Musica Sacra | Kevin McCormick | Catholic World Report
James MacMillan and his sacred music for our time
In September 2010, when Pope Benedict made his historic and transformative visit to the United Kingdom, his first stop was Glasgow, Scotland. There, as he inaugurated the first-ever official state visit by the pope to the UK, he celebrated the opening Mass to the sounds of newly commissioned liturgical music. The music was thoughtful, joyful, singable, yet richly musical. It was the premiere of a work by a man well known in the contemporary classical music community but less known to those outside it: Scottish composer James MacMillan.
James MacMillan has accomplished the seemingly impossible for a contemporary artist of any medium. The Scottish composer and conductor has created a deep repertoire of compositions spanning from small chamber pieces to orchestral works and full-blown operas. His music successfully blends modern compositional expressions with a traditional musical understanding. His work is respected by the avant-garde and well-received by the customary classical concertgoer. His compositional style is praised by performers, conductors, and other composers. He maintains an active and internationally renowned musical life as a highly commissioned composer and heavily-booked guest conductor. And somehow he is able to reserve time to work regularly with his own parish choir in Glasgow.
All of this at the relatively young (for a composer) age of 52. The son of a welder and teacher, MacMillan’s childhood included study of piano and trumpet. He began composing at an early age, and by secondary school already had a penchant for the sounds of Renaissance church music. Eventually making his way to undergraduate work at Edinburgh University, he passed on the opportunity of the more focused conservatory life for the broader experience offered in the university setting.
This early choice is indicative of MacMillan’s interest in a wider appreciation of the language of music, a trait which informs much of his writing. Like his British predecessor Benjamin Britten, he composes compelling vocal melodies with rich choral arrangements with ease. And like Debussy, he possesses an evocative musical vocabulary which allows him great latitude in his compositional structures. Perhaps not coincidentally he shares with both of those composers an enthusiasm for the sounds of the East Asian hammered-bell instrument called the gamelan, which sometimes overtly, other times more subtly, finds its way into his music. That is not to say that his music shares the trance-like meditative quality of much of the music of East. He infuses an intensity into his scores, one which reflects the fundamental struggle between good and evil inherent in the human drama.
Against the fad, with the grain
Though his early writings include Marxist leanings from liberation theology, MacMillan admits in his more recent interviews that he is a “lapsed lefty.” MacMillan has been courageous in confronting the “liberal assumption” that is often militantly and sneeringly guarded by captains of the “Arts élite.” Growing up in a community that he regarded as often hostile to his Catholic religion and its community, MacMillan knows the struggle of living in contradiction to the majority around him.
Perhaps it was this struggle which allowed him, from the earliest stages, to compose more freely and with less concern for being blown by the whimsical winds of the avant-garde. Whatever the case, MacMillan’s solid grounding in classical compositional structures have provided him a freedom in blending styles and moods into a synthesis which is historically contiguous with past masters.