These notes are taken from the programme of the World Premiere performance of The World's Ransoming which took place on 11th July 1996 at the Barbican Centre, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conductor Kent Nagano with Christine Pendrill cor anglais soloist.
"The inspiration behind the Benjamin family's commission of James MacMillan's The World's Ransoming was the consistently high quality playing of the London Symphony Orchestra's Principal Cor Anglais Christine Pendrill. It seemed to us that such playing needed a larger canvas on which to exhibit this rare but beautiful art form. That was our role. Christine chose James MacMillan as a composer whom she greatly admired and he gracefully accepted."
"With the additional help of the Eastern Orchestral Board a new work is born; an outstanding artist can deliver her art with a great orchestra and a highly talented young British composer can provide us with new and wonderful music. We are told that private commissions are rare. We do not understand this. The enjoyment and pleasure the family has gained are quite beyond measure."
Alan A.Benjamin O.B.E.
"The World's Ransoming (for cor anglais and orchestra) is the first of three interrelated works forming a tryptych, commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and being presented over the next two seasons. The second work is a Cello Concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich to be premiered in October and the third work is a large symphonic score for the autumn of 1997, to be conducted by Rostropovich. All three relate to the events and liturgies of the Easter Triduum, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil."
"The World's Ransoming focuses on Maunday Thursday and its musical material includes references to plainsongs for that day. Pange Lingua and Ubi caritas, as well as a Bach chorale (Ach wie nichtig) which I have heard being sung in the eucharistic procession to the altar of repose. The cor anglais part emerges from the orchestra to carry the lamenting ritual through a long, slow and delicately scored introduction and then through a process of metric gear-changes as the music becomes more animated."
"Although the music is through-composed and seamless, a series of trios emerge to carry the music forward. The cor anglais is first joined by a pair of bassoons, then a pair of cellos and later two horns, two percussionists, two piccolos and, briefly, two violins."
"The impetus of this twenty minute work grows cumulatively with a sense of urgent anticipation involving and increasingly violent and dramatic interplay of materials taken from their liturgical sources. After the upheaval the music eventually subsides, the cor anglais returning to its original long, slow keening melody while the orchestral context shifts its perspective. Bleak, wooden percussive sounds finally emerge to bring the music to a close, while also setting the scene for the next piece in the cycle, the Cello Concerto."
"The title came about through reflection on the melody and words of St Thomas Aquinas' hymn, Pange lingua:"
Of the glorious Body telling,
O my tongue, its mysteries sing,
And the Blood, all price excelling,
Which the world's eternal King,
In a noble womb once dwelling,
Shed for the world's ransoming.
James MacMillan June 1996
"….an orderly meditation on Maundy Thursday, of considerable breadth and depth. Miss Pendrill's instrument winds plangently through the score, while episodes with various trios spring up and pass away. The felt drama of The World's Ransoming reaches considerable heights in the later stages. MacMillan's orchestral skill, and his art of construction, ensure that it pleases the ear and rewards the attention." Financial Times
A gestation period of four years guarentees that expectations for MacMillan's first full length opera Inés de Castro will be high! However, the Scottish character of the World Premiere on August 23rd 1996, with a performance by Scottish Opera who also commissioned the work, at the internationally acclaimed Edinburgh Festival with a libretto based upon the work of the contemporary Scottish playwright John Clifford ensures that the stage is set for a truly remarkable event.
MacMillans libretto is based on Inés de Castro by the contemporary Scottish playwright John Clifford, which in turn draws upon a play by Antonio Ferreira (1528-69). This powerful true story from 14th century Portugal appealed immediately to the composer because its subject matter explored many of his own concerns: humanitarian issues, politics, devotional love, religious ritual, and a classical theatrical world with its roots in Greek drama. John Clifford supported an operatic version, the text was selected, and the dramatic structure was shaped in collaboration with the director Jonathan Moore. The resulting libretto combines a strong narrative thrust with a parallel ritualistic stream of thought, as described by MacMillan:
"In John Clifford's preface to the play he states that there should be elements of ritual happening subliminally or in the background throughout the drama. He also uses fragments of liturgical texts, which I've expanded on. The chorus is used extensively in the opera, sometimes singing offstage, sometimes being part of an ecclesiastical rite that is taking place onstage at crucial points in the narrative. I draw most upon the Stabat Mater text, as I see clear correlations between the story of Inés and that of the Passion of Christ, both the crucifixion itself and the agony of Mary at the foot of the cross."
