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Piano Concerto No. 3, "The Mysteries of Light"

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: James MacMillan
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Krzysztof Urbanski, conductor / Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano, plays MacMillan & Saint-Saëns Jun. 20 - 22, 2013
© Peter Laki

Piano Concerto No. 3 (“The Mysteries of Light”)
JAMES MACMILLAN
Born July 16, 1959 in Kilwinning, Scotland

James MacMillan’s music combines an excitingly modern musical idiom with an affirmation of the composer’s fervent Catholicism and strong Scottish national identity. He first rose to international prominence in the early 1990s with his orchestral work The Confession of Isobel Gowdie and the percussion concerto Veni, veni, Emmanuel, written for Evelyn Glennie. Today, MacMillan is the author of a large catalog of works in all genres, and his music has been performed all over the world.

The composer has provided the following comments on his Piano Concerto No. 3:

My 3rd Piano Concerto, The Mysteries of Light, attempts to revive the ancient practice of writing music based on the structure of the Rosary. The most famous example of this is the collection of the Rosary (or Mystery) Sonatas for violin by Heinrich Biber, written in the late 17th century. These consist of 15 movements based on the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries. In 2002 another set of meditations were introduced by John Paul II, the Luminous Mysteries, and these are the basis of the five sections of this concerto:

1) Baptisma Iesu Christi

2) Miraculum in Cana

3) Proclamatio Regni Dei

4) Transfiguratio Domini Nostri

5) Institutio Eucharistiae

However, the music here is in no way geared towards liturgy, or devotional in any accepted, traditional sense. Rather, each image or event becomes the springboard for a subjective reflection, and proceeds in quasi-dramatic fashion, not too distant in concept from the musical tone poem. The fusion of symphonic poem with concerto forms has long been a favourite pursuit of mine in earlier works. The music is in one single, continuous span, comprising five distinct portions:

1) A snatch of plainsong acts as a refrain around which the piano plays fast, virtuosic episodes accompanied by a tolling bell and an ominous cantus firmus.

2) Speeds fluctuate here, but the general mood is celebratory and dance inspired. A more solemn chorale theme is heard intermittently on lower instruments.

3) After an initial flourish and trumpet proclamation, the general tone is serene and intimate, with a cantabile melody on the piano, decorated with upper ornamentation and resonance. Momentarily the mood darkens more boisterously before subsiding.

4) This fast movement begins in the lower orchestral registers and gradually rises, adding more layers and activity before a climax. Only then does the piano appear, with music contrasted and mysterious, accompanied by tuned percussion and harp.

5) The finale is joyous and rhythmic, framed by syncopated ‘dance’ refrains. This is interrupted by a more declamatory, incantatory episode, where the piano writing is more ruminative, freer and cadenza-like. In the final moments the opening plainsong idea makes a last appearance.

A word of explanation may be in order for non-Catholics here. The rosary is a prescribed set of prayers, represented by a string of beads on a chain and organized in sequences or “decades” (typically, “Our Father,” ten “Hail Marys,” “Glory Be to the Father” and “O My Jesus”). Each set is usually recited on a certain day, or days, of the week (the new Luminous Mysteries have been assigned to Thursday). In addition to the recitation of pre-composed prayers, the practice of the rosary also includes meditation on the mysteries, in order to internalize them all the more strongly. And this is where the music comes in. For MacMillan derived the entire musical structure of his piece, both in detail and in general outline, from the divisions of the rosary.

In an interview for the British newspaper The Telegraph, MacMillan added some further interesting thoughts:

An ongoing debate in music has revolved around the question of whether it is necessary or important for a listener to know, understand or recognize the extra-musical, or pre-musical associations that were obviously important for the composer’s inspiration. This is as true for Biber as it might be for Beethoven, Mahler, Stockhausen, Luigi Nono or me. Personally, it doesn’t matter to me if the general listener doesn’t want to follow the connections, especially on first hearing. It is the musical outcome of the inspiration that matters after all, and only that will communicate any power, meaning, feeling or fluency. There are certain things that have drifted out of public consciousness anyway, such as the Rosary, for example. It is inevitable that many listeners would not be familiar with the references above, their symbolism and their potential for musical encapsulation.

One of the first reviews, in the Pioneer Press, a nice one, nevertheless seemed baffled by all the religious references. The reviewer heard nothing of their application, but this didn’t seem to interfere with his facility for engaging with the music. Would his readers want him to be more knowledgeable on these matters? Would they have learned more about the music if he had been able to communicate the connections between the prayers and the resulting music? Who knows. But I was at the performance with a bunch of American friends who got every reference, number symbolism and transition, from all the Gregorian quotes and allusions, to the scriptural picture-painting to the reason why the fast coda was so brief (or as perfunctory as The Guardian or The Scotsman will no doubt say).

Who got more out of the concerto, then? The guys who knew their Rosary, or the musicologist who knew nothing about it?