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It may seem slightly incongruous to look specifically at the liturgical music of James MacMillan, a composer for whom the liturgy has had such bearing on his entire compositional ethos and personal philosophy. For the liturgy has provided the impulse for both MacMillan’s large corpus of sacred choral pieces, and the bulk of his instrumental works. However, this over-riding influence of the liturgy makes an in-depth look at the purely liturgical works all the more relevant: here we find the composer stripped of the myriad of allusions that characterise other works and find him working in a specifically explicit manner. The chapter looks at MacMillan’s extant Mass settings, though will focus mainly on the setting from 2000 as the most succinct appraisal of his assimilating of the vernacular. It will also look at his Magnificat (1999), Nunc Dimittis (2000), Jubilate Deo (2009) and Te Deum settings, showing some of the composer’s current pre-occupations with the borrowing and recycling of material and ideas relating to form and through-composition.
Writing a book on a living composer is a double-edged sword: for all the freedom granted by being the first person critically to assess much of the music comes the constant feeling of worry and guilt that you might get some valuable information wrong. Having no vast bibliography of secondary literature is both a blessing and a curse; there is certainly much less to read and absorb, to verify or contradict, but there are far fewer places to turn to for corroborating views or analyses. With the composer in question very much still alive and producing, there is always the possibility of contacting him for another interview, or for that key bit of information that has alluded you – whether he wants to respond or not. In short, writing this book is something of a voyage into the unknown, or the little known, with the ultimate hope being to end up somewhere of value and experience, for both the author and the wider musical world.
I first encountered James MacMillan's name before I had heard any of his music; it was during my undergraduate degree at Durham University in a workshop given by MacMillan's former tutor (and my soon-to-be tutor) John Casken. Casken informed the composition class that there was ‘little money in contemporary composition’ (a typically matter-of-fact statement from the then Head of Composition at Manchester University) and that the ‘only composer who made money from serious composition is James MacMillan’. Who was this James MacMillan who made all this money? How did he do it? I did not take the time to find out, but I remembered his name. I met him for the first time a few years later in Manchester, whilst I was studying with Casken; MacMillan was at the university on one of his visits to work with the BBC Philharmonic as part of his role as composer–conductor. During our brief meeting, I had a nosebleed and spent much of the time hiding behind a piano – an auspicious introduction.
I first encountered his music in any real fashion whilst working in a music shop in Oxford; here we were encouraged to listen to some of the CDs we were trying to sell, and I slowly made my way through all the contemporary music the shop stocked.
‘I don't really regard myself as a church composer and I don't really see myself doing too much of it’ exclaimed James MacMillan in 1998, in an interview with Helen Burrows for a PhD thesis entitled ‘Choral Music and Church of England: 1970–1995’. In a chapter titled ‘James MacMillan: Tackling the Divine in Music’, MacMillan makes various statements about his disillusionment with the state of contemporary Catholic liturgical music (as he would at various points over the next two decades) and his own views on the role of the composer working in this arena. Burrows, despite being somewhat harsh on MacMillan's congregational mass settings – she refers to the ‘paucity of ideas’ in the works and bemoans the ‘self-conscious use’ of the ‘Scotch Snap’ – carries out a fair survey of his sacred choral works up to 1995 and includes substantial pieces such as Cantos Sagrados and Seven Last Words from the Cross as well as shorter anthems and motets. What is most striking about the chapter are her thoughts on the public awareness of MacMillan's sacred choral works, with Burrows asserting ‘although most of MacMillan's compositions have been critically acclaimed his sacred choral music has largely escaped attention’. She continues: ‘MacMillan's choral music has never attained the popularity of his instrumental works.’ There is more than a grain of truth to her assumptions, since as of 1998 none of MacMillan's work in this genre had achieved anywhere like the public exposure and dissemination of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie or Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, and his published choral works (both sacred and secular) at the time amounted to less than a quarter of his output. However, fast-forward ten years and choral music dominates the works MacMillan is writing, to the point where it dwarfs the orchestral and instrumental music, in number if not scope. Writing for choirs has moved from being a secondary part of the composer's oeuvre to one of his primary concerns, and shows no sign of relinquishing this position. But what exactly caused this ‘choral renaissance’ for MacMillan, what caused this resurgence in a genre that the composer did not see himself ‘doing too much of ‘? How did it move to become such an integral and substantial part of MacMillan's published work?
