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Touching the sky in the summertime: Sir James MacMillan

02 August 2019

Sir James MacMillan, just turned 60, is being fêted in Edinburgh. He gave an interview to Roderic Dunnett

the cumnock tryst

Sir James MacMillan in playful mood, promoting his festival, The Cumnock Tryst

Sir James MacMillan in playful mood, promoting his festival, The Cumnock Tryst

IT SEEMS only yesterday that Sir James MacMillan was being hailed as the rising young prospect of Scottish music. His music earned many accolades: “visceral”, “compelling”, full of rhythmic excitement, thrilling, explosive, raw, impulsive, driven.

And, indeed, it is all of these things. MacMillan, at just 60 (on 16 July), is now the grand old man of Scottish music. He is being honoured with a celebration at this month’s Edinburgh Festival. Five events culminate in the première at the Usher Hall on Saturday 17 August of his Fifth Symphony, prefaced by the composer himself conducting his Second Symphony. A real feast.

The festival has a special resonance: “I’m very proud that a focus like this is happening in Scotland, especially in Edinburgh. It’s a festival I’ve loved since I was a teenager. I’ve been going since the 1970s, and it’s always had this air of excitement about it.”

His impressive and gripping output displays not just intense emotional power, but phenomenal sensitivity, a concern for the oppressed, and a longing to communicate to as wide an audience as possible.

MacMillan has been a devoted Roman Catholic since childhood, attending church with his family in “a kind of working-class Catholic community” (he was born in Kilwinning on the west coast, and later grew up in Cumnock, formerly an Ayrshire mining town).

His own religious commitment embraces his long-lasting response to “the numinous”. He says: “It’s hard sometimes to account for what came first, or whether a sense of the numinous was there anyway. Perhaps, there was something subliminal, a kind of pre-conscious or subconscious association leading me down the path I have chosen.”

He has composed countless works with a Christian focus or “humanitarian impulse”. These include a substantial collection of motets, all intense and profoundly beautiful. “Many”, he recalls, “have been championed marvellously by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers” (who will conduct the new symphony). Padre Pio’s Prayer is a particularly touching example, but he has composed countless others: one of his Strathclyde Motets, Benedicimus Deum Coeli, was the introit for Wednesday’s evensong at this year’s Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester.

“I was already composing”, he says, “by the age of around ten.” Does he feel he and his compositions have changed since his early career? “I can see my music has changed to a degree, but it’s not something I am aware of on a daily basis. When I look at old music of mine going back to the 1970s, I’m struck that some compositions I wrote when I was 17 are still performed.

“It’s a bit like finding old letters that you wrote as a child or a teenager or a young man, and realising that you’re the same person, essentially. But there are also important ways you’ve changed, almost unawares. It’s quite a wistful feeling looking back at your thoughts then, and music you wrote at the time. You’ve moved on almost without noticing. At 60, I’m conscious of some wear and tear, but in certain aspects of life do feel older and perhaps a little wiser.

“For ten years, I wrote music for my own congregation, at St Columba’s in Glasgow. I would compose responsorial psalms on the Saturday and rehearse them briefly before the service. Although it’s one of the most difficult things I do as a composer, it’s also one of the most enjoyable.
“In fact, since my student days in Edinburgh, I’ve regularly participated in the Gregorian or Dominican chanting of the crucifixion story on Good Friday. This simple music has had an overriding influence on the shape and character of my own writing for congregation, and on my Passion settings.

“This music is appropriate for the most modest parishes: any congregation should be able to sing them. The responses are short enough and simple, and, with the repetitive nature of the psalms, they’re designed to be picked up quickly.” These responsories are used in churches around the world.

The flow of sacred settings includes two Passions (St John and St Luke), a Stabat Mater, and Seven Last Words of Our Saviour from the Cross. Since it was the Day of Preparation, a vast 70-minute work, also unveiled at Edinburgh, draws on both St John’s and St Matthew’s Gospels. His percussion concerto Veni, veni, Emmanuel is performed worldwide. “For next year,” he tells me, “I am writing a Christmas Oratorio, to be performed in Australia, Amsterdam, and New York.”

marc marnie/edinburgh festivalmarc marnie/edinburgh festival

James MacMillan’s five Culham Motets (Friday 16 August at the Greyfriars Kirk), were composed, he explains, “for the consecration [in 2015] of the Chapel of Christ the Redeemer at Culham College. It’s not often a new Catholic chapel is built; so this occasion had a special resonance for me.” His Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman also has a congregational part.

