Opening Oneself to the Message: An Exploration of James MacMillan’s ‘On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin’

Editor’s Note: As part of our focus on the TheoArtistry project, we are pleased to offer an article that examines a composition by the eminent composer, Sir James MacMillan.

‘On the Annuncation of the Blessed Virgin’

A winged harbinger, from bright heav’n flown,
Bespeaks a lodging room
For the mighty King of love,
The spotless structure of a virgin womb,
O’ershadow’d with the wings of the blest dove:

For he was travelling to earth,
But did desire to lay
By the way,
That he might shift his clothes, and be
A perfect man, as well as we.

How good a God have we, who, for our sake,
To save us from the burning lake,
Did change the order of creation;
At first he made
Man like himself in his own image; now
In the more blessed reparation

The heavens bow:
Eternity took the measure of a span,
And said,
‘Let us like ourselves make man,
And not from man the woman take,
But from the woman, man.’
Allelujah! We adore
His name, whose goodness hath no store.
Allelujah!

James MacMillan, the contemporary Scottish composer, often describes how ‘The search for the sacred is still there, in modernity,’ [1] and it is in the midst of this pursuit that he situates himself as a composer. One composition that highlights this sacred-modern synthesis is MacMillan’s ‘On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin,’ a choral work with lyrics from the “Festival Hymn on the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin” by the 17th century poet and preacher Jeremy Taylor. MacMillan’s “Annunciation” naturally portrays Mary as a vessel, but it is interesting to note that MacMillan himself has been a receptacle for divine inspiration through his integration of music and theology.

‘The Annunciation’ by Caravaggio

‘Amidst the lofty language of the Annunciation, some troubling questions confront both readers and Mary herself, who asks ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel’s answer is poetic rather than scientific, mentioning the “power” of someone who will “overshadow” Mary. The importance of a physical location – that is, Mary’s womb – for Christ to enter the world, and which is mentioned in Taylor’s poem, is echoed by John F. Kavanaugh when he explains that Mary is ‘tent and temple. God is literally, physically in her, conceived as human, her very flesh, great with dignity, by the power of the Most High.’ [2] Later, he expands this metaphor by describing Mary as ‘the first altar of the Incarnation’s mystery.’ [3]

In another branch of study about the Annunciation, scholars debate whether it is primarily about Mary, about God, or about Jesus. Raymond E. Brown sides with those individuals who view ‘Mary as a model disciple in receiving and reacting to the gospel message,’ [4] but adds the following caveat:

The primary message is centred on the conception of Jesus as Messiah and God’s Son and what he will accomplish by way of salvation for those who depend on God. Nevertheless, exhibiting true Christian instinct that the gospel is not good news unless there is someone to hear it, Luke presents Mary as the first to hear and accept it and then to proclaim it. Thus he holds her up as the first and model disciple. [5]

Moving from the biblical account to the words by Taylor used by MacMillan, one notices artistic and literary language. As a preacher, Taylor believed clergy should explain ‘the mysteries of the great festivals’ including the Annunciation ‘because these feasts, containing in them the great fundamentals of our faith, will, with most advantage, convey the mysteries to the people, and fix them in their memories, by the solemnity and circumstances of the day.’ [6] Such fixing in memory recalls Mary’s attitude of openness to the message of the angel Gabriel and her later treasuring and pondering in her heart the events of Jesus’ birth and early life.

MacMillan echoes the idea of Mary as both an ambassador for new life and a willing disciple before expanding it to consider its implications for the lives of musicians and other artists:

… it is not just Mary’s fecundity that is inspiring to a creative person. A more powerful and more pertinent metaphor for the religious artist is the balance between, on the one hand, Mary’s independent free will and, on the other, her openness to the power of the Holy Spirit. There is something in the instinct of an artist or a composer, or any creative person, or any Christian for that matter, which is inexorably drawn to the idea of Mary’s “vesselship”—the notion of making oneself as a channel for the divine will. [7]

Finally, it is important to consider how poetry and lyrics can impact those who read or hear the words. Malcolm Guite offers five ways to read deeper meaning into poetry; one of them is to look for ‘perspective and paradox.’ [8] He advises: ‘We must allow ourselves to be played, to become an instrument, to let the poet’s choice and arrangement of words strike chords, find melody, and bring out in us the unexpected music which we had never known was waiting to be played ….’ [9] Guite’s words hint at another characteristic of those individuals who remain open to God—the necessity of remaining open to the unexpected.

Discovering James MacMillan’s openness to being filled by inspiration shows how he concurs with such a transformational view of poetry and lyrics which can, in a sense, invite us to accompany Mary on her journey toward acceptance of the Annunciation – wherever that may take us – for another of Guite’s ways to read poetry is to watch for ‘ambiguity and ambivalence,’ [10] imploring us to ‘be open to, and delighted with, ambiguity.’ [11]

MacMillan’s Music and Theology

MacMillan’s “Annunciation” shows a conscious effort to strip – in the way the composition is assembled – the story of all but its most central details. The lyrics are based upon the core of the Annunciation story – that is, the actual words of the angel’s message. The elements of time, setting, and even staging are eliminated. Likewise, musically the piece is as sparse as is possible. At times, the organ continuo is so subtle that the piece seems to be sung a capella. Vocally, the middle registers of alto and tenor carry the story forward, with the soprano typically punctuating the narrative with phrases ending in striking descending G-E thirds. The organ finally ascends into full climactic emphasis at measure 75, just as the angel describes how the creation order of Genesis (woman from man) will now be reversed to become man from woman.

