Menu

Essay

An’ when we chasten’d him therefor,
Thou kens how he bred sic a splore,
An’ set the warld in a roar
O’ laughing at us;—
—Robert Burns, from “Holy Willie’s Prayer”

THE MUSIC STARTS intimately, a simple chant-like tune sung by treble voices to the ancient words of Psalm 96: “O sing unto the Lord a new song.” Following the contour of the line, you hear an unexpected appoggiatura, a downward stutter step that creates a Scottish inflection. You begin to notice that this melody is being sung over a subdued but harmonically luscious organ background. The opening statement concludes, and a full choir then follows in a marvelously rich contrapuntal dialogue. Here, the intricate and ornamented lines intertwine, spinning into luminous harmonies. The effect is both modern and ancient. These two sibling passages are repeated, followed by a third and final statement of the opening melody sung by the entire choir in canon, now more deliberate and resolute. The last word is given to the organ, who up to this point has been content to lurk in the background, filling in transitions and shadowing the voices. Now, as it intercepts the final notes of the choir for a brief coda, it gradually swells in a majestic restatement of the prior melodic ideas over a sustained pedal note, providing a definitive and convincing close.

This was my first hearing of Scottish composer James MacMillan’s choral anthem “A New Song.” I’d been taken by his percussion concerto, Veni, Veni, Emanuel, which I’d heard performed by the Dallas Symphony in the late nineties, so I had more than a trace of curiosity as I poked at the stubborn shrink-wrap on the newly arrived CD. Composers (like me) can tend to be ungenerous with the music of their contemporaries, but as I continued to listen to the choir sing through the mass included on this recording, I thought, Well now…. This is really something. I wanted to know more, and hear more. Nosing about on the web, I soon discovered that over the 1990s MacMillan had steadily become a big deal, notable not only because of his gifts as a composer and conductor, but also his earnest concerns with his culture and local community, about which he is unafraid to express views that are sometimes unpopular.

He recently wrote, “I always believed that being a composer had implications for the wider community, that there was a role for us in a society like this, in spite of everything.” Though said to be a quiet-spoken man, MacMillan appears more than willing, personally and with his music, to step out of the enclave and engage with wider public matters. A few years back he dedicated a short choral piece, “Nemo Te Condemnavit” (“Has No One Condemned You”), to beleaguered Scottish historian Michael Fry, and he was quoted a few years back describing the Scottish Arts Council as “fucking stupid” for their management of the Scottish National Opera. His thoughts on these topics are generally available on the web.

Controversy aside, MacMillan’s music is not hard to find. It has been widely performed and recorded over the past decade, receiving much popular and critical acclaim, particularly in the UK, and MacMillan is something of a celebrity in his native Scotland. Not yet fifty, he recently enjoyed a major retrospective by the BBC Symphony, which over the years has premiered many of his most important compositions. His reputation was launched at the BBC Proms (Britain’s largest classical music festival) in 1990 with The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, a work based on the fantastical confessions and unjust trial of a seventeenth-century Scottish witch.

His most performed work, which brought him much attention in North America, is Veni, Veni, Emanuel, a theatrical and demanding percussion concerto to which an ancient advent plainsong gives a unifying thread. Other notable works include Seven Last Words from the Cross, for chorus and string orchestra, and Triduum, a triptych based on the events of Holy Week.

That James MacMillan should care about spiritual things is natural enough for a composer. As he says, “There is a feeling among a broad range of people that there is something innately spiritual about the art of music itself…. Even in the century of unbelief, there were profoundly religious people like Stravinsky and Schoenberg, who had deep spiritual motivation.” But MacMillan’s flavor of spirituality is not a vague or all-embracing syncretism. It is particular to historic Christian traditions and beliefs, specifically his Catholic faith. Much of his work is engaged in giving the symbols and signs of Christianity their own flesh-and-blood physicality. These treatments unaffectedly embrace a complex and multi-layered spiritual reality, a world that is lyrical and harsh, beautiful and unflinching.

