It’s about a quarter to ten at night on August 17, 2019, and I’m standing outside the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, smiling. It’s one of those Edinburgh Festival nights when the streets are still crowded but there’s already a foretaste of autumn in the air, a warning chill in the sea breezes that bluster up from the Firth of Forth. And yet I’m standing here, grinning like an idiot; in fact, if the Usher Hall audience weren’t quite so formidably, respectably be-tweeded (they can really carry that off in Edinburgh; it’s one of the few places in the UK where they still can), I’d feel like laughing out loud. Laughter of surprise; to some extent, laughter of relief—but also laughter of genuine, heartfelt pleasure. I’ve just heard the world premiere of the Fifth Symphony by Sir James MacMillan, and it’s already clear to me that although I know precisely how I feel, words aren’t really going to do the job.
This is an awkward position for a music critic. Our task is to describe the indescribable, and in the case of a new work, to listen, to assess, and to offer up a passably assured first draft of history. It’s a serious responsibility, and in fairness most of my colleagues treat it as such: examining scores, choosing appropriate comparisons, and (fun though it is to deliver a snarky slating) preferring to err on the side of generosity. But with time you develop a sixth sense. You know when you’re pleading slightly too hard. Far, far rarer is the sensation that you’ve just heard the real thing. That a composer has said something both wholly new and entirely true; that the notes you’ve just heard possess the originality, the vitality, and the certainty of a living artwork. The sensation can be so unexpected that your gut reaction, born in equal measure of wonder and disbelief, is simply to laugh.
Okay, so you probably had to be there. But you should certainly try to hear MacMillan’s Fifth Symphony. (There’s a fine recording, made by the performers who gave the premiere.) For now, you should know that it’s written for chorus and orchestra, that each of its three movements (true to MacMillan’s deeply held Catholic faith) depicts an aspect of the Holy Spirit, and that he called it Le grand Inconnu—“The Great Unknown.” A useful hint of vagueness there—opportunity to change the subject when confronting those who can’t or won’t understand. As a composer, MacMillan has spent his working life in a climate that is largely ignorant or actively contemptuous of his beliefs; and though he hasn’t compromised an inch, he’s become adept in choosing which battles to fight.
So the Fifth Symphony moves with the absolute certainty of a composer who knows exactly who he is, and who—from the whole teeming, unapologetic richness of the Western canon—stands with him. Like Tippett’s Fourth, the symphony opens with the sound of human breath; and the first climax resembles a speeded-up opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, rendered primal and strange by valveless horns. Piano and harp scatter glistening droplets about the water-themed central movement, and the third movement’s fire flashes brazenly over a Holst-like cortège (MacMillan sets the same Carolingian hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus, with which Mahler opened his Eighth Symphony). Amid this divine play, MacMillan reserves the right to withdraw into radiant unaccompanied choral sonority—and few living composers make it sound more meaningful. Somehow, everything old is new again. It can be done, and MacMillan knows that, if art is to endure, it must be done.
Meanwhile, deep beneath the surface—like a tectonic plate, or a Beethoven slow movement (MacMillan would see them as manifestations of the same universal principle)—something enormous is happening. The whole symphony pulls quietly toward consonance and a vast, cumulative sense of affirmation. And after the last climax fades and the words fall silent, the orchestra suddenly darts out from beneath the chorus and cartwheels madly, gleefully about in the sunlight. It’s a moment of supreme daring, a burst of lightheartedness reminiscent of Mozart—or Haydn, who, it’s worth remembering, began each of his own symphonies with a prayer and signed them off with the words Laus Deo. In an age as secular and as literal as ours, what composer would dare to risk puncturing his whole, mighty musical structure with a final fit of the giggles? Who’s going to throw caution to the winds and simply dance before the Lord? The answer, it seems, is a quiet, 63-year-old Scotsman from a working-class family, with a hard-won gift for showing you something entirely new—and making you realize you’ve known it your entire life.
The curious thing is that, looking back, I realize that I actually have known MacMillan’s music for most of my adult life. By some accident (my parents have a bulletproof skepticism about “modern music”), the TV at home was tuned to the BBC on the night in 1990 when they broadcast the world premiere of MacMillan’s symphonic poem The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. I didn’t fully understand what I was hearing, but I knew that those keening, yearning strings were not what I expected from a “modern” composition. I made a mental note of the composer’s name, but even without my going out of my way to hear it, MacMillan’s music just kept nudging its way into my life. It wasn’t deliberate, or consistent, and I claim no special expertise. But some pieces—and not always the obvious ones—seemed to seek me out of their own accord.
Jump forward to the Holywell Music Room in Oxford, sometime in autumn 1991, and a student performance of MacMillan’s then-new chamber suite . . . as others see us . . . (1990). Specifically, a tiny musical portrait of T. S. Eliot—a delicate, note-perfect pastiche of a Tudor viol consort that suddenly, gracefully, slips into a smoky blues. It’s exquisite, it’s playful, somehow it’s intensely touching. Now scroll on another seven or eight years, and I’m working as an orchestra manager in Birmingham. I switch on a rehearsal monitor and suddenly hear an ancient chant, carried like a banner by blazing brass and surrounded by every conceivable crashing, tingling, and thundering at the climax of MacMillan’s percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. (I was late to the party on that one. Veni, Veni, Emmanuel achieved well over three hundred performances worldwide in the decade after its premiere in 1992: astronomical numbers for a contemporary orchestral composition.)
