Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The international broadcast of the opening of Scotland’s new parliament in July 1999 gave the world more to see than just Queen Elizabeth’s much ballyhooed thistle-inspired frock. It also presented Scottish composer James MacMillan conducting two of his fanfares as Her Royal Highness led the procession into Parliament’s temporary quarters. The botanical dress fared somewhat better than the music, which miscarried—a third of the way through the first fanfare MacMillan had to stop his musicians and make a fresh start. But no matter. The Scots all appeared to think it was a grand day, and it was a fine occasion for the world to see the most performed classical composer of his generation.

Barely forty years old, James MacMillan is something of a phenomenon in the world of composers. International performances of his works have been greeted by glowing notices and numerous awards. His percussion concerto for fellow Scot Evelyn Glennie has become a repertoire piece (receiving to date well over one hundred performances), and sixteen of his works are commercially available on six CDs. There are few composers twice his age who are as successful, and none who quite combine his twin enthusiasms for socialist politics and Catholic piety.

MacMillan studied music at Edinburgh University and did doctoral studies at Durham University. After lecturing briefly at Manchester University, he returned to Scotland where he now teaches at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and acts as composer-in-residence for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He came to national attention in Britain in 1990 when his tone poem The Confession of Isobel Gowdie was included in a London Promenade Concert. The roughly thirty-minute work created a minor sensation and marked MacMillan as a composer to be watched; numerous commissions and performances followed, including an opera commissioned for the 1996 Edinburgh Festival.

What makes him especially interesting, however, is that among his most important works to date are two large-scale meditations on Christ’s passion. Visitatio Sepulchri (The Visitation to the Tomb) is a theater piece, first performed in Glasgow in 1993. MacMillan takes his libretto from the famous tenth-century dialogue that was added to the Introit of the Easter Mass. (“Whom are you looking for in the tomb, you followers of Christ?” “Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, O dwellers of Heaven.” “He is not here, he has arisen as he himself foretold; go and make it known that he has arisen.”) To this three-line mini-drama MacMillan adds settings of the eleventh-century sequence Victimae Paschali Laudes (Praise the Paschal Victim), and the Te Deum. Scored for a chamber orchestra, speaker, and six singers (three sopranos and three basses), the work lasts about forty minutes.

On an even grander scale is Triduum, a set of three pieces commissioned by the London Symphony and completed in 1996 and 1997. The first piece, “The World’s Ransoming,” is a twenty-minute concertante for English horn and orchestra intended as a reflection on Maundy Thursday. The second work of the trilogy is a three-movement cello concerto associated with Good Friday. The final work, “Vigil,” is a symphonic meditation on the Easter vigil, again in three movements. Triduum requires virtuoso soloists (the cello concerto was requested by Msistislav Rostropovich) and a large orchestra with an expanded—and very busy—percussion battery. Together the three pieces last nearly two hours.

To anyone hopeful for the redemption of culture by works of high art (especially religious art), MacMillan is a frustrating composer. He is certainly an artist of intelligence, craftsmanship, and high purpose—which makes the failure of his work all the more regrettable. Far too often MacMillan’s music reminds one of the note that the minister wrote in the margin of his sermon manuscript: “Argument weak here—yell like hell.” MacMillan apparently believes that bombast is an adequate substitute for musical argument and theatrics for theological reflection; his works are filled with compositional miscalculations, clichés, and bad taste.

Here are a few examples. Hammer chords (fortissimo orchestral chords that fall like strokes of a hammer) are one of MacMillan’s favorite devices. But each use (and there are many) reminds the listener of how much more effectively they were used by Udo Zimmermann in the overture to his opera Die Soldaten, Messiaen in the stigmata scene from his St. Francis , and of course Beethoven. Alban Berg used the orchestral unison to riveting effect in his opera Wozzeck; MacMillan’s reliance on the device is at best referential and usually cloying. Igor Stravinsky (in the beginning of his ballet Firebird) and Henryk Górecki (in his Third Symphony) used passages for divided double basses to create sections of intense gravity. But when MacMillan uses them—and he does so a lot—they sound like movie music introducing Dracula’s castle: spooky and cheap. Cadences are supposed to act as summary conclusions to extended musical arguments; MacMillan’s too often seem to have little to do with the music that precedes them (the cadence that ends the final movement of the cello concerto is so mismanaged that it almost sounds comic). And while he is fully able to keep his musicians resolutely plowing along, one longs for an original melody to justify all their hard work.

But most disappointing is MacMillan’s attitude toward his texts. Certainly since the Renaissance (and possibly before), the primary purpose of composers in dealing with texts was to exegete them musically, the music serving as a kind of midrash upon the words. In the greatest works of liturgical and devotional music this creates perhaps the most elevated composition of our civilization: the aesthetic/theological discourse. So, in the chorale that follows Christ’s death in the St. Matthew Passion , Bach subjects the German word allerbängsten (roughly translated as “excruciating suffering”) to musical torture, stretching its harmonic syntax to the point of tearing it apart. The meaning of the word is both intensified and clarified by Bach’s compositional choices. Des Prez, Victoria, Schütz, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Debussy, Britten, and Ives all do similar things.

But MacMillan typically seems unaware of his text’s importance. The most significant, indeed shocking, text in Visitatio is the angel’s proclamation to the women: Non est hic. Surrexit. (“He is not here. He is arisen.”) Yet this phrase receives no special notice from MacMillan, who instead presents it as but one more yard of the musical fabric he is weaving. He is even so text-insensitive as to include the offensively anti-Semitic line from the Victimae Paschali Laudes, Credendum est magis soli Mariae veraci quam Iudaeorum turbae fallaci. (“Mary is to be believed more than the lying Jewish mob.”) That repugnant line is excised when the sequence is used in contemporary liturgies. That a modern Christian should choose to revive it is inexplicable.

All of this results in music that is overly long, frequently bombastic, and more than occasionally descends to the level of kitsch. MacMillan ultimately trivializes the subjects he seeks to honor. He unfortunately is very much part of what is at least a sub-tradition in Catholic art. Listening to MacMillan reminds me of those gargantuan canvases of Judith or St. Sebastian or the Blessed Virgin so popular in Naples in the generations following Caravaggio: bloated, earnest, convoluted, garish, and—for all their acreage—eclipsed by a square inch of any canvas by Vermeer. Today, thankfully, they are largely forgotten.

Perhaps that comparison is unfair to MacMillan. Yes, he shares the flatulent rhetoric of those baroque Neapolitans, but his task today is much harder than theirs was. They at least were painting as Catholics for Catholics within a Catholic culture. MacMillan is composing for a culture that is non-Catholic, and Christian almost only by memory. How can he communicate in Christian terms with a society that is generally religiously illiterate and often hostile to Christianity?

Apparently, like the preacher who wrote that sermon note, Macmillan thinks he can do it by yelling. And to a generation raised on the hyper-decibellic banalities of rock, perhaps he is succeeding. His CDs are a modest commercial success and he has impressed enough critics to be awarded some major prizes. And one can make a case that when dealing with the Word of Life, it’s better to yell than to say nothing. I just wish he’d yell in better taste.

Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.