Many years ago, the composer James MacMillan was called a “red Clydesider” by The Daily Telegraph. This annoyed him at the time, because he isn’t from Glasgow – he grew up in rural Ayrshire. The “red” didn’t bother him. As a young man, MacMillan was on the left of the Labour Party, and expressed his revolutionary socialism in his music.
Now, in his mid-50s, he has left the Labour Party and – although he has no party allegiance – admits to having done what would once have been unthinkable and voted Tory. Last week he officially became Sir James MacMillan at Windsor Castle, receiving his knighthood from Prince William.
This week he receives the more modest honour of becoming the Catholic Herald’s Catholic of the Year 2015. But this new award – the unanimous choice of the Herald’s editor and directors – does not reflect MacMillan’s new status as a member of the British establishment.
On the contrary, we are honouring him for his fight against the new secular establishments, in the United Kingdom and especially in Scotland, that mock and marginalise the Catholic faith that Sir James has always upheld, whatever his political leanings.
No layman in Britain is more outspoken in defence of the doctrine and sacred traditions of the Church in these islands. Indeed, he has thrown himself into developing that tradition, by devising and supporting projects designed to revitalise the musical liturgy in ordinary parish churches.
MacMillan is waging a holy war on 1970s-style Mass settings that he describes as “musically illiterate, almost as if they were written by semi-trained teenagers. The style is stodgy and sentimental, tonally and rhythmically stunted and melodically inane.”
As that quote suggests, MacMillan does not mince his words. He is equally forthright when condemning well-connected figures in the Scottish Church who, in his opinion, have allowed Catholic culture to become tainted by the secular nationalism of the SNP.
At the same time, however, Sir James has reached a new peak of creativity as a composer. The past decade has seen the premieres of settings of the St John and St Luke Passions and concertos for the violinist Vadim Repin, the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the oboist Nicholas Daniel, the violist Lawrence Power and the percussionist Colin Currie.
His Fourth Symphony, performed at this year’s Proms, was described in these pages by Matthew Ward as “not only a stunning piece of music but also an extended meditation on being at Mass”. It is a magnificent piece, dense with allusions to Gregorian chant and the Mass Dum Sacrum Mysterium by the 16th-century Scottish composer Robert Carver.
But, as with all MacMillan’s work, it is not necessary to pick up these references to enjoy the thrilling sweep of the melodies – often touched by the melancholy “keening” of Scottish folk music – or the composer’s mastery of counterpoint.
Although Sir James is a Catholic composer whose sound-world is infused by faith, he does not see himself as a composer for Catholics, any more than
his equally devout predecessors Bruckner, Dvořák and Messiaen.
As he told the Daily Mail last week, he is happy living among peoples of different faiths and none. What he objects to is “the old-guard liberal establishment” who use multiculturalism as a weapon against Christians.
“Many people, believers or not, have invested a lifetime in trying to water down Christianity, seeing a bland uniform secularism as some kind of inevitable next step,” he said. “We do live in a plural society, but our civilisation has been shaped by Judaeo-Christian values and culture. Some of us will continue to celebrate this and live our lives of faith as pluralists.”
Our readers might be surprised to learn how rare, and how brave, it is for a composer to champion Judaeo-Christian culture. Classical musicians are often as hostile to Christianity – and the Catholic Church in particular – as the most hedonistic rock star.
In Scotland, MacMillan faces intense hostility. A passionate supporter of Celtic FC, he has long campaigned against the tribal anti-Catholicism of the football terraces. Now he is confronting the subtle bigotry of the Scottish arts establishment, which tolerates Catholics only if they decorate their religious culture with the icons and totems of the new nationalism.
MacMillan refuses to do so. A veteran anti-fascist, he detects fascistic overtones in the rhetoric of the SNP. Their “Celtic” celebrations are, in his opinion, a parody of the ancient Scottish traditions that he explores in his music – including his congregational Mass settings.
He is almost a lone voice in Scotland in drawing attention to the unhealthily close relationship that has developed between some parts of the Church and the government at Holyrood. He is free to do so because, as a musician of international renown, he is not dependent for patronage on Church bureaucrats or Creative Scotland, the increasingly nationalist arts council.
His knighthood was not greeted with universal rejoicing. Scottish Catholic commentators who celebrate the supposed achievements of the SNP government – while turning a blind eye to its deep-rooted secularism – were furious. Some of them had felt the rough edge of the composer’s tongue on his Twitter account (which he has now, wisely but regrettably, handed over to his publishers).
It also annoyed The Guardian, which MacMillan will never forgive for its malicious attacks on Benedict XVI. The Pope Emeritus is one of his spiritual heroes: it was for his visit to Britain in 2010 that MacMillan wrote the incandescent motet Tu es Petrus, whose clashing cymbals sent shivers down the spine as the pope entered the nave of Westminster Cathedral.
For his many friends and admirers, however, the award restored their faith in the honours system. Now that Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle are in the twilight of their careers, MacMillan is arguably Britain’s most important composer.
Last year he set up the Cumnock Tryst, an ingeniously eclectic music festival in his home town. He co-founded it with his wife, Lynne, his childhood sweetheart, mother of their three children and a sparkling presence in his life. The new Lady MacMillan is also a devout and outspoken Catholic – and, like her husband, no fan of the complacent apparatchiks of the SNP.
In addition to all this, Sir James is a fine conductor of other composers’ music and lobbies for more and better music education in British schools. After his investiture last week, he said that “music is not the priority it should be for various governments. That should change, because a child’s music education affects his or her ability in other subjects as well.”
Music is also not the priority it should be for the Church. But that may be changing. Organisations such as Musica Sacra Scotland and the Blessed John Henry Newman Institute of Liturgical Music are challenging the liturgical monopoly of the composers of trendy Folk Masses. Sir James is always on hand to offer advice – and also to flesh out the theology of rediscovered tradition.
In an interview with Regina magazine in 2014, he argued that “the beautiful, the true and the good are the fundamental values that have been recognised since antiquity as the intrinsic qualities from which all values are essentially derived. Just as a million shades of colour can be mixed from three primaries, so too can a million shades of quality be traced back to these primary values.”
Yet beauty has been neglected, said MacMillan – when did you last hear a sermon preached about it? “Beauty is at the heart of our Christian faith. It should be paramount in our attentions as we approach the Throne of all Beauty for our divine praises.”
These reflections are themselves beautiful; they draw on the thinking of Joseph Ratzinger and are intended as the basis for a renovation of worship that will further the new evangelisation of St John Paul II.
Few, if any, bishops in Great Britain are so intellectually ambitious. We are indeed lucky that a world-class composer is working so hard to close the gap between the Church’s liturgy as it is and as it should be. Sir James MacMillan has moved beyond activism to become one of the custodians of Britain’s Catholic heritage. We are proud to name him as our very first Catholic of the Year.