Scottish composer James MacMillan's latest CD, Seven Last Words from the Cross, has just been released. Peter Brown met him to discuss his Catholicism.
MOST CONTEMPORARY :omposers count themselves lucky if a new work is performed even once. That all-important "second performance" which helps to establish a piece as potential "repertoire" is even more difficult to come by.
The Scottish composer fames MacMillan (Jimmy to his friends) is currently basking in the glory of no less than 14 premiere performances by major British Orchestras of his latest opus Britannia.
Written last year, Britannia is a celebratory ten minute
orchestral fantasy based on "patriotic" themes. MacMillan hopes that "this little ten minute concert overture will stimulate and entertain the hundreds of British orchestral musicians as well as their audiences."
An ideal concert opener, the world premiere formed the prelude to the London Symphony Orchestra's 90th Birthday Season.
After a theme based on a march tune by General Reid, an 18th century British Army officer who established the music department at Edin burgh University, MacMillan throws in tunes from Elgar's Cockaigne Overture, Rule
Britannia, an Irish reel which
becomes a jig, a cockney drinking song, other marches and a background of Celtic modality, to form an effervescent concoction which keeps the orchestra on its toes and has a bracing effect on even the sleepiest audience.
In his programme note for Britannia, MacMillan referred
to the threat of petty chau vinism throughout Europe and in doing so touched upon one of his main concerns the others being his religion, his roots and his family.
James MacMillan was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, in 1959. He read music at Edinburgh and took Doctoral studies in composition at Durham University with John Casken.
After working as a lecturer at Manchester University, MacMillan returned to Scot land in 1988, settling in Glasgow where he teaches part time at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. His educational work
and the successful premiere of Tryst at the Orkney Festival
led to his appointment as Affiliate Composer of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 1990. MacMillan is also currently Visiting Composer of the Philharmonia Orchestra and Artistic Director of its new contemporary music series, Music of Today.
MacMillan's music is notable for its extraordinary directness, energy and emotional power. References to Scottish folk music imbue his work with a strong sense of the vernacular, while his strongly-held religious and political beliefs, coupled with community concerns, inform both the spirit and subject matter of the music.
Now 35, MacMillan's Catholicism has been a dominant influence on both his life and his compositions. Describing himself as a cradle Catholic, baptised at seven days, he remembers his Catholicism right from its beginnings. "I went to a Catholic primary school at five, though later to a nondenominational school of bullying". At 15 he became interested in politics and joined the Young Communists, but unlike many young Catholics who went down that road at that time, MacMillan never abandoned the Church or stopped going to Mass.He admits that "This caused a certain consternation among my communist friends, who thought the tried and tested way of politics was to abandon one creed and accept another. My militant Catholic friends weren't too happy either.
"But I think I have been proved right by history, I was never really a Marxist, it was simply where my mind was exercised at the time to be with the left".
MacMillan started playing the recorder when he was nine which led in turn to trumpet and piano. It was during his second year at university that composition took over seriously. When he first returned to Scotland in 1983 he took a part-time job as music teacher in a prep school, moving to the music department of Manchester University in 1986.
The year 1988, when the composer returned finally to Scotland, was a turning point in MacMillan's career. Stimulated by the release of the
pent-up urge to compose which had been muted during his three years of teaching, MacMillan produced a major stage work, Busqueda, or "Search", for speakers, actors, sopranos and ensemble.
A fusion of lamenting poems by the mothers of "the disappeared" in Argentina and sections of the Latin Mass, the work has both political and religious overtones, expressing MacMillan's interest in liberation theology. Busqueda draws the audience into a simultaneous experience of-the mysteries of the Mass and the turmoil of a political street demonstration. The piece was MacMillan's first score to reveal his novel style to a wider public.
After his Piano Concerto of 1990, The Berserking, which takes its name from a peculiarly suicidal aspect of Scottish behaviour, MacMillan's next major work was the famous orchestral piece The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. It was commissioned by the BBC and first heard at the Proms in 1990 to considerable acclaim.
MacMillan was drawn to the dramatic and programmatic potential of this insane and terrible story of the comely country girl falsely accused of witchcraft.
