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James MacMillan

Forget about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ. James MacMillan, composer of “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel”, talks with Daniel Jaffé about Catholicism, combining the old with the new, and the transforming power of his music. A slightly shortened version of this article was published by Classic CD, February 1999.

James MacMillan
Don’t be misled by James MacMillan’s soft-spoken and courteous demeanour. When it comes to his music, there’s no beating about the bush. In the central movement of his Cello Concerto, a heavy metallic banging starts up. This is no mere abstraction of aggression ? la Martland or Turnage, but is meant to be nothing less than “the sound of nails being driven into the human flesh”. In fairness to MacMillan, those aren’t his words but those of the sleevenote writer for the Bis recording of this work. But they’re not so far away from some of his own statements.

James MacMillan has lashed out at those who would label him a Scottish nationalist, Catholic, Socialist “blah, blah, blah! You just look at the list of seemingly quite contradictory terms, and you think ‘what’s all this about?’” Yet often his music and even his published statements positively invite such labels. What does one make, for instance, of his talk of using in his music “transubstantiation” – a very Catholic concept usually associated with the belief that communion bread and wine are literally transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ. Asked about this, he confesses to having got into trouble with such claims: “taken out of context, it could seem rather immodest! I’ve used it once in a lecture in Italy in front of a dominantly Catholic audience; there was a sort of a mocking sound of ‘ummmoooh!’ So I’ve been wary of using that word recently in a frivolous or fanciful way!”

If at times MacMillan could be mistaken for a would-be high priest of music, readily using language loaded with religious imagery, one may forgive him for equating music with a religion that is very dear to him: “Music can transform our lives” says MacMillan; “We all have favourite musics, or even music that takes us by surprise, that we can in retrospect see as a crucial, defining moment in our lives, which has changed us in some way. But in order for music to do that, I think the human soul has to be ready to sacrifice something, sacrifice a certain amount of our time; something of our attention, something of our active listening. Music’s not something which can just wash over us. It needs us to sacrifice something of ourselves to meet it, and it’s very difficult sometimes to do that, especially the whole culture we’re in. Sacrifice and self-sacrifice – certainly sacrificing your time – is not valued anymore.”

The son of a joiner and a school teacher, James MacMillan started composing music when he started playing trumpet and piano at primary school. He subsequently sang in his secondary school’s church choir, where he discovered the choral works of Kenneth Leighton. Enamoured by this poignant music, he went to Edinburgh University where Leighton was professor of music, and subsequently to Durham to take a post-graduate course in composition with the relatively young John Casken. Though one might assume Casken’s interest in colour and the links between the visual arts and music would have appealed to MacMillan, MacMillan himself insists that he was too much of a “late developer” to have found Casken’s teaching a turning point: “Many of my friends like Steve Martland and Mark-Anthony Turnage were prodigies in that they developed their amazing skills at a very early age; in their late teens/early twenties they were writing very complex, very intricate and expert pieces. It was more in my late twenties that I began to feel I was consolidating.”

MacMillan’s emotional, quite often violent cocktail of socialist politics with committed Catholic faith may seem unlikely ingredients for his belated but undoubted success, yet Veni, Veni, Emmanuel was virtually an instant hit from its premiere at the 1992 London Proms; the number of performances that one particular work has received around the world since easily outstrips that enjoyed by most of his British contemporaries. Veni, Veni perhaps best exemplifies what attracts people to his music; exuberantly colourful, with dashes of reassuringly familiar dance-band harmonies, and glittering with theatrical virtuosity that has to be seen to be believed.

This sense of theatre is central to MacMillan’s music – he has expressed the wish to develop his operatic writing – and is very much in line with the work of Peter Maxwell Davies, whom he readily cites as a major influence and support: “I’d always been an admirer of his music, from the time before I knew him as a composer. He has never actually given me a lesson as such – I’ve never actually had that sort of teacher-pupil relationship with him. But he was present at the first performance of Tryst in 1989; he knew a few pieces written before then. But the pieces of his that mean a lot to me are pieces like Missa super l’Homme Armé – actually a lot of people regard it as a blasphemous piece but I don’t really see it as that.” It should be explained that Maxwell Davies’s “parody mass” involves a male singer dressed as a nun. “It’s one of his 1960s music-theatre pieces, and it uses text from the latin mass, but it’s all to do with betrayal. It’s a very black piece, I suppose, but a very sort of charming piece, a very dramatic piece. And also some of his purely abstract pieces like the First Symphony, and Worldes Blis, which I think is one of the most important British works of the late 1960s. So from afar, I think, I feel I’ve learnt a lot. And I see it even in the pieces I write just now.”

This is perhaps most evident in MacMillan’s juxtaposition of brightly exuberant rhythms and colours with more inward looking and sombre music. Above all, both composers embrace the technical gains of the post-war modernists while relinquishing that set’s “purist” avoidance of Western music’s tradition. MacMillan readily accepts that his “love” of that tradition reflects his own world view as a Roman Catholic: “There wouldn’t even be Catholicism if there had been an attempt to try and dam up the past in the same, puritanical way. Catholicism needs to have its past as well as its potential future; and therefore I suppose that conditions the way I look at the past.” At least equally important to MacMillan are composers from the former Soviet Union – most particularly Schnittke. Possibly the resulting flavour of his music made it particularly attractive to another Russian who was to be of great importance to MacMillan.

