Woman of the Apocalypse is a one-movement orchestral piece inspired by a range of visual art works on the topic through the ages, principally by Dürer, Rubens, Doré, Blake, Marvenko and others. The music is a kind of tone poem or concerto for orchestra. Although it is in one continuous movement, it is divided into five sections, each with a title referring to some aspect of the image and narrative.
The five section titles are:
1 – A woman clothed by the sun
Main themes are presented, including a falling figure on piano, harp and percussion, before the drama of the movement is carried forward by call-and-response developments led by trombones, then horns and then trumpets as the music progresses through metric modulations. The falling figure appears in reverse before leading to...
2 – The great battle
There are growls in the low brass but the main thread in this section is led by violas and English horn. An extended series of declamations in the brass choir then leads to…
3 – She is given the wings of a great eagle
Here the music scurries and floats, sometimes interrupted by one of the main fragments from the beginning before culminating in a violent surging on strings and percussion.
4 – She is taken up
comprises mainly of a series of fanfares and ecstatic soloistic writing for string quartet. The violent surging returns before the final section;
5 – Coronation
This begins with very high violins and a return of some of the declamatory music for brass, this time in a slow, solemn, ritualistic procession. The strings gradually descend into their lower registers as the music heads to a relentless, pounding conclusion.
James MacMillan, 2012
"MacMillan approaches his subject like a Mannerist painter, using the orchestra to stir up big, splashy swirls of instrumental color. The 30-minute piece unfolds in five connected movements that have a narrative structure of sorts, but the effect of the music depends less on the pictorial specifics than the verve and drama of MacMillan's writing." San Francisco Chronicle
"In his scoring for strings and brass, one seems to hear the melting of cosmic tears and the lumbering power of the dragon that assaults the Woman of the Apocalypse... Most effective is MacMillan's writing for brass, especially for trombones and tuba." San Jose Mercury News