In a culture that is supposedly abandoning its understanding of and interest in Christian subject matter, what can account for the steady surge of acclaim for such a composer? The short answer is that his music is far too good to be ignored. It demonstrates a remarkable imagination, a sure-footed intuition, and an uncommon confidence of technique. Nor is his music habitually placid, a critique often leveled at classical music of a spiritual bent that manages to “cross over” to a broader audience. As more than one reviewer has observed, you’re not likely to stumble across MacMillan on those relaxing “classical moods” compilation CDs. His music can be electric, exciting and lovely, yet also brooding, clamorous, and challenging to those unfamiliar with the sometimes raucous language of contemporary music. It weaves simple ideas into complex textures that are perfectly clear but endlessly fascinating. And despite its frequent religious subject matter, there is not the faintest whiff, to my nose, of propaganda.

Although he incorporates a broad swath of ancient and modern musical styles—from plainchant to folk music to ultra-modernist techniques—MacMillan is deeply rooted in a specific time and place. As unbreakably as Sibelius is tied to Finland, James MacMillan is linked to Scotland. He often mixes Scottish folk melodies and ornamentation into his music, giving it a cultural rootedness. He has more than a handful of works based on traditional Scottish songs and poems, including inventive settings of the folk tune “The Gallant Weaver” and Robert Burns’s “O My Luve’s like a Red, Red Rose.” There are even occasional sightings of MacMillan performing with Celtic bands. At iTunes, you can catch him singing with the Whistlebinkies on his own arrangement of the traditional tune “The Tryst,” and then listen to his fantasy for piano and violin “After the Tryst,” based on the same melody.

Another riotous instance is his satirical A Scotch Bestiary for organ and orchestra, originally written for the inaugural organ concert of the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. (A recording of this work was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Album). MacMillan describes A Scotch Bestiary as a musical caricature of “individuals and archetypes encountered in Scottish life over the years.” This witty, piquant catalogue is a sort of twisted amalgamation of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals and a Carl Stalling Looney Tunes soundtrack. Its subtitle, Enigmatic Variations on a Zoological Carnival at a Caledonian Exhibition, invites comparison to Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Its first section features a menagerie that includes the “Cro-Magnon hyena,” “her serene majesty the ubiquitous queen bee,” and the “red-handed, no-surrender, howler monkey.” As in Mussorgsky’s work, this unruly tableau is connected by a “promenade” theme as the pages of the improbable bestiary are turned. In the second section (whose puckish title would take up three or four lines), the animals join up for a musical rampage. While the personalities behind the characters will be opaque to non-Britons, the music’s energy and humor transcend these external references.

As the Bestiary implies, MacMillan excels at melding multiple styles and ideas into a unified whole. This requires great confidence—an essential element of MacMillan’s compositional voice. When looking at a MacMillan score, you often wonder if it will actually work, because the individual elements can appear so highly independent. Yet when the piece is played, you hear that this independence is carefully managed. MacMillan seems to know just how far toward chaos he can press things before they become incoherent. No reactionary, he doesn’t shy away from the modernist language perfected over the past century. But within that language he builds a bridge for outsiders.

He shares this quality with other contemporary British composers, who seem to have avoided the excesses of modernism that narrowed the accessibility of contemporary music elsewhere. MacMillan exhibits a deep respect for ancient and classical traditions, because of which he is sometimes seen as a successor to the likes of Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett, who he calls “major, if at times subconscious” influences. He also cites an affinity with the great composers of the church, such as Palestrina, Victoria, and Bach.

His catalogue (currently over 126 published works) includes a mix of forms both sacred and profane, but is unified in sound and character. His voice is marked by a powerful emotional directness contained within a complex and evocative yet carefully constructed atmosphere. MacMillan effectively marries the specific and particular with the universal and mysterious. He often contrasts lyrical and serene passages with rhythmic, high-voltage bursts of energy, and his melodies are often ornamented and set within an intricate and absorbing acoustic fabric. MacMillan regularly uses a technique called “ghosting,” where accompanying voices or instruments in turn sustain various notes in a melodic line. The effect is similar to that of holding the sostenuto pedal on a piano as you punch out a tune. This technique creates a rich sonic aurora which trails the melodic line.