Says MacMillan: "I attempted to draw together various strands in a single, complicated act of contrition. On behalf of the Scottish people the work craves absolution, and offers Isobel Gowdie the mercy and humanity that were denied her in the last days of her life.
"To do this I have tried to capture the soul of Scotland in music, and the outer sections contain chants, songs and litanies (real and imagined) corning together in a reflective outpouring a prayer for the murdered woman. The 25 minute work is the Requiem that Isobel Gowdie never had".
The composer insists "Ranting witch-hunters, whether political or religious, still exist today, and, fearful of losing their privileges, they attack everything that opposes their infamous aims. Whether religious communities, political pries or ethnic minorities: scapegoats are found again and again and exposed to public contempt, because it is so much easier to behold the mote in the other's eye..." It was performed again at this year's Proms.
The Proms have been good for James MacMillan. In August 1992 his Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, a Concerto for percussion and orchestra written for Evelyn Glennie and the Sottish Chamber Orchestra, brought the house down in more senses than one. Dedicated to his parents, it is based on the Advent plainsong of the same name and was started on theist Sunday of Advent 1991 and completed on Faster Sunday 1992.
The piece can be seen in two ways. On one level it is a purely abstract work in which all the musical material is drawn from the 15th century French Advent plainchant. On another level is it a musical exploration of the theology behind the Advent message. The heartbeats which permeate the whole piece offer a clue to the wider spiritual priorities behind the work, representing the human presence of Christ.
Advent texts proclaim the promised day of liberation from fear, anguish and oppression and the work is an attempt to mirror this in music. It found its initial inspiration in Luke 21: "There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves... they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory, when these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand."
At the very end, the music takes a liturgical detour from Advent to Easter right into the Gloria of the Easter Vigil in fact as if the proclamation of liberation finds embodiment in the Risen Christ.
MacMillan has profound feelings and convictions religious, political, musical that need to be communicated, and he is always aware that his musical language needs to be appreciated by a wide audience. He played in a folk band for years on penny whistle and keyboard and has always been interested in traditional Scot tish and Irish music.
The practical experience of folk tradition has been absorbed into much of his music. His instrumental piece for clarinet and string quartet Tuireadh (Gaelic for lament or requiem) was written in direct response to a letter from the mother of one of the victims of the Piper Alpha disaster and is dedicated to their memory.
MacMillan's second opera, Visitatio Sepukhri of 1993 for seven singers and chamber orchestra lasts some 40 minutes and is a setting of a 14th century liturgical drama from Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.
Originally it would have been enacted during Matins on Easter Sunday morning when members of the clergy and choir would take the part of the three angels and three women.
Even in his purely orchestral works, such as the
pet Concerto he wrote for fellow Scotsman John Wallace and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Macmillan's deep convictions and beliefs are to the fore.
The concerto is a musical meditation on the mystery of the Eucharist and the idea of transformation of materials. Epiclesis means an invocation calling upon God's name during a blessing or consecration.
It is mostly used with specific reference to the invocation during the Eucharistic celebration in which the gifts of bread and wine are consecrated into the body and blood of Christ. In this case, the power of the Holy Spirit is invoked to bring about transubstantiation.
Recent works by MacMillan include Seven Last Wbrds from the Cross for chorus and string orchestra, screened on BBC2 during Holy Week last year. Interestingly MacMillan wrote the music first and the images came later, a reversal of the usual relationship between film-maker and composer.
MacMillan says he chose the "Seven Last Words" because "the words mean so much within a very spare text, so I incorporated other texts from the Good Friday liturgy to give it another perspective, and it can be a valuable discipline to concentrate musically on very few words."
Currently, the composer is working on his largest project to date, a commission from Scottish Opera called Ines de Castro, a lurid tale based on the story of a 13th century Spanish lady who became the mistress of the Portuguese Crown Prince.
Here too, MacMillan's concerns are with the rights of the individual in the face of bigotry and oppression harking back to the theme of Isobel Gowdie.
November 1994 saw the first performance of Christus Vincit commissioned for the Festival of St Cecilia, which was performed in St Paul's Cathedral on the Feast Day (23rd November) by the combined choirs of St Paul's, Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.