An intimate, lucid and unforgettable new James MacMillan work

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

On Tuesday night I was at the world première of a motet by Sir James MacMillan and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more haunting piece of music.

It begins in half-light, with pinpricks from the organ so widely spaced that you could be listening to a forbidding tone row from the Second Viennese School. A four-part choir enters in close harmony and you realise that those apparently unrelated notes hint at austerely beautiful chords encircling the melody.

There are moments when we could be listening to Palestrina, to César Franck, to Benjamin Britten – a reminder that MacMillan is fluent in more musical languages than most living composers. But then the cadences resolve in directions that only he would choose, and that reminds us that, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he never sounds merely ‘eclectic’. (If you spot that word in a programme note, take my advice and make a run for the exit before the piece starts: it probably means the composer has shoplifted his inspiration.)

The first words are: ‘My little Sister waiting there’, and we’re told that she’s waiting ‘in Carmel’s shade’ – the title of the piece – which is significant because the author was a Carmelite nun. Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin became Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and, after she died in 1897 at the age of just 24, St Thérèse of Lisieux. For a time she was the most popular saint in the world. Perhaps she still is. When her relics visited Britain in 2009, the Guardianreported incredulously that ‘thousands queued around the block’ at their first port of call, Portsmouth’s Catholic cathedral.

Some of those people were hoping to be healed of disease, because Thérèse is the patron saint of illness. No one is better qualified for that unenviable title: she was frail all her life and in her enclosed, unheated convent discovered that she was fated to die from tuberculosis when she felt the bubbling of blood in her throat. In her last days her fellow sisters rather ghoulishly sat around her deathbed, each hoping that they would be honoured with ‘the last look’ before the young woman closed her eyes, because they knew they had a saint on their hands.

Thérèse wrote beguilingly about living simply while fighting off, and eventually banishing, sophisticated doubts about the existence of God. Perhaps it’s just my imagination, but her internal struggle seemed to be woven into MacMillan’s score, which rises to a fortissimo triumph above which the organ plays rushing arpeggios with the marking ‘manuals not coordinated’. So, a bit like Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony, where the snare drummer is let off the leash, no performance can ever be precisely replicated.

And there will be many more performances, I suspect. In Carmel’s Shade is one of the smallest but brightest jewels in the MacMillan collection, as intimate, lucid and unforgettable as Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine. But I’m not sure anyone will respond to it as passionately as I did because – full disclosure – the score is inscribed with the words ‘In memoriam Carmel Thompson’. She was my beloved younger sister and only sibling who died six months ago.

MacMillan’s motet, which I commissioned, was premièred at her memorial service in the church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory in Warwick Street, Soho. It’s the headquarters of the Ordinariate, whose Catholic priests are all ex-Anglicans and can be trusted to get the music right. Literally so, on this occasion. The Rector, Fr Mark Elliott Smith, was our organist, investing the motet’s accompaniment with just the right degree of spookiness and, more impressive still, giving us a note-perfect performance of Bach’s gargantuan St Anne Prelude and Fugue.

I don’t know what Carmel would have made of my eulogy, but I know she would have loved her friend Fr Benedict Kiely’s fiery and funny sermon and she would have been entranced by In Carmel’s Shade. She was devoted to St Thérèse and her insistence on performing small acts of kindness even to people you don’t like, a message I have yet to absorb. In her last days Carmel suffered as much and as cheerfully as the saint; her cancer even inflicted on her the nastiest symptom of Thérèse’s tuberculosis. It was a terrible thing to see, and the highest tribute I can pay to James MacMillan’s music and Thérèse’s words is that they went a little way towards reconciling me to her loss.

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