Almost half MacMillan’s works use the human voice in some way. “I love writing for voices,” he says. “I love the British choral sound. I go down the well-worn paths, but I do like to revisit these traditions and perhaps add my own character.” A compelling example is “Tremunt Videntes Angeli” (“Angels Tremble When They See”), commissioned by Saint Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh, which blends some of MacMillan’s ancient and modern sensibilities. Here he tightly links the music to the text, employing the extreme ranges of male and female voices to establish an echoing mood of profound mystery. The effect is similar to that of Orthodox chant. As the piece progresses, highly independent and melismatic melodies alternate with a series of homophonic declarations by the full choir. The first of these appear with the text “Peccat caro, mundat caro” (“That flesh hath purged what flesh hath stained”). These lush and soaring statements burst with gratitude. Further on, the music increasingly acquires a spontaneous feel. Toward the end, the lower accompanying singers are instructed to improvise within a prescribed template, creating a chocolatey and atmospheric tone cluster that mirrors some of the close harmonies of the preceding sections. The female voices here begin a simple, clear declaration that begins with the cry “Jesu, tibi sit gloria” (“All glory to thee, Lord Jesus”), which then makes its way to a final restatement of the lush and soaring proclamation from before. But even here MacMillan avoids simply concluding with a conventional cadence, choosing instead to let the upper voices carry over with a long suspended note. The effect is that the sound continues on in the imagination, as if allowing us a few moments to listen in on the infinite reverberation of angelic singing.

MacMillan’s fondness for rich and colorful harmonies bears some resemblance to early twentieth-century impressionism, more French than English, especially his piano music before 1990. His shimmering, wintry piano sonata (so far he has just the one) at times seems to channel Debussy, using the extremes of the keyboard to build up intricate harmonies. Its icy landscapes produce effects very close to some of Debussy’s preludes. Indeed, the brief first movement bears more than a little kinship with “Des Pas sur la Neige,” as MacMillan gently stacks up dissonant intervals to produce an atmosphere of melancholy.

Before you start to think that MacMillan’s piano music is entirely of the brooding sort, I should mention a witty occasional work, “Barncleupédie,” a setting of Robert Burns’ song “Will Ye No Come Back Again?”—arranged in the manner of Erik Satie’s famously eccentric “gymnopédies.” The absurd juxtaposition is deliciously Pythonesque—like the sudden and inexplicable appearance of a pining, kilted Scotsman sipping absinthe at the back of a fin-de-siècle Parisian cabaret. MacMillan even employs one of Satie’s peculiar and abrupt endings, leaving us in mid-sentence, as it were, with a good-natured smirk. These smaller, accessible works provide a good introduction to MacMillan’s language and personality, preparing us for his larger and more ambitious forms.

Gustav Mahler famously freighted his sprawling symphonies with wildly diverse material, creating radical and sometimes brutal contrast. Indeed, Mahler could speak no language other than the epic and sweeping, and his symphonies seem to document his anxious search to understand everything. He famously observed to Sibelius that “a symphony must be a world. It must embrace everything.”

The largest of MacMillan’s works are no less ambitious than Mahler’s: they are their own worlds. Like Mahler, MacMillan employs radical contrast, but he is more concise, his output more varied. And while his music can be at times epic and sweeping, it stands on firmer spiritual footing than Mahler’s. MacMillan doesn’t cast about as the romantic prophet in search of the unbounded everything. He is a John the Baptist, inviting us to know something greater, exploring the mystery of what is already known, even if it is known only darkly.

But MacMillan’s flavor of spirituality isn’t about chilling out to something calm, meditative, or uplifting; his music probes a world that contains chaos, discord, enigmas, separation, and oppression—in other words, the world as we know it to be. MacMillan has noted that it is important for art to deal with conflict, taking us to places that meeker music can not. Some of MacMillan’s larger works—such as his song cycle Raising Sparks, or his Triduum—have something provocative, almost indecent about them. They make us, as poet Czeslaw Milosz put it, “blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out and stood in the light, lashing his tail.”

