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How I wrote a symphony about the Holy Spirit

The premiere of the author’s Fifth Symphony at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh (adrian myers/

I was an undergraduate in Edinburgh way back in the late 1970s. Among the reasons I went there was the opportunity to study composition with Kenneth Leighton at the university’s Reid School, and the amazing concerts and other performances at the Edinburgh International Festival. It felt odd (and delightful) then to have the same Festival mark my 60th birthday last month.

There was a whirlwind of rehearsals, performances, book-signings, pre-concert talks, earnest panel discussions about the arts, and glorious lunch and dinner dates with John Studzinski’s Genesis Foundation.

It all began with a performance in the Usher Hall of my Quickening, the large oratorio setting of poems by Michael Symmons Roberts which I composed in 1999. Edward Gardner conducted a fresh interpretation of a new version I have made involving the King’s Singers.

My schedule in the following week was so packed that I was forced to miss the Nash Ensemble’s performance of my Fourteen Little Pictures, a piano trio which follows the structure of the Stations of the Cross. I knew they would play it wonderfully though – they always do.

My Catholicism is talked about a lot in relation to my work. I know that it can occasionally be a problem for some – but lovers of music know that classical music has deep roots in Judaeo-Christian civilisation, and their acknowledgement of that is usually informed, generous and open-minded. So when my Culham Motets were performed at Greyfriars Kirk on August 16 by the National Youth Choir of Scotland, it felt like a great coming together. These were motets I wrote a few years ago for the consecration of a new private Catholic chapel at Culham Court, a Grade II* listed house in Berkshire. They were written for very specific moments of an ornate and rare liturgy involving blessings, sprinklings and fires being lit on altars. I was surprised, but delighted, to hear the work transpose itself into the secular world.

That world was much more to the fore in the next piece the choir performed, my All the Hills and Vales Along – another oratorio, composed to mark the centenary of the Armistice last year. It is a setting of poems by Charles Sorley, a young Scot who was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915, aged 20. The most poignant aspect of this concert was listening to the young choral voices, whose owners were roughly the same age as the dead poet whose words they sang.

Swiftly after this concert, my wife Lynne and I were whisked off to the Royal Yacht Britannia in Leith where a dinner had been laid on for John Studzinski’s guests. John has commissioned a number of my recent works, including my Stabat Mater and the new symphony, my fifth, Le grand Inconnu, a choral work which I wrote for Harry Christophers and The Sixteen. In fact it involves two choirs – a chamber choir (The Sixteen) and large chorus (alumni members of Genesis Sixteen, which is their training academy) – and an orchestra (the Scottish Chamber Orchestra), who all came together for the world premiere the next night in the Usher Hall on August 17.

Le grand Inconnu is the Holy Spirit. The writing process began when John Studzinski gave me a copy of The Holy Spirit, Fire of Divine Love by the Belgian Carmelite Wilfrid Stinissen. It was a good point of entry, theologically, but it drew to my attention some visionary poetry by St John of the Cross, and one line from the book, in particular, drew me in, where he remarks that even the name of the Holy Spirit is mysterious: “The Hebrew word ruah, the Greek word pneuma and the Latin spiritus mean both ‘wind’ and ‘breath’.”

The very first sound in the symphony then is that of the choirs breathing in and out. The orchestral winds take up variations of this, and the first word sung is “Ruah”. The work, to begin with, is less a traditional setting of text and more an exploration of elemental and primal sounds and words associated with the Spirit. The first movement is called Ruah, the second Zao (ancient Greek for living water) and the third is Igne vel Igne (Latin for “fire or fire”). So each has associations with the physical elements connected to the Holy Spirit (wind, water, fire). These became vivid sources of visual and sonic (as well as conceptual and theological) inspiration.

Harry Christophers’s premiere of this new work was one of the most significant moments in my life and memories of my early days at Edinburgh University came flooding back – Kenneth Leighton’s teaching, the spiritual guidance of the university chaplain, a young Fr Aidan Nichols OP, and marrying my childhood sweetheart in the chapel and garden of the Dominicans in George Square. Edinburgh has been central to my life.

Sir James MacMillan is a composer and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald. He is the author of A Scots Song: A Life of Music (Birlinn) and the subject of The Music of James MacMillan, by Phillip A Cooke (Boydell Press). The London premiere of Le grand Inconnu takes place at the Barbican on October 14