I clearly remember the night in 1990 when I witnessed something that would later change my perspective as a solo percussionist. I was watching the televised Henry Wood Proms in London. Playing at that precise moment was a musical work that would change not only my life but elevate the standing of solo percussion to a completely different level. The piece was the world premiere of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie by a young Scottish composer, James MacMillan.
I had never anticipated nor imagined such a powerful orchestral piece to be screened via the medium of television before. I was transfixed by the sheer power, changing of gears, waves of scintillating sound colours and the brilliance of each member of the orchestra who seemed to be pushed to their limits to provide such an immense sound meal. The music ended with an immediate elongated rapturous applause. I was breathless. The young composer with a small glistening ear-ring shyly took a bow and humbly accepted the shower of adoration. I knew I had witnessed something incredibly special and important. I also knew I had to contact this composer immediately to ask if he would consider writing a percussion concerto for me. The rest is history. 1992 saw the arrival of one of our great percussion concertos Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. It was the first ever percussion concerto to be performed in the history of the Proms.
From that night in 1990 James MacMillan's music has been an essential part of my life. Pieces can come and go but with James's music each new work is a landmark, a statement whereby we are sucked into a web of musical power and passion that questions our very being. There is no medium that James MacMillan shies away from; he often embraces the instruments which are sometimes less common in a solo medium, such as the Cor Anglais in The World's Ransoming and his Viola Concerto, not to mention two percussion concerti; he transcends them into an emotional rollercoaster for performers and our audiences.
I fondly remember performing Veni, Veni, Emmanuel in Washington DC with the National Symphony Orchestra and the great Slava Rostropovich conducting.
Amidst the outpouring of choral pieces and grand Wagnerian statements from James MacMillan in the 2000s there was a new, unexpected strand to the composer's work that began to take shape in the latter part of the decade and has become an important facet of his oeuvre ever since: the move to a greater form of abstraction in his orchestral and chamber works. For a composer whose reputation was built on tone-poems and concerti with evocative, programmatic names (none more so than his calling card The Confession of Isobel Gowdie), the move to more generic, autonomous titles was an unusual one, but one that MacMillan was aware of nonetheless, as he stated in 2007:
More recently, I've noticed that I've been leaving the extra-musical starting points behind. I don't know if this is a new direction or not. This might come as a surprise to the people who see me as someone who has this other aspect, but I've always written abstractly. Perhaps I'm just moving into another phase now, where the theology and the pre-musical are much more subliminal, taken for granted.
MacMillan may have ‘always written abstractly’, but his body of work in the 1980s and 1990s has few purely abstract pieces, the Piano Sonata (1985), the Sinfonietta (1991) and the Cello Sonata No. 1 (1999) being examples from a small pool. It is telling that even those pieces that traditionally had generic titles such as the string quartet and the symphony are given extra-musical names by MacMillan – the first two quartets are titled Visions of a November Spring and Why is this night different? and the symphony contains the poetic addendum ‘Vigil’ – and his early concerti have some of the most programmatic titles of all the composer's works. However, 2007 does appear to have been something of turning-point for MacMillan, for although the year was dominated by the St John Passion and works from The Strathclyde Motets, two substantial chamber works were composed, neither of which had any overt pre-compositional stimuli: the String Quartet No. 3 and the Horn Quintet.
1988 would turn out to be a pivotal year for James MacMillan, one that saw the emergence of the composer he is today. With his teaching post at Manchester University finishing in July 1988 and all academic commitments completed at Durham it made sense, both personally and professionally, to return to Scotland and to Glasgow where Lynne was already based, working for the Scottish Consumer Council. Although a logical move in many ways, the homecoming was not the return of the prodigal son that it may have appeared. MacMillan returned to a Scottish music scene he had largely been absent from for the past six years and creative contacts were not initially forthcoming. His first action was pragmatic: ‘I came back and signed on the dole’; though this action was short-lived as with Lynne's earnings and MacMillan's first forays into freelance composing his position became increasingly secure. What MacMillan may not have been aware of at the time was how integral to his professional development these first, tentative months in Glasgow were, for the return to his homeland brought forth a sudden surge of new works that culminated in The Confession of Isobel Gowdie in 1990 and his position as Scotland's pre-eminent compositional voice.