Raising Sparks is based on a set of six poems by Michael Symmons Roberts rooted in the mystical philosophy of the eighteenth-century rabbi Menahem Nahum. MacMillan and Roberts have described the work as a creation and redemption story with two central ideas: “Zimzum…the holding back of God’s power and light to make space for something other than himself” and “Shevira…the smashing of clay vessels intended to capture the intense light of God’s creation.” Writes Roberts, “God shines his light of creation, but that light is so intense that it smashes the clay vessels intended to capture it…. This cataclysm results in fragments of divine light—sparks—being scattered across the world, landing in accessible and inaccessible places…. Sparks can be found (and thus raised) in trivial encounters, small acts of mercy.” The story is told, according to Roberts, in the voice of “a woman, a mother, an exile.”

Though technically a chamber work, Raising Sparks feels heavier. At just over thirty minutes, it is a substantial piece—and a dark one. Written in 1997, it is set for mezzo soprano and a small chamber group comprised of flute, clarinet, piano, harp, and string quartet. Save for the harp, these forces match the so-called Pierrot Ensemble that played Schoenberg’s landmark Pierrot Lunaire. Like Schoenberg, MacMillan manages to elicit from these small forces an expansive variety of color and texture as the cycle takes us through the various orbits of its brooding musical world. Unlike his expressionist predecessor, however, MacMillan doesn’t wallow in anxious and grotesque parody. He nevertheless makes effective use of the strangeness of this sound, while giving us the handholds we need to stay with him, and offering respite in moments of fresh and poignant lyricism.

This music doesn’t just wash over you; it expects your attention and thoughtful engagement. The texts retain the Hebraic feel of their inspiration, and it helps to listen to the work with them in front of you, for the music is tightly integrated with the text, and faithfully matches the drama and feeling of the words. In his program notes, MacMillan points out that there are “incendiary moments” where he takes maximum advantage of Robert’s incandescent language. The soprano’s declaration “raise a fist of sparks at once, breaking in the sky and opening eyes” is followed by a dazzling eruption of the full ensemble. Later on, the words “Catherine wheels” set off some instrumental fireworks. Indeed, both text and music conduct a peculiar energy which, like God’s light contained in the clay fragments, occasionally materializes as sparks. The Nash Ensemble has produced a splendid recording of Raising Sparks, packaged with MacMillan’s piano sonata and some of the occasional pieces for piano, available on the Black Box label.

While significant and ambitious, Raising Sparks almost pales in comparison with what might be considered MacMillan’s boldest project to date: the Triduum, a multi-work commission from the London Symphony. It is monumental in scope, consisting of a triptych of loosely interconnected compositions, each relating to part of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the vigil of the Easter resurrection. The Maundy Thursday section, The World’s Ransoming, is a single movement concertante for English horn; the Good Friday section is a concerto for cello and orchestra written for the late Russian conductor and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich; the Easter vigil section is a symphony dedicated to MacMillan’s wife. These are intense and deeply poignant works, requiring considerable engagement from the listener. And unlike most works dealing with the events of Holy Week (such as an oratorio or Bach cantata), the Triduum does not deal with the passion story as a narrative. You can’t follow the bouncing ball through a sequence of events. The pieces within the Triduum work as emotional explorations of their subjects. They reveal, but do not narrate, both the physical and metaphysical power of the passion and resurrection.

For The World’s Ransoming, MacMillan matches an English horn soloist with a full orchestra. The combination is rarely used, as the fragile and reedy sound of the English horn is difficult to balance against an entire orchestra, but sometimes the most difficult challenges can yield the most satisfying solutions. Here, portions of strident dissonance carried by the orchestra establish a foil for the evocative, lyrical solo passages, which function as serene oases in which the English horn’s idiomatic sound color is allowed to unfold, throaty and sensual. In the first twenty seconds of the work, woodwinds, strings, muted brass, and percussion swell into an orchestral shriek that quickly subsides to expose the reed instrument’s soulful tones. MacMillan uses an astonishing variety of textures and colors, and the orchestral forces are never allowed to overpower the delicate laments of the English horn. Ransoming incorporates a melody from a hymn of Aquinas, which includes the line from which MacMillan takes his title: “destined for the world’s ransoming.” Also incorporated are elements from the Bach chorale “Ach Wie Nichtig” and other plainsong tunes. And if you know your musical literature, you just might catch the occasional whiff of other works and composers. These almost-quotes are not pastiche, but organic and perhaps unconscious incorporations.