The voices likewise highlight this twist of typical biogenesis, holding the note for the syllable “man” for eight fortississimo beats which, keeping in mind the lento tempo of the piece, becomes even more drawn out, dynamic, and dramatic. Just as Guite admires paradox in the wording of poetry, MacMillan uses music to highlight the unexpected. The piece ends with ‘Allelujah! We adore His name, whose goodness hath no store,’ the voices singing this last sentence in a rare unison before segueing into a quicker andante passage of repeated “Allelujah,” almost as if the angel’s message is amplified throughout space and time, proving the significance of this novel birth. What follows are 40 measures of the organ making a syncopated, triplet-saturated tour centered on the register C5 to C6, decreasing in dynamics only at the very end to pianissimo and then, after a jolting one measure rest, pianississimo. [12] The total effect is as if the very heavens themselves take up the “Allelujah” and turn it into unbridled celestial praise.

‘Annunciation’ by Sandro Botticelli

MacMillan acknowledges that his compositions typically emerge from a ‘pre-musical or extra-musical starting point or impetus, its genesis, its inspiration. So, in that sense, music is plugged in to something more than the notes on the page or the concept of moving those notes about the page in as successful a way as possible.’ [13]

In a further analysis of his method, he states: ‘Every piece is different and every piece is a mystery in the sense that it’s a new journey beginning. You don’t quite know what will happen.’ [14] This embrace of the mysterious and the miraculous echoes Mary’s attitude toward her role as the Mother of God, exhibiting an openness that leads to previously unconsidered spiritual paths.

In addition, this convergence of theological belief and artistic inspiration can provoke in listeners a spiritual awakening that may not be possible through any other medium for, as Jeremy Begbie notes, ‘the arts can generate greater rigour and precision, and thus help theology to be more appropriate, more faithful to its subject-matter ….’ [15]

Opening oneself to the Spirit of God is not only evident in the story of Mary, but in the musical and theological journey of MacMillan. Describing the early stages of his own metamorphosis of integrating his music with his faith, MacMillan observes, ‘I couldn’t see any way of allowing the religious dimension into the practice of my music.’ [16]

This led MacMillan to find ‘a number of compartments’ [17] of his life ‘that had no intersection or connection whatsoever and it led to a rather schizophrenic existence.’ [18] In time, he ‘began to see the barriers which divide these compartments starting to dissolve, with strong possibilities of one element cross-fertilising with another.’ [19] Finally, he ‘began to see really strong possibilities of allowing a spiritual dimension to emerge within my work as a composer.’ [20] Is not such an attitude similar to that of Mary, who allowed a spiritual dimension to cross-fertilise and then emerge from her very womb?

Being open to receiving was crucial for both Mary and MacMillan and remains so for Christians today. MacMillan writes, ‘We know that her response to the Annunciation was an inspired and radical vision of a new life, a new revolutionary moral universe.’ [21] Even though he has distanced himself from some of the rougher edges of the liberation theology to which he was drawn in his youth, MacMillan preserves the message which was always at the movement’s core – and which, it can be argued, is evident in his “Annunciation” – namely that of ‘a vision in which the world as we know it is turned upside down, inside out, where the proud are scattered, where the mighty are deposed, where the poor are exalted and the rich and powerful are turned on their heels.’ [22]

Mary was the first person to be physically open to receiving Christ and, as the first disciple, also open and willing to his spiritual call on her life. MacMillan expands our view of Mary when he writes, ‘Through the breath of God Mary is inspired to see a new world. … The world is changed through Mary’s vision.’ [23] In this sense, Mary becomes not only the first to physically and spiritually interact with Christ, but also the first to model the message of new life found in him.

 


[1] James MacMillan, “Religious Experience and Music” (presentation), University of St. Andrews, Scotland, October 24, 2016.
[2] John F. Kavanaugh, “This Is My Body,” America 169, no. 19 (December 11, 1993): 23.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Raymond E. Brown, “The Annunciation to Mary, the Visitation, and the Magnificat (Luke 1:26-56), Worship 62, no. 3 (May 3, 1988), 250.
[5] Ibid., 254.
[6] Jeremy Taylor, “Advices to the Clergy,” quoted in Harry Boone Porter, Jeremy Taylor: Liturgist, London: Alcuin Club/S.P.C.K., 1979, 59.
[7] James MacMillan, “God, Theology and Music.” New Blackfriars 81, no. 947 (January 2000), 23.
[8] Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry. Farnham (UK): Ashgate, 2010, 30 (emphasis in original).
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 29.
[11] Ibid.
[12] James MacMillan, “On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin” (musical score), text by Jeremy Taylor, London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1997.
[13] James MacMillan and Ricard McGregor, “James MacMillan: A Conversation and Commentary,” The Musical Times 151, no. 1912 (October 1, 2010): 74.
[14] Ibid., 78.
[15] Jeremy Begbie (editor), Sounding the Depths: Theology Through the Arts, London: SCM, 2002, 9.
[16] James MacMillan, “God, Theology and Music,” 18.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] MacMillan, “God, Theology and Music,” 24.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.

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