World premiere 17th August 2019
Symphony No.5: ‘Le grand Inconnu’ is a brand new choral work by Sir James MacMillan, commissioned by the Genesis Foundation. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra performed the premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival, supported by the Scottish Government Festivals Expo Fund with additional support from the John S Cohen Foundation.
Harry Christophers conducted along with his chamber choir The Sixteen. Joining the chorus were members and alumni of the Genesis Sixteen – a Genesis Foundation scheme which nourishes rising choral talent. This same partnership created Macmillan’s Stabat Mater premiere in 2016.
Symphony No.5: ‘Le grand Inconnu’ is an epic choral symphony in three movements representing air (breath), water and fire. This tryptic displays three flowing natural elements that embody spirit, specifically the Holy Spirit, the least understood and explored of the Holy Trinity.
Movement 1: Ruah
Ruah means breath in Hebrew. This first movement begins with the breathing sighs of the chorus and the tapping of instruments. It’s almost as if the orchestra is inside our bodies recreating the sounds and vibrations of breath. The chorus meditates on the words Pneuma and Spiritus – which is breath in Greek and Latin, respectively. It then moves to phrases from the mystical poems of St John of the Cross, accompanied by surtitles.
Movement 2: Zao
Zao means ‘living water’ in Greek. Mayim Chayim and Aquam Viventem have the same meaning in Hebrew and Latin, respectively. We begin by perceiving raindrops, trickles and flowing streams from the orchestra as the chorus again meditates on the words. Four soloists from the choir emerge front-of-stage to sing another extract from St John of the Cross. Biblical texts on the theme of water are then sung in Latin with English surtitles.
Movement 3: Igne vel Igne
Igne vel Igne is the Latin biblical phrase ‘Fire or fire’. Here it is sung with corresponding words Esh (Hebrew) and Pyr (Greek). It starts with a spark of life, transforming into the creation hymn Veni Creator Spiritus by Rabanus Maurus. The ultimate climax is a dramatic and life-affirming ending to a wonderfully conceived and executed symphony, well-deserved of the standing ovation at the end.
Sir James watched over his premiere alongside the grand circle audience, before casually nipping downstairs for his rapturous applause and a standing ovation.
Born from a perceived lack of composed works about the Holy Spirit or ‘Le grand Inconnu’, MacMillan’s new symphony explores the divine spirit within nature and therefore within ourselves. It’s a complicated concept that transcends the boundaries of religion. The universal language of music, alongside the visual text, brings an emotional rendering to this elusive, but elemental, force of life. Symphony No. 5 is ultimately a meditation on life’s grand unexplainable themes of existence, spirit and love.
With thanks to Julie Boyne for this review.