The second panel of the triptych is the concerto for cello and orchestra, on the events of Good Friday. The first movement, “The Mockery,” contrasts some burlesque passages with fragments of the plainsong tune “Crucem Tuam Adoramus, Domine” (“We Adore Your Cross, O Lord”). The textures and colors change rapidly: one moment, the orchestral forces play music shrill and terrifying; at another, the solo cello is passionately noble. The second movement, “The Reproaches,” is the emotional center of gravity. Intensely poignant, it takes utmost advantage of the expressive and soulful cello voice. The melodic material continues to draw on plainchant and hymns, but in a restrained way. In the third movement, “Dearest Wood and Dearest Iron,” a deep metallic pounding offers a musical symbol for the crucifixion, a sonic effect both beautiful and horrifying. Throughout the triptych, MacMillan uses solo passages to draw out the theatrical elements of his subject matter. Rather than engaging in dialogue with the orchestra, the soloists are set in contrast to it—against a grave, recurring “treading” sound accomplished by the low strings, for example. With this backdrop, the soloist’s isolated voice creates a complex, layered perspective on the drama of Holy Week.

The third and final section of the Triduum is the symphony on the Easter vigil. The work represents the interplay of fire and water so integral to that liturgy, with its candles and baptisms. It also echoes the first chapter of the Gospel of John, where images of light and darkness are central. In a work as ambitious as anything Mahler ever wrote, MacMillan wanted to explore the possibilities from “complete darkness and bleakness to blazing illumination and everything in between.” “Water,” the last and longest movement, launches like a rocket, with pounding percussion and low rumbling strings. This pulsing of pure energy is quickly expended and engulfed by a floating, diaphanous section carried by the violins, who now make their first appearance in the symphony, having been kept in reserve through the early, dark hours of the vigil. Their long-awaited entrance in the final movement is electrifying. MacMillan uses a snippet of the baptismal chant “Vidi Aquam” to carry the image of water to the fore. In his program notes, MacMillan describes the work as ending with “luminous floating chords…accompanying soaring trumpet calls and bright percussion.” Although this description is accurate, if it’s giving you the idea that the ending is overtly triumphant, it’s a little misleading. Yes, the symphony closes with a reconciliation of the savage and dark, but ultimate victory is only hinted at in the stately brass chorale toward the end, and the work closes in a profound mystery, infinite and serene.

Clearly a lot is going on in the Triduum. Fortunately, commentaries are available on-line, but appreciating the piece doesn’t require extensive background reading. You won’t walk away from the Triduum whistling the tunes, but even with only limited awareness of its intricate design, it works on the purely sensory level.

The spiritual thoughtfulness and technical confidence that mark MacMillan’s major concert pieces are also visible in his liturgical work, though because of MacMillan’s unique personal approach, the music is quite different in form. MacMillan, a devout Catholic and lay Dominican, combines the high standards of concert music with a sense of responsibility to a religious community. He manages to reconcile the poles of artistic merit and liturgical effectiveness, a near impossible achievement for a composer not immersed in both worlds. In his anthems and masses, MacMillan is composing for liturgies that he regularly practices, whose nuances he understands spiritually as well as musically. When he channels his colorful and imaginative voice toward the goal of liturgical efficacy, he produces music that is both finely crafted and practical.

For some works, like his Galloway Mass and Saint Anne’s Mass, he has deliberately written music that amateur choirs can sing. He seems to enjoy this type of project. Of writing for a new, earnest, but musically under-equipped parish in Scotland, he says, “To my astonishment, I am in my element.” But relative technical ease does not mean that this music is simple for the listener. “Music’s not something which can just wash over us,” he has said. “It needs us to sacrifice something of ourselves to meet it, and it’s very difficult sometimes to do that, especially given the whole culture we’re in.” As with his concert music, he expects something from us, but in the liturgy he seems more willing to draw it out of us, to meet us halfway.

