Veni, Veni, Emmanuel

Programme note

James MacMillan (b. 1959)
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel

Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, a concerto for percussion and orchestra, is in one continuous movement and lasts about twenty-five minutes. Dedicated to my parents, it is based on the Advent plainsong of the same name, and was started on the first Sunday of Advent 1991 and completed on the following Easter Sunday (these two liturgical dates are important, as will be explained later.)

The piece can be discussed in two ways: on one level it is a purely abstract work, in which all the musical material is drawn from the fifteen-centry French Advent plainchant: on another, it is musical exploration of the theology behind the Advent message.

Soloist and orchestra converse throughout as equal partners, and a wide range of percussion is used, including tune, untuned skin, metal and wood sounds. Much of the music is fast and, although the piece is seamless, it can be divided into a five-sectioned arch, beginning with a bold, fanfair-like ‘overture’, in which all the instrument-types to be employed are presented. When the soloist moves to goings, unpitched metal and wood, the music melts into the main meat of the first section – music of a more brittle and knotty quality, propelled by various pulse-rates evoking an ever-changing heartbeat.

Advancing to drums and carried through a metrical modulation, the music is thrown forwards into the second section, characterised by fast, chugging quavers, irregular rhythmic shifts and the ‘hocketting’ of chords from one side of the orchestra to the other. Eventually the music winds down to a slow central section and puts cadenza-like expressivity on the marimba against a floating tranquillity in the orchestra, hardly ever rising above ppp. The orchestra repeats the four chords which accompany the words ‘Gaude, Gaude’ in the plainsong’s refrain over and over, layered in different instrumental combinations and in different speeds, and evoking a distant congregation murmuring a calm prayer in many voices.

A huge pedal crescendo in E-flat provides a transition to section four, which reintroduces material from the ‘hocket’ section under a virtuoso vibraphone solo. Gradually one becomes aware of the original tune floating slowly behind the surface activity. The climax presents the plainsong as a chorale, followed by the opening fanfares, which provide a backdrop for an energetic drum cadenza. In the coda the all-pervasive heartbeats are emphatically pounded out on timpani and other drums as the music reaches an unexpected conclusion.

The heartbeats which permeate the piece, representing the human presence of Christ, offer a clue to its wider spiritual priorities. Advent texts proclaim the promised day of liberation from fear, anguish and oppression, and my work attempts to mirror this in music. I found its inspiration in the following text from Chapter 21 of the Gospel according to St Luke:

There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars; on earth nation in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves; men dying of fear as they await what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken. And they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your head high, because your liberation is near at hand.

At the very end the music takes a liturgical detour from Advent to Easter – right into the Gloria of the Easter Vigil, in fact – as if the proclamation of liberation has found embodiment in the Risen Christ.

© James MacMillan