Sir James MacMillan CBE - Genesis Foundation

Sir James MacMillan CBE

(c) Adrian Myers

“James’s music channels the divine as he has a gift that goes beyond the human. His music is deeply spiritual and haunting and the Genesis Foundation is proud to have commissioned him and worked with him on projects where his integrity has shone.”

– John Studzinski CBE

“My collaborations with John Studzinski through the Genesis Foundation and Harry Christophers’ great choir The Sixteen have become some of the most fruitful artistic experiences in my life.”

– Sir James MacMillan CBE

The Genesis Foundation has a long-standing relationship with Sir James MacMillan which has resulted in numerous commissions for Harry Christophers and The Sixteen as well as standalone commissions from the composer. Recent highlights include the 2018 Sistine Chapel performance of MacMillan’s Stabat mater, commissioned by the Genesis Foundation for Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, which gained worldwide attention as the first-ever concert to be live streamed from the Sistine Chapel.

Symphony No.5: Le grand Inconnu

Symphony No.5: ‘Le grand Inconnu’ (The Great Unknown) is a major new choral symphony commissioned by the Genesis Foundation, which contemplates  the mysteries of the Holy Spirit. As an element of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit is a pillar of Christian Faith and theology, yet has only comparatively rarely been explored in art over the last 2,000 years.

The world premiere of Sir James MacMillan’s Symphony No. 5: Le grand Inconnu was performed by the work’s dedicatees Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, alongside members of Genesis Sixteen, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall on Saturday 17 August 2019 as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, and was recorded BBC Radio 3. The London premiere took place at Barbican Hall on 14 October 2019 with Britten Sinfonia. The album is now available here. Read the reviews here.

John  Studzinski says of the commission: “The Holy Spirit has rarely, and arguably never successfully, been fully explored in a symphony. As the metaphysical part of the Holy Trinity it represents a far bigger challenge for composers than a musical representation of an actual event such as the crucifixion. But few subjects deserve to be expressed in the uniquely powerful and emotional form of a symphony more than the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit is a form of initiation that brings us closer to God and the gift of his love. The Holy Spirit resides is us all once we accept God in our lives and is a deeply personal way of connecting to him and understanding his purpose for us. James MacMillan is the world’s leading composer of sacred music whose commitment to God and to Christ his son has informed his compositions from the beginning of his career. Everyone at the Genesis Foundation is impatient to hear the results of his tackling this profound subject that’s central to belief and to watch as its power is transmitted around the world in future performances and recordings.”

Stabat mater

The Genesis Foundation commissioned Sir James MacMillan to compose a new Stabat mater for Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, which received its world premiere with Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican Centre, London on 15 October 2016. This 55-minute Stabat mater for choir and string orchestra is undoubtedly one of MacMillan’s most important works to date; it reflects his personal response to what is unquestionably the most powerful poem of the liturgy.

Following the world premiere, an award-winning recording of the piece was released on The Sixteen’s own label, CORO. The piece received a Vatican premiere on April 2018, an event which received substantial coverage in the international press and was the first-ever concert to be live-streamed from the Sistine Chapel.

The Stabat mater received its North American premiere at New York’s Lincoln Center on Thursday 7 November 2019 with Harry Christophers, The Sixteen and Britten Sinfonia.

Vatican Premiere

Stabat mater, Vatican premiere

On 22 April 2018, MacMillan’s Stabat mater was premiered at the Vatican. Audiences around the world watched the performance by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen live from the Sistine Chapel. The concert was a rare honour, bestowed on the Genesis Foundation, as few performances are given in the Sistine Chapel and even fewer are given by ensembles not based in the Vatican. The Sixteen became the first professional British choir to sing there in over 20 years.

The concert was attended by 300 guests including Cardinal Vincent Nichols, David Lan, Rufus Norris, Daniel Kramer, Lord Heseltine, Dame Janet Suzman and many leaders of the arts, business and diplomatic community invited by John Studzinski, Chairman and Founder of the Genesis Foundation.

John Studzinski CBE, Founder and Chairman of the Genesis Foundation said:

I’m delighted that so many hundreds of thousands of people have the chance to experience James’s Stabat mater direct from the Sistine Chapel. It is rare for a new, hour-long work of sacred music to move audiences across the world as soon as it has been premiered, but James MacMillan’s Stabat mater is that rarity. A masterpiece, it has instantly connected audiences to the timeless story of Mary’s suffering as she observed the suffering and death of her son Jesus and simultaneously rose to become the Mother of Mankind.

“All of us at the Genesis Foundation were touched by the way people have reacted so powerfully to the Stabat mater. Joining our long-term collaborators, Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, in bringing this great work to one of the world’s most sacred sites was an unforgettable experience, and the performance reaffirmed music’s capacity to reinforce the spiritual power of words. I wish to extend my thanks to the Papal Household for its gracious permission in permitting this performance to take place in the Sistine Chapel, and to Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, for his commitment to this entire undertaking.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster said:

The Stabat Mater is a remarkable prayer. It expresses a burning desire for a share in the sufferings of Mary and Jesus. In this it stands in sharp contrast to our contemporary reaction to suffering, which is to flee whilst tossing blame over our shoulder. But this prayer begs for an active share in this suffering. It cries out a willingness, out of love, to stand by those who are suffering, taking their pain into our hearts. It is, radically and remarkably, a mother’s prayer. The composition of James McMillan powerfully explores the intensity and drama of this prayer. Its performance in the Sistine Chapel was an experience never to be forgotten.”