Not all MacMillan’s church music is easy on musicians, however. His “Seinte Mari Moder Milde,” written for the lessons and carols service at King’s College, Cambridge, offers some rewarding challenges to performers. It begins with noisy and thrilling unison voices singing one of his characteristically ornamented melodies, immediately contrasted with low, ominous timbres. As the piece unfolds, its marvelously independent elements are supported by a somewhat subdued organ accompaniment, it reminds me very much of the sound worlds of Britten and Messiaen. The beautifully icy concluding section quietly pulses into silence in a wintry, dreamlike atmosphere.

Stravinsky wrote his famous mass in the mid 1940s as an act of natural piety. Indeed, it was one of his few noncommissioned works. Although he intended it exclusively for liturgical use, it instead became a staple of twentieth-century concert repertoire, and is seldom heard in church because of its difficulty as well as its sparse, cool design. In contrast, McMillan’s mass of 2000, while brilliantly effective in concert, is also a living, breathing work. With no prejudice toward Stravinsky’s genuine faith, I feel that McMillan exhibits a more communal, living connection to the work of the liturgy, and is willing and able to match his artistry more closely to the day-to-day church setting than Stravinsky was.

His mass uses the vernacular English and includes congregational responses, not just music for the choir, as well as settings for the Eucharistic prayers and acclamations, which most composers leave out. This mass is meant to be sung on a Sunday morning by a worshipping community, and it carries the essential drama of the liturgy as experienced by that body. By mixing simple, repetitive material with rapturous otherworldly sound, MacMillan amplifies both the communal, participatory nature of the mass and its peculiar role as a ritual connecting an infinite God to his creation. This is not to say that the music always goes down easy. MacMillan doesn’t settle for the simply lyrical, uplifting, or meditative—though they are part of his palate. His special gift here is the integration of the sometimes discordant language language of modern music into the liturgy in a way that is true to its purpose and flow.

Among the factors that prompted me to write this essay were suggestions I had read by some critics that, because of his sometimes unfashionable views on politics and culture and often discomforting outspokenness, MacMillan should stick to composing and leave the social commentary to others. Such suggestions miss, I think, the point of much of his music. MacMillan has, from time to time, chosen to range beyond the rarified enclave of classical art music and its fashionable concerns. He has used his standing as a successful composer to draw attention to issues important to his community, and he has provided thoughtful and fitting music for religious worship in ordinary churches. This type of engagement is refreshing, and will ultimately, I pray, be beneficial to art music in general.

I also find him fascinating in that he frequently invokes in this undertaking a serious and particular Christian spirituality. He knows, it seems to me, that music dealing openly and honestly with the Christian tradition will not always be pleasing, safe, or tame—nor does it have to be syncretistic or vague in its spirituality so as to not offend. His music “contends” as Ralph Wood puts it, in that it “produces arguments and embodies alternatives, not only to its many secular substitutes, but also to allegedly Christian options that lack the tang and piquancy of Christian particularity.” Thus, as it contends, MacMillan’s music also reveals: it shows us a world of both tranquility and discord that we readily recognize, and allows us to better appreciate that world’s fleeting harmonies.

At the other end of the spectrum from vague spirituality is the temptation to sit above the fray and make works of art that are preachy or what Wood would call “righteously aloof” from the specific concerns and needs of the larger culture—a lure that is particularly strong when the art in question deals with religious subject matter. All good inheritors of modernism know that art isn’t really supposed to be “about” something, as if it were propaganda, and we are right to be suspicious of music or painting or poetry that is overly freighted with message. Still, our contemporary mystification of the purpose of art caused Milosz to call into question, rightly I think, the value of “poetry that does not save nations and people.” Art may not need to be about some particular, extractable idea, but it should at least have some efficacy, Milosz implies. One of the ways that art does this is to startle us, bringing our attention to things beyond our day-to-day selves. MacMillan writes startling music with the feet and hands to get the job done. Whether we’re in the cathedral or the concert hall, he shows us the tiger that makes us stop and blink our eyes in amazement.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Access one piece of artwork every month for free! To experience the full archive, log in or subscribe.

Pin It on Pinterest