Inés de Castro draws on a full symphony orchestra and large-scale solo voices to give the full range of nuances, from intimacy to full-blooded sonorities. "Dramatic voices are those that I've always felt more at home with on the stage, simply because Tristan, Salome, Elektra and Wozzeck are the operatic experiences that mean a lot to me. I do love Mozart very much, and Monteverdi, but when it came to the writing of Inés de Castro, I really needed the depth and projection that one finds from that particular tradition."
The parallels with MacMillan's earlier works may seem obvious. The innocent sacrificial victim of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, the stylised ritualism of Visitatio Sepulchri, the political terror of Busqueda. Yet the composer views it as his most apolitical and secular work to date, and something of a break with the extramusical 'messages' of the past. "I've tried to avoid contemporary issues and look at something much more archetypal. People may find other resonances, but I won't be leading them there, they'll be discovering their own response to the piece. What is most important to me is the human drama, and your engagement as a human being with that drama."
Political tension reigns between Portugal and Spain. Inés de Castro, the Spanish mistress of Pedro the Crown Prince of Portugal, is considered a threat to the security of the state. In the opening chorus the Portuguese people pray for the intercession of the Virgin Mary to save them from disaster. Out of this emerges Inés's first aria, as if in a dream, where she yearns for a happy and troublefree life. Joined by her nurse, they reminisce from different perspectives about the life they have left behind in Spain. Inés recounts her love for Pedro while the nurse urges caution.
Pacheco, the scheming advisor to the Portuguese King, brings news of Inés's deteriorating position and tries to persuade the King to act ruthlessly to protect the crown. The King vacillates and Inés pleads fiercely for her life and for her children. Pacheco orders Inés to prepare to leave the court. Blanca, the spurned wife of Pedro, insults Inés and gloats over her impending fall. When Pedro arrives and argues with his wife and father, the King relents and allows the lovers to meet before Inés is banished. Pacheco is furious and again urges his master to show no mercy.
In a love duet, Pedro and Inés reveal the intensity of their feelings, but are interrupted by Pacheco who blames Pedro's blunders for turning the war to the enemy's advantage. Pacheco hatches a plan to send Pedro back to the front-line. Inés, sensing her doom, implores Pedro not to abandon her, but he is determined to reverse his military fortunes. The King, powerless and realising his complicity in Pacheco's plot, is anguished but blesses his son who leads the Portuguese army to war and certain defeat.
Portuguese women are working together and singing of their menfolk at war. Inés enters in disguise but is recognised and attacked for being an enemy whore. Blanca rescues her, only to express her bitter envy of Ines's motherhood. Pacheco brings a bag containing the heads of Inés's children, relating the reasons for his loathing of all Spaniards. Inés, left alone, is befriended and comforted by death in the form of an old woman, who leads her away.
The ordinary people sing of Inés's execution but are interrupted by the army returning home, unexpectedly victorious. Pedro learns of the massacre of his family and turns on his father. The King is visited by the old woman who leads him away. The ordinary people sing of the King's funeral and of the feast that is to celebrate the coronation of Pedro. Pacheco's triumph has been short-lived, culminating in a grisly end. A large coronation procession leads onto the stage, but Pedro, insane with grief and hatred, taunts his subjects for their rejection of Inés. Invisible to him and the court, the ghost of Inés returns and speaks to the only person who is able to see her - an innocent girl.
James MacMillan 1996
The World Premiere of MacMillan's Cello Concerto is planned for the 3rd October at the Barbican Centre, London. The performance will be by the commissioning orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra with Mstislav Rostropovich, soloist and Sir Colin Davis conducting.
Further details to follow, as they become available!
If you have any comments, additions or questions I would be really pleased to hear from you!
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