Well, am presuming that Skizzenblatt is a sketch for a piece of music but I suppose it's possible that Beethoven sketched a Viennese landscape with his pencil.
In any case, it is 14 minutes or so of absolute pleasantness on a grey morning. Today is the feast of Saint Agatha, Virgin and Martyr (CE, Introibo, Wiki), who was martyred in the 3rd century during the reign of the Emperor Decius; she is named in the Canon of the Mass. The antiphons of her Office are from the Latin Vita (on which the Legenda aurea is based), evidence of notable antiquity, but unfortunately the Vita doesn't enjoy what is called 'historical corroboration' of many of the incidents it relates. Eh. Her cult remains widespread and lively. Holy Mass from Saint-Eugène is streamed at 1000.
Richard Bratby at the Spectator (UK) has reviewed Sir James MacMillan's Christmas Oratorio-- I caught a glimpse downpage before coming here that he finds 'holy minimalism' to be most depressing; who knows if this means something specific to the England oppressed by ridiculous curfews and other government plague nonsense or if... must read the article, I suppose. He is enthusiastic, so his dislikes have not, evidently, corroded his ability to hear the good. (I've seen his name but certainly don't make a point of reading his criticism; cum grano salis.) And this is indeed the entire notice of the MacMillan, but 'tis not the whole essay-- I will assuage my minimal guilt at copying with that specification.
... Christmas Oratorio is pretty much the exact opposite of all that. It’s vigorous, unsentimental and completely unapologetic-- a royal feast for a celebration on a cosmic scale. And how! The table overflows, with MacMillan’s teeming influences functioning not as sonic fancy dress but as guests at the banquet, very much alive and doing what they’ve always done, with renewed power.
Bach is the most obvious presence: the Oratorio’s evening-long span harks back to Johann Sebastian’s own gloriously over-filled Christmas Oratorio. But you’ll also bump into Holst, Britten, Haydn and Beethoven, all glass in hand and delighted to see you. There are raucous shouts from Janacek and sudden, blinding glimpses of Olivier Messiaen. It goes further: when MacMillan alludes to plainchant, it’s never in inverted commas. It’s urgent and unselfconscious. He means it, and you can tell.
Holy maximalism, then? I wouldn’t want to give the impression that the Christmas Oratorio is some sort of blow-out [have no idea what that means-- M]. It’s generous-- sometimes overwhelmingly so-- but never profligate. The 14 movements form two palindromic cycles of arias and choruses, each framed by orchestral sinfonias (the baroque terminology is intentional). MacMillan is willing to stare directly at both horror (anvil blows begin and end a forceful choral narration of the Massacre of the Innocents) and mystery. The luminous final chorus-- an old Scottish cradle song, rocked by a glinting solo harp-- will surely go on to have an independent existence as a seasonal staple.
It deserves to, and throughout the Oratorio MacMillan doesn’t hesitate to do the obvious thing where to do otherwise would simply obscure the musical narrative. A solo violin dances a wild jig, and if the story (MacMillan’s text draws on ecstatic verse by John Donne and the martyred poet Robert Southwell, as well as scripture) requires angelic fanfares, we hear fanfares. But we also hear apocalyptic dissonances; a representation of something which, for a believer like MacMillan, is simply an unignorable truth.
That was my abiding impression: a composer of immense experience and imagination relaying something unambiguously real with every means at his disposal. Easy enough to ground your art in the certainties of the past or an appeal to the future. MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio brings both together in a work that speaks immediately to the present-- which is why I suspect it might endure. The world première was given in Amsterdam last month, with MacMillan himself conducting the orchestra and chorus of Netherlands Radio, and soloists Mary Bevan and Christopher Maltman striving to outdo each other in conviction and tonal beauty. With luck and a falling R-number, it’ll be performed in London next Christmas, but I reckon we need this music right now. The Dutch radio broadcast is available to stream, and the libretto and score can be read free of charge on the Boosey & Hawkes website.
Almost time for Mass. Ah, I forgot; it is the First Friday of the month, so the Mass is Cogitationes cordis eius, of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus; the First Fridays devotion can be read about here and in many places elsewhere. (The feast of Saint Agatha continues to be celebrated today; in places where more than one Mass is celebrated, however, one of them today can be Cogitationes.)
'You just can't please everyone', the expression goes. Sometimes (I've followed Holy Mass at two different parish churches during the last eleven months) one sees the criticism, 'why doesn't the camera pan to X or to Y'. But at Saint-Eugène just now I've seen someone ask 'why not leave the camera à une seule place', focussed at one spot. An answer has been promised at the end of Mass... which answer is, there are four cameras and the operator attempts to use whichever one enables the best view of the action. The lady has now claimed that one is enough and more are pride; when one is in church one doesn't run about looking for better vantage points as the Mass progresses, after all. She can't watch because it is too much like the movie theatre. Well then. My own career as a pastor animarum would explode pretty quickly.