McCarthy, James: Peaceful was the Night
The words of Peaceful was the Night are taken from John Milton’s ode On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, written in 1629. Milton describes the universe halting in utter stillness at the moment of Christ’s appearing on the earth. (As the poet wrote: ‘His reign of peace upon the Earth began.’) In James McCarthy’s carol, the voices play a dual role, as narrator, and by evoking the atmosphere of a singular moment of frozen time. Although commissioned by Sonoro for performance during the Christmas period, this singable, lyrical setting would fit well into a programme of music suitable for any time of the year.
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James McCarthy’s Peaceful was the Night was also a commission, this time by Sonero. It’s a brave man who thinks he can enhance Milton’s words, but McCarthy succeeds by doing just enough with his sensitive setting. Beginning and end are largely homophonic, the harmonies expanding and contracting with stepwise melodic motion. This contrasts with a middle section in which energetic altos propel the music forwards. Although this is clearly relevant to Christmas, it would not be inappropriate to sing this at other times of the year.