The move to Glasgow followed on from a period of creative silence that coincided with the completion of The Keening and the PhD portfolio, and very little music was written in the latter part of 1986 and 1987. This was undeniably a period of creative introspection and aesthetic soul-searching (as many composers do when leaving the safe confines of academia and study) in which MacMillan was looking for ‘a switch in style or a reorientation of technique or stressing of different priorities’. The move away from pieces that had ‘a lot of concurrencies with music that has been seen to be important in Britain’ to something more recognisable with MacMillan's oeuvre of today, ‘a more exciting music … music which is visceral … physical, rhythmic’ was taking place. As was noted in 1992: ‘It was a time for taking stock … for leaving behind his earlier concern with the avant-garde, and discarding the pastoral strains in some of his own earlier music.’
‘My three kids were so terrified by the sequence of sullen visitors, they were packed off with the childminder’ wrote James MacMillan in 2006, a stark reminiscence by the composer of the eye-of-the-storm that had greeted the MacMillan family in August 1999 after the speech he had given at the Edinburgh Festival days earlier. This speech, entitled ‘Scotland's Shame’, is one of the most decisive events in MacMillan's career and one that defines him as much, if not more, than The Confession of Isobel Gowdie or Seven Last Words from the Cross: it was a watershed moment in the composer's career and one that has had a direct influence on the music he has written and the political opinions he holds in its aftermath. But what was quite so incendiary about the speech and why have its repercussions continued to be felt in MacMillan's work to this day?
In the loosest terms, ‘Scotland's Shame’ highlights the sectarianism in modern-day Scotland and the discrimination and prejudice against Catholics in many walks of everyday life. It is a passionate but reasoned polemic suggesting that the age-old Protestant–Catholic tensions that existed in Scotland since the Reformation were still very much present at the turn of the new millennium. The speech deals head on with anti-Catholicism and suggests that ‘Scotland is guilty of “sleep-walking” bigotry’ in a more pluralist and secular age. His speech covers what would become familiar political ground for MacMillan, including faith schools, nationalism (particularly the Scottish National Party, which later became a bête noire for the composer) and the growing secularisation of society. Along with a startling analogy between the Reformation and the Cultural Revolution in China, MacMillan suggests the issue is ‘as endemic as it is second nature’ and places the problem across all areas of society including the sporting arena and the media. It is perhaps the reference to the latter that caused the greatest consternation and explains why the reaction to ‘Scotland's Shame’ rumbled on for weeks in the Scottish broadsheet newspapers.
Certainly, the speech opened up a Pandora's box that many Scots either presumed or hoped had been shut by previous generations, and it was not helped by having the issue discussed in such a public (and international) forum, meaning the subject could not easily be sidestepped or dismissed.
If Veni, Veni, Emmanuel found James MacMillan exploring the Easter narrative in his work for the first time in a substantial and meaningful fashion, the years 1993 to 1997 found him examining this event in an almost obsessive manner, returning again and again to the three days of drama, tragedy and redemption that are at the heart of Christianity. Over this four-year period, he composed at least ten works overtly influenced by the events of Holy Week, ranging from short chamber works such as Kiss on Wood (1993) and Fourteen Little Pictures (1997) to the large-scale cantata Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993) and the orchestral triptych Triduum (1996–97). As was stated in the previous chapter, MacMillan has spoken often about being ‘drawn again and again to the Passion’, that he seems ‘to be going round and round the same three days of history’ – it was no surprise he felt this following an intense period of composition on such a dramatic and personally significant event. Although the Easter story has remained a powerful source of inspiration for the composer since the 1990s, it was this four-year period that saw MacMillan's most concentrated exploration of the Passion.
