50 Things: Margaret Lucy Wilkins

For our 50 Things series, musicologist Lisa Colton looks at Revelations of the Seven Angels, a work that narrates parenthood and loss emphatically from a woman's perspective.

Article by Lisa Colton

In the late 1990s, I was a student at the University of Huddersfield, and took a class called Women in Music. I chose it because I knew next to nothing about women composers, other than Hildegard von Bingen and Judith Weir. The tutor for the course was composer Margaret Lucy Wilkins, and it became gradually apparent that Wilkins was a musician whose own creative voice was richly informed by her interest in the past.

Margaret Lucy Wilkins was a founder member of the Scottish Early Music Consort in St Andrews in 1969, having been inspired by both medieval scholarship and by David Munrow. She knew the music of Peter Maxwell Davies, whose works often drew directly or indirectly on historical materials, and both composers took examples of medieval song from the Historical Anthology of Music. Wilkins’s creative voice was informed to some extent by her knowledge of British composers – notably Britten, Tippett, Birtwistle, and Maxwell Davies – but she held greater affinity with the wider European context, such as the music of Pierre Boulez. Many of these composers were interested in early music, or in working with numerology and mathematical systems for the creation of artistic materials.

Wilkins’s Revelations of the Seven Angels (1988) is a work of enormous scale and powerful atmospheric effect. Designed for performance in a spacious, Gothic cathedral in which the audience sits at the heart of the performance, Revelations draws upon architectural and historical symbolism as well as medieval song.

In Revelations, the musical structure of seven “stations” is framed by an outer pair of sections: “Alpha” and “Omega”. The Book of Revelation and the number seven are central reference points. Borrowed material features strongly as part of the work’s medievalism: the chant Benedicamus Domino and a 13th-century motet, Candida virginitas, performed by men’s voices (Station 2); a fifteenth-century Marian lullaby sung by the solo soprano (Station 4); and the Alleluia plainchant sung by boys (Station 7).

The central soprano aria within Station 4 (Earth Mother (Security): The Angel of Compassion) presents Mary’s expression of her grief at the loss of her son, which Wilkins reflects is:

“not feminist, but is a woman’s feelings about what’s happened. It’s absolutely intense; you couldn’t get more intense than being grief-stricken at the loss of your child” (interview with the composer, May 2014).

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This station contrasts the “laughing, kissing and merry cheer” of Mary bouncing her child on her knee with her sadness at the Crucifixion. In this part of the work, Wilkins places the humanity of Mary at the forefront of dramatic musical language. The evocative text “But ever, alas, I make my moan, to see my son’s head as it is here. I prick out thorns by one and one, for now lieth dead my dear son” is set to an original melody with sensitivity. Although the overall effect, with its string accompaniment, is not tonal, the triadic and arpeggio movement of the soprano line is comforting, like a lullaby, except for darker sections in which the Christ’s suffering is emphasized.

Both early and contemporary music are sometimes seen as quite distant from the familiar, tonal repertory of most public concerts. In drawing on medieval lyric and melody Revelations of the Seven Angels, Wilkins brings the two together in a way that highlights the timeless themes of parenthood, love, and loss.

Dr Lisa Colton is Reader in Musicology at the University of Huddersfield. Her monograph, Angel Song: Medieval English Music in History (Routledge, 2017) has been described as “a masterful account of the medieval history of English music” (Music and Letters). Her chapter “Past Tense: Creative Medievalism in the Music of Margaret Lucy Wilkins” is forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook on Music and Medievalism, edited by Kirsten Yri and Stephen Meyer.

- A DVD of the full work was released as Margaret Lucy Wilkins, Revelations of the Seven Angels. Conductor Barrie Webb, Corul Filarmonicii Banatul, Filarmonica Banatul (Vienna Modern Masters: VMM 1055, 2004).

- The score is held within the British Music Collection at Heritage Quay, University of Huddersfield. The score is reproduced with permission, and the example was typeset by Solomiya Moroz.