A bestiary in the Middle Ages was a book of illustrations of animals, each accompanied by a moral lesson. Sir James MacMillan’s musical bestiary for organ and orchestra is informed by his Scottish background, different musical traditions, and a sharp sense of social satire. WRTI’s Susan Lewis has more.
The full title of the work, A Scotch Bestiary: Enigmatic Variations on a Zoological Carnival at a Caledonian Exhibition, suggests the satirical tone and a form modeled after classic works such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
“It’s structured the same way,” says Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Timpani Don Liuzzi. But in this work, “you’re not walking through an exhibition, you’re looking through the pages of a book.”
Sitting in a backstage dressing room, we’re looking at Liuzzi’s copy of the music, with each page describing what animal is represented. “The first page is the hyena,” he says, “depicted by crying woodwinds. …That’s followed by a direction to turn the page.
“Then there’s walking music just as in Pictures at an Exhibition. “So we go to the next page which is reptiles and big fish. ... It’s a dance for the tuba; very playful stuff.”
Playful and satirical. The composer himself writes of inspiration from “human archetypes and personalities” encountered in Scottish life.
There are, for example, pages for Scottish Patriots, for Her Serene and Ubiquitous Majesty, the Queen Bee, and the Reverend Cuckoo, each showcasing different instruments in the orchestra. And all portrayed by an eclectic musical palette ranging from jazz to church hymns to Hollywood cartoons and more.
“Macmillian is quoting from Wagner at certain points, with kind of bombastic, heroic music to … really funny quotes from carnival music, not only carnival but the circus,” he says, breaking into song.
And this sequence of images is only part one. Part two conjures the animals uncaged. So what happens when the animals escape? How do they live together?
Luizzi smiles. “Its a cacophony that’s beautifully powerful.”