypically, relies more on the beauty of its harmonies and the shape made by its uppermost line (homophony) than on the balanced interweaving of lines (polyphony).