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‘People are fascinated by the baffling aspects of Christian belief’: an interview with Sir James MacMillan

James MacMillan (Hans van der Woerd)

On the eve of his 60th birthday, Sir James MacMillan is one of the world’s most acclaimed composers. But not even he could inspire a parish music revival

In a few days’ time, as has become its custom, the concert venue of St John’s Smith Square in London will revert to something like its origins as a church and celebrate Holy Week – not, alas, with liturgy but with a festival of choral music sung by whatever the collective noun is for conveyor-belts of choirs. And much of what they’ll sing will be the music of Sir James MacMillan, in recognition of the fact that he celebrates his 60th birthday in July. A fact hard to acknowledge when it seems like yesterday that I first met him – during the St Magnus Festival on Orkney in the 1980s, when he came across as tough and radical, wearing an earring with the street-cred chic of somebody from a Gitanes advertisement – and young. As were we all.

Now he’s a knight. A prominent, outspoken Catholic. A figure seen in Scotland as politically conservative in that he campaigned to preserve the union with England. But above all an established composer of international celebrity – performed by the world’s greatest orchestras and choirs, who are lined up to do so with a vengeance for this birthday year.

He claims to be unfazed by his propulsion into the establishment – “it gives me a platform to argue the case for music education” – and his attitude to being 60 is simply that it’s “a useful way of gathering together performances with a sort of festival feel”. But it’s also a time for looking back over a hugely productive creative life – as he’s been doing for an autobiography due to be published in the summer.

Born and raised in an Ayrshire mining community that became seriously depressed after the pits closed, MacMillan combined his cradle Catholicism with teenage membership of the Young Communist League: something he says he recalls “not just with regret but with shame. If I end up in purgatory it will be for that, because the politics of the Gospel doesn’t need Marxism: it’s a wasting of the Gospel message of peace and justice.”

At the time, though, it seemed valid. It fostered an interest in Latin American liberation theology. And it fed into the polemics that fuelled early scores such as Busqueda (1988), a 30-minute choral drama based on poems by the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, or Cantos Sagrados (1989), a statement of solidarity with the South American poor.

But as he says now, “whenever the Church has collaborated with the secular Left, the Left has won out and used the Church as its tool”: a discovery that shifted the focus of his work away from protest and towards devotion. Most of his music of the past three decades has been written to some kind of spiritual purpose – even the ostensibly abstract scores like symphonies and concertos, which tend to come with illustrative names.

There are four symphonies to date, with a fifth that will premiere at this year’s Edinburgh Festival under the title Le grand inconnu – a French term for the Paraclete. And there are concertos for almost every instrument going, the best-known being Veni, Veni Emmanuel which was written in 1992 for the percussionist Evelyn Glennie and has notched up more than 500 performances. A rare achievement for contemporary music and a mark of the direct impact that MacMillan’s music carries alongside its mystical agenda.

For a serious, high-art composer, he reaches an unusually wide audience – helped, he thinks, by the way “we live in times when people are fascinated by religion, and the most baffling aspects of Christian belief seem to be the most appealing”.

He insists he feels no isolation as a modern artist with a spiritual message. “Messiaen, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Tavener, Arvo Pärt and so many of the post-Shostakovich generation of Russians have all written music they considered to be a window on the divine. Even John Cage who, people forget, originally planned to call his 4’33” of silence Silent Prayer.

“I don’t claim to have much in common with these figures musically, but I do feel a shared sense of purpose that’s beyond the music. And having a spiritual starting point affects the kind of music it becomes.

“When I put a title on a piece like Veni, Veni I’m not trying to bash the audience over the head with a monstrance. But I think people want to know why the piece is like it is, and appreciate being told.”

Writing with this mindset puts MacMillan in something like the same category as JS Bach, who considered everything ad maiorem Dei gloriam. But when it comes to the thorny subjects of inspiration and guidance, he’s cautious.

“I believe there’s an umbilical connection between music and the divine, but does God direct my hand when I put the notes on the page? I wouldn’t claim that. Nor can I look back over my output and see a guided, seamless progression. It’s more like I’ve just stumbled on from day to day with false starts, dead ends and a few mistakes.

“Opera hasn’t been a big success, and I think it’s over for me – at least, so far as mainstage works are concerned. But at the same time, other things have come into focus, and the main one in recent years has been choral music. Especially unaccompanied.

“One of the most remarkable things I’ve witnessed over time has been the emergence of superb professional choirs that have transformed the musical landscape and the lives of composers. Forty years ago, few serious composers thought much about choral writing: it was instrumental music that generated modernism. But that’s changed. And choral singing packs out halls.”

You can assume that’s what will happen at St John’s Smith Square next week, when choirs like Tenebrae and the BBC Singers come for the Easter Festival and reprise some of MacMillan’s core works – including his Seven Last Words from the Cross, a cantata-like sequence of sacred texts originally written for television and widely regarded as his masterpiece (although he distances himself now from the way it was televised back in 1994, considering the accompanying videos “overdone, too melodramatic, and a mistake”).

As it happens, the choir with which he’s most closely connected, The Sixteen, is about the only one of note not singing in the Smith Square festival. But by way of compensation it’s taking his brand new motet O Virgo Prudentissima on a 27-concert tour of Britain. It will feature in the premiere of the new Fifth Symphony, which has a choral element. And its members of course turn up in the Cumnock Tryst, the festival MacMillan founded in his Ayrshire home town, with a spotlit platform for choral music at Sunday Mass in what was once his parish church.

Apart from teenage Marxism, his great regret is that the rise of high-class choral singing in Britain hasn’t carried through to Catholic parishes. “I’ve tried my best,” he says. “I’ve argued long and hard for a return to chant, which is the sound of Catholicism. But all this gets pushed aside as elitist, totally unfairly. So I can only accept that it’s a battle I’ve lost and am giving up. I need to get on with my life. It’s what happens at 60.”

The Holy Week Festival at St John’s Smith Square is on April 14-20. Details: sjss.org.uk