James MacMillan: A Child’s Prayer
Scottish composer James MacMillan (b.1959) composed the choral work A Child’s Prayer in memory of the victims in the Dunblane tragedy of 1996. The massacre took place in March 1996, where a shooter entered a primary school and shot sixteen children and their teacher, before then killing himself. This tragedy is still to this day the most deadliest shooting in British history. MacMillan’s dedication of this work has no doubt been used as some comfort to those who lost someone in this mass shooting and has been praised for its contrasting ideas and powerful message.
The text used for A Child’s Prayer is taken from a prayer that MacMillan remembered from his childhood, when he was around the age of those children who lost their lives. The simplicity of the text, alongside its short length, offers a wide scope for MacMillan to utilise not only the meaning of the words, but how they sound and how they can fit in together. The text used can be seen here:
Deep in my soul forever stay,
Joy and love my heart are filling
On this glad Communion day.
There is no doubt that MacMillan has played on his own religion to hone in on the real musical details of A Child’s Prayer. His Catholicism played a part in not only the choice of text, but also how it has been presented in this particular work. Poignantly scored for chamber choir and two solo treble parts, MacMillan established two key contrasting ideas.
The first being within the choir itself. They open this work mumbling the words ‘Welcome Welcome’ on repeat. These slow moving chords create a gentle pulsating feel which the two soloists are able to sit on top of as they grow in intensity. The consistent repetition of the word ‘Welcome’ is highly significant as it is a way of presenting acceptance, peace and the continuity in this important message.
The increasingly passionate duet above the choir grow together whilst developing the message from the prayer. The rich texture on lines such as ‘Deep in my soul forever’ shows MacMillan’s attention to detail in terms of word painting and creating a narrative for the work. The simplicity of these two voices singing a simple children’s prayer in a relatively high register highlights the dedication of this work in a rather nuanced way.
The voices grow together and the energy that is presented in the breakthrough section when the duo burst into singing ‘Joy! Joy!’ is juxtaposed to the rest of the work. However, the intense climax plays a pinnacle part in the work as it brings the whole choir together with staggered entries on the word ‘Joy!’ and this is the only time the voices are unified in the whole work. The feeling of peace and optimism in this part of the work makes it even more effective when the voice come back down and returns to the opening theme of the work.
The choir return to the pulsating ‘welcome’ phrase, with the duo singing above this until the choir die away quietly, and the two voices end with the line ‘On this glad Communion day’. The intensity that grows within this work is made possible by the chain of suspensions that MacMillan writes. With the voices moving at different times it often causes clashes in notes, creating that ever-popular ethereal effect that many choral composers strive for in the 21st century.
MacMillan’s timely dedication of this work is rather moving and does justice to the idea of creating a work in memory of the 17 people who lost their lives. A Child’s Prayer is a simple, yet very effective work that showcases how less is more sometimes. The pulsating figure that runs through the veins of this work emphasise MacMillan’s aim for peace and serenity within the music, for whoever may need it.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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