James MacMillan: Christmas Oratorio (Live)

James MacMillan: Christmas Oratorio (Live)

For all its jollity and good cheer, Christmas is also a time for reflection on a moment in history and the eternal moment of God’s incarnation in human form. James MacMillan has served a powerful reminder of the Nativity story’s deep meaning in his Christmas Oratorio, a monumental setting of devotional poetry by John Milton, John Donne, and Robert Southwell, scriptural verses, sacred Latin texts, and a plaintive Scottish lullaby, “My Love and Tender One Are You” (“Chorus 4,” Track 13). The 95-minute composition, scored for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra, was co-commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It springs to life in their enthralling world premiere recording, made in concert under Mark Elder’s inspired direction in December 2021. MacMillan’s musically complex, emotionally diverse score was conceived in two parts, each divided into seven sections that collectively comprise four orchestral “Sinfonias,” two arias apiece for the soloists, two tableaux for chorus and solo duet, and four choruses. The various movement types are arranged in the form of a palindrome, such that their pattern reads the same in reverse as it does going forward. The structure supports the Scottish composer’s strikingly inventive musical responses to his choice of texts. These include an exquisite setting for solo soprano of “Behold a Silly, Tender Babe” (“Aria 1,” Track 3) by the 16th-century English Jesuit priest and martyr Robert Southwell, complete with a soaring solo violin countermelody and heartfelt harmonies, cataclysmic chords that mark Herod’s slaughter of the holy innocents, and an immeasurably beautiful baritone aria to the words of Donne’s “Immensity, Cloistered in Thy Dear Womb” (“Aria 2,” Track 5). MacMillan planned his work’s palindromic structure from the beginning. “I knew I wanted to do it that way,” he recalls. “To be honest, I didn’t really know what I was going to fill some of those sections with, but they presented themselves as I wrote it. I didn’t know, for instance, that I was going to use the lullaby until I was well into writing part two. I thought, ‘What do I do here? What text do I use?’ I’ve known that folk song for a long while, and it just seemed right to introduce something that simple towards the very end of the piece.” With each hearing, Christmas Oratorio sparks different emotional responses and triggers fresh images. “Writing something on this scale gave me scope to throw the net very wide, not just in terms of aesthetic, stylistic issues, but also the whole scope of human drama and feeling,” notes its composer. “People of faith, people of no faith, people of different faiths all have their own experiences of Christmas. And usually, it’s a positive and a joyous time. Sometimes an overindulgent time. I knew there’d be lots of different kinds of people coming at the oratorio from different perspectives. And that was a unique opportunity, in many ways, to throw a very wide embrace of styles into the mix.” Christmas Oratorio, completed at the end of 2019, distills the drama of Jesus’ birth and the mystery of Christ’s incarnation into two set-piece choruses. The expression of unconditional joy in Hodie Christus Natus Est (“Today Christ is born”) (“Chorus 2,” Track 6), which includes an extended homage to the Scots folk-fiddle tradition, grows in intensity as the piece develops, while O Magnum Mysterium (“O great mystery”) (“Chorus 3,” Track 9) builds layer upon layer of sound to create a profound meditation on the virgin birth. Hodie Christus Natus Est contains tuneful passages that would have been dismissed as irredeemably old hat when MacMillan began making his mark in the contemporary music world in the early 1990s. “I suppose I’ve been losing all my youthful certainties as I get older, and I feel better for it,” comments MacMillan. Christmas Oratorio certainly draws deep from the composer’s stock of experience, as composer, practicing Catholic, father, and family man. “It’s a piece that came along at the right time for me,” he reflects. “I suppose it’s a combination of a lifetime of Christmases, of living with the story and looking at the poetry over the years and the different Scriptural takes on it, and of having children and trying to make Christmas good for them. It was a big undertaking, though, and took a year to write. It was odd sitting in the middle of a July heat writing Christmas music!” MacMillan’s music retains its individuality while evoking the clean, contrapuntal style of the 16th-century composer Palestrina, the rapt concentration of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, and the ego-diminishing power of sacred ritual. “I’m certainly aware and respectful of the traditions, and not just the musical traditions that lead towards contemporary music. In a work like this, you need to be knowledgeable of religious, theological, and liturgical traditions as well. But generally, that’s my world. I’ve grown up with choral music in one way or another; I’ve sung Palestrina and Bach as a young person. All that goes into the work.” Christmas Oratorio flows naturally from MacMillan’s large-scale works for Passiontide and Easter, the St John Passion (2007), St Luke Passion (2010), and Stabat Mater (2015) among them. “Writing the two Passions helped me approach this piece, especially the first Tableau, which seems similar to some of the things I did in the St John Passion. But I’m always looking for different ways of doing things and didn’t want this Christmas Oratorio simply to follow what I’d done before. With big pieces like the two Passions and Christmas Oratorio, Bach is there, hovering in the background like a scary ghost. You can’t avoid it. And the question is how much do you engage with it? How much do you embrace it? I don’t think I consciously tried to avoid it, but one has to take one’s own path and rely on what’s inside one’s own heart.”

Select a country or region

Africa, Middle East, and India

Asia Pacific


Latin America and the Caribbean

The United States and Canada