In 1994 MacMillan travelled to Washington, where Veni, Veni, Emmanuel’s American premiere was conducted by Rostropovich: “I didn’t know anything about him,” recalls MacMillan; “I just assumed that he would behave like a big star and wouldn’t be very interesting. But from the first second I met him I could feel this huge kind of personable warmth; and he was interested in me, he was interested in Evelyn [Glennie]; he was friendly, took us to his house; he made food for us, he gave us drink, and talked about lots of things and shared lots of fascinating memories with insights about his time in the Soviet Union. And then at the end of all this he said, ‘I’d like you to write me not just a piece but two pieces.’ I was sure that I would hear nothing more of it. But I did; he came back.”

Rostropovich’s request was timely as “I was thinking in terms of a triptych of pieces anyway.” Having already written a concertante work for cor anglais and orchestra called The World’s Ransoming, MacMillan decided to make Rostropovich’s two requested works be the two subsequent panels of his triptych. The result is Triduum, MacMillan’s largest scale work to date. Each of its parts relates to one of the three days of Easter: The World’s Ransoming relates to Maundy Thursday; part two is a Cello Concerto, which relates to Good Friday; and part three is a Symphony, Vigil, which looks forward to the day of Resurrection. “It wasn’t necessarily planned to have them all performed in one evening,” says MacMillan, “although that will happen in the summer, at the Edinburgh Festival. It will be interesting, but they are three very intense pieces.” So what should people attending this first complete performance expect? The most noticeable change since Veni, Veni, Emmanuel is the sheer scale of his work, as MacMillan himself acknowledges, tracing his predilection for large-scale pieces back to his first major success, The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie in 1990: “I suppose Isobel Gowdie led me to cultivate the large scale, to the extent that sometimes I worry that I can’t write short pieces any more. I started writing this cello and piano piece recently, which I had planned to be three short movements; but I’ve now sketched two pages of it, and I know that the first movement will be large-scale; it’s just something about the nature of the language. Unless the music is one idea, just one idea, the ideas expand very very quickly.” Those who fear from this that Triduum is of operatic length may be reassured. MacMillan reckons the music alone lasts no more than an hour and 50 minutes: “But the music’s fairly involved and intense; people need to be ready for it.”

MacMillan refuses to name a favourite of the three: “They’re very different. In that sense I’m glad that the Triduum is in three diverse stages; I was worried that there were too many similarities – the first two are concertante pieces, but even the first one is not really a concerto as such.” Indeed the soloist in the premiere of Ransoming, Christine Pendrill, insisted on sitting among her colleagues. By contrast the Cello Concerto, being a vehicle for Rostropovich, has finger-wrenching feats of virtuosity for the soloist to perform. Rostropovich has been known to help in the composition of works dedicated to him, but MacMillan says in this instance he was relatively hands off: “although a week before its first performance he decided that the cadenza in the first movement wasn’t long enough; he was absolutely right – the impact of the whole first movement depended on this cadenza being more weighty than it actually was. So I went away and rewrote the thing – this was the night before the first performance! So I worked away that night, delivered the new cadenza to him the next morning.”

And what of the final part, the Symphony: was that influenced at all by the fact Rostropovich was going to conduct it? “ErÉ what shall I say? I wouldn’t say that his character had any impact on the Symphony; there are in fact things in it that he maybe felt slightly uneasy about – you see it was the first time he had ever seen senza mesura markings, and having to give cues to offstage brass. I didn’t make it easy for him! But he did in fact a fantastic performance; a memorable, exciting and moving performance.”

Finally, apart from Glennie and Rostropovich, who does MacMillan write for – who is his ideal listener? “My ideal listener for me is someone like myself, which means someone who’s as thirsty and as ready for the power of transforming through music as I am, someone who’s as open to the energy of music, who is not satisfied with just being told what you already know. It’s not often that you get people like that, unfortunately. But even if you get one person like that, it’s a way of communicating with somebody. So it’s not quite quantity actually that matters to me.” Despite this, MacMillan is likely to enjoy greater quantities of listeners than many another self-respecting post-modernist.


Alas, since this interview originally went to print in 1999, both the Bis recordings on which Triduum appeared have been withdrawn from circulation. However, there are still plenty of MacMillan recordings available:

Veni, Veni, Emmanuel
Evelyn Glennie; Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Jukka-Pekka Saraste
BMG Catalyst 09026 61916-2

Confession of Isobel Gowdie
BBC Scottish SO/Jerzy Maksymiuk
Koch 310502

Confession of Isobel Gowdie
BBC Scottish SO/Osmo Vanska
Bis BISCD1169

Mass and Sacred Music
Westminster Cathedral Choir/Martin Baker
Hyperion CDA67219

The Beserking; Britannia; Into the Ferment
Martin Roscoe (piano); BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/James MacMillan
Chandos CHAN10092

Article © Daniel Jaffé

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SheetMusic by James Macmillan