The years 1993 to 1997 were also some of the most successful of MacMillan's career with high-profile commissions, recordings and awards following on from the breakthrough successes of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie and Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. One of the most tangible of these saw MacMillan as the featured composer at the 1993 Edinburgh Festival, during which eighteen of his works were performed including the premieres of the one-act opera Tourist Variations (more of which later) and the trumpet concerto Epiclesis by John Wallace and the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin. The exposure generated by the inclusion of MacMillan's work in the festival was both positive and negative, but it did highlight the position the then 34-year-old composer held in the Scottish musical firmament – virtually all his major works to date were featured including Isobel Gowdie, Búsqueda and Cantos Sagrados alongside more obscure pieces such as Study on Two Planes, Beatus Vir (both subsequently withdrawn) and Catherine's Lullabies.
If the years from The Confession of Isobel Gowdie to Inés de Castro were MacMillan's first period of sustained success, one that announced him firmly to the country's musical consciousness, then the years from 1996 to 2000 were years of consolidation: a steady building on what he had achieved and a continued affirmation of all that had made him successful to that point. They were years of plenty, with a substantial increase in the amount of works produced, the quality of performers that the composer was working with, and exposure and dissemination of his work to a larger and more diverse audience. The backbone of MacMillan's output from this period rests on orchestral pieces: a standalone concerto (Ninian, for clarinet, 1997), a string orchestra work (Í – A Meditation on Iona, 1996), a piece for chamber orchestra (Symphony No. 2, 1999) and the monumental orchestral triptych, Triduum (1996–97). It also saw an increase in chamber and instrumental works, and perhaps most importantly (for future developments), a marked increase in vocal and choral pieces, including the substantial song cycle Raising Sparks (1997) and culminating in the 50-minute oratorio Quickening for solo vocal quartet, choirs and orchestra in 1998.
It also saw the first major retrospective of MacMillan's work in England, with the ‘Raising Sparks’ festival at the South Bank in London running from 28 September to 26 October 1997. This featured many of MacMillan's key works from the past decade including Veni, Veni, Emmanuel and The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, the London premieres of pieces such as Búsqueda and The Berserking and, presented as its centrepiece, the first full performance of the entire Triduum including the world premiere of the third part, Symphony: ‘Vigil’, in the opening concert. 1997 also found MacMillan as the featured composer at the Bergen Festival in Norway and saw the 100th performance of Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, an incredible feat in British contemporary music for a work that had only been premiered five years earlier in 1992.
This increase in productivity was not without its side-effects as MacMillan recalled before ‘Raising Sparks’, suggesting his home life was suffering under the increased workload: ‘She's [MacMillan's wife, Lynne] been very concerned over the last year, because I haven't been sleeping well.
If ‘Scotland's Shame’ was the major political, theological and personal moment of crisis in James MacMillan's creative life, then the Papal visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom in September 2010 was a definite second crisis, again leading to much soul-searching, introspection and questioning of the composer's relationship with his homeland and the church, and of the very essence of himself as an artist in contemporary society. For although the visit of Benedict ultimately passed with little controversy (there was much grumbling in the left-leaning press in the run-up to the event, particularly the funding of the visit), MacMillan's involvement and the preceding ill-feelings that were engendered have left another indelible mark on the composer which continues to be felt to this day.
The state visit was the first by a pope since Pope John Paul II's visit to the UK in May 1982 and was a hugely significant moment, not just for Britain's Catholic community, but for all religious faiths and denominations, leading to much publicity and scrutiny throughout the media and wider society. Benedict held meetings with all the major political leaders, the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury during a four-day visit that saw open-air masses in Glasgow and Birmingham and a mass in Westminster Cathedral, the centre of Catholicism in England. The visit also saw the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, one of the leading Catholic theologians of the nineteenth century and a key figure in the resurgence of the Catholic Church during that period. As the country's most prominent Catholic composer, it was no surprise that MacMillan was involved in various musical events during Benedict's visit, and he provided two new works: the anthem Tu es Petrus, for brass, organ, percussion and choir and the congregational Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman that was first performed in the open-air mass at Bellahouston Park, Glasgow that welcomed the Pope to Scotland. It was the latter of these two works that caused the greatest controversy for both composer and religious community.
As with events in 1999, MacMillan's exploits made the news in certain quarters in Scotland, this time regarding the suitability of his new setting for the Papal mass.