It has been aptly said of MacMillan that “His musical language is flooded with influences from his Scottish heritage, Catholic faith, social conscience and close bond with Celtic folk music; plus influences from Far Eastern, Scandinavian and East European music.”

His first symphony, Vigil, forms part of a triptych, Triduum, which includes his concerto, The World’s Ransoming, for cor anglais and orchestra, which alludes to Maundy Thursday, and his Good Friday-themed Cello Concerto. His third symphony, Silence, poses probing questions about God. Woman of the Apocalypse was inspired by the art of Blake, Dürer, Rubens, and others.

Edinburgh this month will include his Missa Brevis; his powerful, insistent work Quickening (exploring birth and new life, and including a children’s choir, on Saturday 10th); and a wry, tongue-in-cheek organ concerto, A Scotch Bestiary, “in which characters from Scottish life feature: bees, ducks, hyenas, big fish, jackals”. His cantata commemorating the First World War also features on the 16th at the Greyfriars Kirk.

The undoubted highlight will be the première of MacMillan’s Fifth Symphony. “After my Fourth Symphony, I always wondered if there might be another, and indeed a fifth has now come along.

“The symphony was commissioned by the Genesis Foundation, whose founder, the philanthropist John Studzinski, gave me a copy of the theologically stimulating The Holy Spirit, Fire of Divine Love by the Belgian-Swedish Carmelite Fr Wilfrid Stinissen (1927-2013). It steered me to the visionary poetry of St John of the Cross. Studzinski (who also commissioned MacMillan’s Stabat Mater) has been a fabulous — and generous — enabler and supporter of the arts, especially of The Sixteen, in whose work he finds resonances that accord with his own, and who play a vital role in the symphony.”

Macmillan talks animatedly of the “mysteriousness” of the Holy Spirit: “I was very conscious in the symphony that while Christ and God the Father feature regularly in religious music, the Holy Spirit does less so. Seeking a structure, I became aware of specific words: firstly, the Greek pneuma and Latin spiritus: both mean ‘breath’. The term that inspired me especially was the parallel Jewish word, Ruah. I allotted that name to the first movement; to the second, Zao, Greek for ‘I am alive, I flourish’; and to the third, ignis — “fire”. I then had to find what texts, scriptural and otherwise, would best convey the content, and shape the structure, of the music.”

The mystery is underlined by the title: Le grand inconnu (“The Great Unknown”). In the music, MacMillan seeks, in part, to generate “spectral sounds”. He says: “One thing I am striving to achieve is an intense expressivity. I wanted to explore the elemental and primal sounds, and words, associated with the Spirit.”
The sheer power and intensity of the work, and its weighty scoring, can perhaps be best felt “when the large chorus and the chamber ensemble divide into as many as 20 parts”.

“I have in mind a kind of ideal listener in composing; and that ideal listener is as curious as I am about making fresh encounters in music that they haven’t made before. Edinburgh has audiences especially interested in grappling with new, unexpected encounters in the arts.

“My first aspiration is getting my music to work: to have its own consistency, and a message and a meaning; and then to be able to communicate it, through fellow-musicians, to the listener. It’s a three-way communication that is mystical and magical, and can be really wonderful.

“I think music today is as important as ever. It’s a language that speaks beyond words and images, and that’s why it’s so mysterious, and so strangely beautiful.”

Quickening (Usher Hall, 10 August); The Culham Motets and All the Hills and Vales Along (Greyfriars Kirk, 16 August); A Scotch Bestiary and Woman of the Apocalypse (Usher Hall, 17 August); Symphony No. 5 Le grand inconnu and Symphony No. 2 (17 August and Radio 3 tba); Fourteen Little Pictures (Queen’s Hall, 17 August).

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