Harry Christophers CBE, Founder and Conductor of The Sixteen, commented:

James digs deep underneath the surface of this 13th century Marian hymn meditating on Mary’s suffering as she stands at the foot of the cross. He speaks of ‘a painful world of loss, violence and spiritual desolation’ and the score is packed to the full with those intense feelings. There is something special about the acoustics of the Sistine Chapel. The details we could hear, the resonance, is fantastic; it was very emotional. These occasions, you are lucky if they appear once in a lifetime, and here we are, I can’t think of anything greater.”

For press coverage of Stabat mater‘s Vatican premiere, click here.

For a gallery of images of the concert, click here.

To read James MacMillan’s reflection on the performance in Standpoint magazine, click here.

World Premiere (London)

The world premiere of the Genesis Foundation commission by Sir James MacMillan, Stabat mater, was performed in October 2016 at the Barbican, London.

The concert received an ecstatic standing ovation and unanimous critical praise. Long–term Genesis Foundation partners, The Sixteen, under the direction of Harry Christophers performed with the Britten Sinfonia. MacMillan’s Stabat mater is a profound and deeply moving rendering of the Stabat mater text.

Sir James MacMillan Stabat mater: a Genesis Foundation commission. Watch the film below:

For press coverage of the world premiere of Stabat Mater at the Barbican, click here.

For press coverage of the Stabat Mater recording, click here.

Stabat mater legacy

Stabat mater marked the culmination of the Genesis Foundation’s three-year series of commissions, performances and recordings dedicated to the Stabat mater. Stabat Mater: Spirit, Strength & Sorrow saw three leading young composers – Alissa Firsova, Tõnu Kõrvits and Matthew Martin – write short Stabat maters under the mentorship of Sir James MacMillan and Harry Christophers.

Speaking about his Stabat mater and his role as mentor, Sir James MacMillan said:

“It has been a great honour to work on this commission for The Sixteen, after many years working closely with them and Harry Christophers on other, smaller pieces. The whole project supported by the Genesis Foundation has been a delight, and I have been able to work with other, younger composers on their own work, incorporating the activities of Genesis Sixteen too. It has, for a while, been my ambition to set this text and to compose a substantial work for Harry and his exceptional choristers.”

Sing on, Sweet Thrush – a Genesis Foundation commission to mark the 70th birthday of HRH The Prince of Wales

The Genesis Foundation commissioned a new composition from its frequent partner James MacMillan to mark the 70th birthday of HRH The Prince of Wales. Sing on, Sweet Thrush was performed by musicians and singers from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland at Dumfries House on 24 January 2019 and presented as a gift to His Royal Highness by MacMillan on behalf of The Cumnock Tryst, which MacMillan founded.

Sing on, Sweet Thrush is a setting of On Hearing a Thrush Sing In His Morning Walk by Robert Burns, a poem written as a birthday ode by Burns for his friend Alexander Cunningham.

Dumfries House was saved for the nation by a consortium of charities and heritage bodies in 2007 following an intervention by His Royal Highness and is a venue closely associated with The Cumnock Tryst.

James MacMillan said:

“I feel it captures the essence of what Dumfries House does for the local community, and what The Cumnock Tryst aspires to do in the regeneration of beauty and spirit.”

Listen to a recording of the work here.

The Eton Choirbook and its Legacy of Sacred Music

James MacMillan’s O Virgo Prudentissima, based on a tiny fragment from the Eton Choirbook by Robert Wylkynson, was commissioned by the Genesis Foundation for the Eton Choirbook and its Legacy of Sacred Music, a programme which featured four new commissions based on the iconic music manuscript, the Eton Choirbook, by MacMillan, Phillip Cooke, Marco Galvani and Joseph Phibbs. The world premiere of this programme was held in Eton College Chapel in May 2018, performed by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen.

On 2 November 2018, Harry Christophers and The Sixteen released Star of Heaven: The Eton Choirbook Legacy on their CORO label, which featured these Genesis Foundation commissions.

Listen to Star of Heaven, here. Read reviews here.

Padre Pio

The Genesis Foundation’s association with James MacMillan dates back to 2008 when he was commissioned by the Foundation, along with Roxanna Panufnik and Will Todd, to compose musical settings to Padre Pio’s Stay with Me Lord. All three works were given world premieres at London’s Westminster Cathedral on 3 June 2008 in concert with Harry Christophers and The Sixteen.

The Genesis Foundation then commissioned a recording of the works with The Sixteen and Harry Christophers that was released on their Coro label.

Harry Christophers wrote in the CD booklet:

“We are so fortunate to have in John Studzinski, the architect of the whole “Padre Pio” project, through his inspired Genesis Foundation, someone who believes not only in creating spiritual experiences but also ensuring that music in the Catholic Church is upheld and, above all, injected with life.”

“It was quite fascinating for me to see the way this beautiful prayer affected James MacMillan, Roxanna Panufnik and Will Todd. All are inspired but in different ways; James by the soul’s lonely anguish at impending death, Roxanna by the introvert, ardent and passionate text and Will by the fervent, beseeching intensity of the prayer.”

“I sincerely hope that with this recording we can live up to John Studzinski’s passion for new music and bring this heartfelt and quite beautiful sacred music to a much wider audience.”


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