- MacMillan is inspired by Catholicism and Scottish heritage
- This work is based on a historic figure from 1662
- MacMillan’s structure is narrative, following the trajectory of Isobel’s story
- Reflective music at the beginning and end frame turbulent central episodes in the music
- MacMillan’s intent was ‘the Requiem that Isobel Gowdie never had’
Now 61, James MacMillan has been one of the United Kingdom’s new music stars for more than three decades. He studied piano and trumpet as a child and began writing music when he was 10. His formal education took place at Edinburgh University, where he developed a strong interest in the music of Stravinsky, Messiaen, Webern, and the modern Russian school, and Durham University, where he completed a doctorate in 1987. MacMillan worked with the English composer John Casken (b. 1949), also studying ethnomusicology and becoming acquainted with music of the Javanese gamelan.
MacMillan is a devout Catholic whose faith has wrought a powerful influence on his music, as has his keen interest in Scottish heritage and culture. He worked closely with the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies on educational and other musical projects in Scotland. The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, a major work from 1990, was one of MacMillan’s early orchestral successes and remains one of his best-known scores. It is based on Scottish history and legend that have a direct parallel in the Salem witch trials of colonial Massachusetts. MacMillan’s composer’s note explains.
It is an extraordinary fact that in the centuries before the Reformation the number of known executions for witchcraft in Scotland was in single figures; but in the years between 1560 and 1707 as many as 4,500 Scots perished because their contemporaries thought they were witches. The persecution of witches was a phenomenon known to Catholic and Protestant Europe at this time but the Reformation in Scotland gave an impetus to the attack on ‘witches’ which became a popular and powerful crusade. Medieval notions of good and evil spirits had been repressed by the Reformers – to seek the intercession of saints was no longer a virtue but a superstition, to leave out milk for the fairies or to give oatmeal to a witch was seen as a Satanic act. And so Scotland’s experiences with witch-hunting can be seen as defensive responses to the fear of alien traditions and cultures, and to the more basic fear of those who were different from the majority.
Many of the victims were women whose sex alone seems to have been the inspiration for their persecutors’ zeal. Mass hysteria surrounded the suspicion of these women from whom confessions were extorted through torture of the severest kind. In 1662, Isobel Gowdie from Nairn confessed to having been baptized by the devil and joining a coven of 13 who met at night; she had journeyed to the center of the earth to feast with the King and Queen of the fairies; she could fly, or become a hare, a cat or a crow; she used waxen images and bags of boiled toads to cause inflictions; she had killed a ploughman with elf-arrows the devil gave her; sometimes the devil beat her and raped her: "He would be beating us all up and down with cords and other sharp scourges like naked ghaists"; he was a stag of a bull, or "a very mickle, black rough man". She was subsequently strangled at the stake and burned in pitch amid scenes of hysterical fright and sadism.
Initially I was drawn by the dramatic and programmatic potential of this insane and terrible story, but the work soon developed a far more emotional core, as I attempted to draw together various strands in a single, complicated act of contrition. On behalf of the Scottish people, the work craves absolution and offers Isobel Gowdie the mercy and humanity that was denied her in the last days of her life. To do this, I have tried to capture the soul of Scotland in music and outer sections contain a multitude of chants, songs and litanies (real and imagined) coming together in a reflective outpouring – a prayer for the murdered woman.
This work is the Requiem that Isobel Gowdie never had.
– James MacMillan
MacMillan’s score brings this harrowing tale vividly to life. Opening in calm, even strains, it rapidly escalates in tempo, volume, and intensity. Our imaginations are fired by the horrific deviltry evoked by Isobel’s confession; Hieronymus Bosch’s painting of Dante’s Inferno comes to mind. MacMillan’s paints these sinister images with brilliant colors; his orchestration skill is especially evident in his use of the large percussion section and the brasses. While some passages are heart-poundingly terrifying, others reveal his lyric, post-romantic gift. The Confession of Isobel Gowdie takes us on an emotional roller coaster that lingers long after the piece is over.
The score calls for woodwinds in pair, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, percussion requiring two antiphonally placed players [high and low congas, high and low timbales, xylophone, three tam-tams, anvil, tubular bells, snare drum, vibraphone, and bass drum], timpani, and strings.
- The Roman god “Jupiter” connotes nobility, subtlety, grandeur, and power
- The symphony’s nickname may have come from the entrepreneur and violinist Johann Peter Salomon
- Short themes in the finale lend themselves to elaborate counterpoint
- The finale’s double fugue is one of Western music’s greatest achievements
Jupiter was the sovereign god of the Romans. He held supreme rank and ultimate authority over the other deities. Throughout modern history, his name has been associated with power and might, both in natural phenomena (storms, lightning) and in political supremacy.
In music, the name ‘Jupiter’ brings two works to mind: the fourth movement of Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets, and Mozart’s final symphony. The former is clearly an astronomical reference, though Holst’s music does suggest the character of each god who inspired those seven planetary names. The case of the Mozart is more abstract, linked to the late 18th-century aesthetic of the sublime: the ultimate in artistic achievement, music of an exalted greatness beyond compare.
For many years the origins of the nickname "Jupiter" for Mozart's last symphony were unknown. An arrangement of the symphony for one piano, four hands was published in England around 1820 with the sobriquet, but with no explanation. Mozart's symphony is mentioned in the diaries of Vincent and Mary Novello, a 19th-century English couple who traveled widely and interviewed the composer's widow Constanze in 1829. According to them, the name was bestowed by Johann Peter Salomon, the entrepreneur responsible for Haydn's two visits to London in the 1790s.
No doubt Salomon was struck, as we must be, by the ceremonial and grand effects of Mozart’s C major symphony. Assertive and forthright from its opening, it is music of majesty and sweep, convincingly bringing to mind the king of the ancient Roman gods. The slow movement is a standout. Biographer Ivor Keys calls it:
. . . the apotheosis of the ornate song which bewitched Mozart since his Italian days. To the beauty of sound of the muted violins is added the woodwind counterpoint featured in so many concertos, but added to this is a new rhythmic dimension sometimes highlighted by unexpected harmony.
Mozart's syncopations and unexpected accents add to the effect.
The "Jupiter" is justly celebrated for its finale. Mozart had developed an interest in the music of Bach and Handel, which manifested itself in the magnificent contrapuntal fabric of this splendid conclusion. While the finale is not, strictly speaking, a double fugue, it incorporates virtually every aspect of contrapuntal technique into a sonata movement: canon, fugato, stretto, invertible counterpoint, even cancrizans, in which a theme is played backwards! The greatest miracle of all is that Mozart makes all this formidable intricacy sound perfectly wonderful. His extraordinary complexity and superb craft reach their peak in the magnificent coda, where all five principal themes are interwoven in one of music's greatest triumphs.
Mozart’s final three symphonies (No. 39 in E-flat, the "Great" G-minor, and the "Jupiter") date from summer 1788. The three autograph scores barely span six weeks. What an astonishing level of productivity, even for Mozart! Ironically, there is no record of any of them being performed during his lifetime.
The score calls for flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, and trumpets in pairs; timpani, and strings.
© Laurie Shulman, 2020