And so on: There was a performance of his Fourth Symphony (2015) in Manchester, where he employed that same Renaissance-to-modern gambit (this time alluding to the music of the Scottish Renaissance composer Robert Carver) and created a colossal, searching span of orchestral music. Or the online premiere (this was early 2021, and peak Covid) of his Christmas Oratorio, a work as weird, as grand, and as ravishing as the Fifth Symphony, but with an added layer of gloriously eclectic abundance—a sonic banquet, from a composer who understands that Christmas is a celebration on a cosmic scale. And occasionally there were brief real-life encounters (a podcast, a Twitter exchange, a backstage chat) with MacMillan himself: a soft-spoken, intelligent man, with a core of fierce integrity. We’ve never been formally introduced, and I’ve shied away from a couple of opportunities. What could a mere hack—and a lukewarm agnostic to boot—say to MacMillan that wouldn’t trivialize his achievement, or indeed the experience behind it?
Besides, it seemed unnecessary. The facts of MacMillan’s life and career are well-documented, not least in his autobiography A Scots Song. He grew up in Cumnock, Ayrshire—a coal town with a strong socialist tradition, where his grandfather played in the miners’ brass band and sang in the local (Catholic) church choir. “When I was nine, I was given a recorder, and something just clicked,” MacMillan recalls. “I wanted to write something for it, too: which I did, within days.” And so on, through musical training at the universities of Edinburgh and Durham, and that breakthrough moment with Isobel Gowdie. There’ve been concertos, two operas, five symphonies, and a continual, ever deeper and richer stream of sacred choral and vocal music, much of it intended for local churches such as the one he knew as a child in Cumnock. And there’s been a growing tide of recognition, in the UK and overseas, that here was a voice of distinctive energy and power—accompanied, on MacMillan’s part, by a realization that if he wanted to speak directly to a living audience, doctrinaire modernism simply wasn’t up to the job.
“When I attended the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik at Darmstadt in 1980, the Scandinavian music sounded very like the South American music, which sounded very like the Korean music . . . and on and on it went, round and round,” he says. “It made me wonder whether we can also talk about ‘somewhere’ composers and ‘anywhere’ composers.” MacMillan is unambiguously a “somewhere” composer, that “somewhere” being Ayrshire, whose grassroots musical traditions—from folk bands to church choirs—continue to inform his musical voice, and where in 2014 he launched an annual festival, The Cumnock Tryst, which brings international artists to perform alongside community groups. Music, for MacMillan, has the power to make the local universal. (Such an approach is not always encouraged in a Scotland whose politics is increasingly dominated by a toxic and divisive strain of nationalism.)
The result? MacMillan’s music has touched the lives of music-lovers in a way matched by few British composers since Benjamin Britten. As a sort of experiment, I put a question to a group of Facebook friends and colleagues: What’s your favorite piece by James MacMillan? The response was immediate, and kaleidoscopic. A Scottish composer chose the choral Seven Last Words; an organist declared that “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel is awesome.” The Little Mass got a mention, and a fellow critic was spoiled for choice: “Oh gosh, so many! Choral works like Miserere and O bone Jesu, and I’m sure the newish Vidi Aquam will become a favourite when I’ve heard it more often.”
The cantata Quickening, the haunted clarinet quintet Tuireadh (a response to the explosion of the Piper Alpha oil rig, which resulted in 167 deaths—a tragedy that struck at the heart of working-class Scotland), and the huge, Passion-inspired symphonic triptych Triduum all had their fans. Most strikingly, an amateur chorister and a music teacher both agreed on O Radiant Dawn, one of the series of Strathclyde Motets that MacMillan wrote between 2005 and 2010 for use by nonprofessional church choirs. “I only didn’t pick it as a favourite because I’ve heard it too often—which is extraordinary, really,” she remarked. Clearly, MacMillan is no one-hit wonder. He’s created a body of work that speaks to the time and the community in which he lives, and without a trace of stylistic hedging. Edward Elgar (another Catholic in a predominantly Protestant Britain) used to praise music he admired by saying that “if you cut it, it would bleed.” MacMillan’s work is every bit as alive.
And really, it might be best to leave it there: A hearing of any one of these pieces would make the point about James MacMillan better than any words. This is music that speaks; more importantly, it conveys the impression that it means what it says. How it does so is part of the mystery of great art, though it’s safe to say that though you might well find some of MacMillan’s music abrasive or intimidating, you’ll never be patronized. When he bases a piano concerto (The Berserking) on the raw tribal energy of a football crowd, you can be sure he’s been on the terraces himself, yelling himself hoarse. Overtones of Scottish folk song or Catholic chant aren’t a stylistic affectation; they’re his native language, and one he’s spoken since childhood. To borrow his own words (speaking of Poulenc), “there is no comfortable, airy-fairy, pick and mix spirituality here.”
This isn’t the place to reflect on the integrity of a man who was honest enough to admit that he’d outgrown the standard-issue leftism of many of his peers. (MacMillan was a teenage communist: “decades later, I still wake up in a sweaty lather of guilt and mortification that I might have given succour to one of the most evil movements in human history,” he says). Or indeed, to mention his public courage in affirming his allegiance to a broader, more generous tradition of national and cultural identity—British as well as Scottish; international as well as local—in the face of a politicized blood-and-soil Scottish nationalism. But there is one topic that’s certainly worth bearing in mind as you explore his music, and it’s there in the title of the Fifth Symphony: The Great Unknown. In our secular, modernist (and, worse, postmodernist) culture, we’re surrounded by art that echoes with the resounding hollowness left by an absent God. It can come as a shock to find a composer who actually does have some answers, and who expresses them with uncompromising conviction.
“Far from being a spent force, religion has proved to be a vibrant, animating principle in modern music,” says MacMillan. He likes to mention that Stravinsky and Schoenberg were both believers, that Tristan und Isolde can be read as an allegory of the Passion, and that the original title of John Cage’s 4’33” was Silent Prayer. When I managed a concert hall, we occasionally spoke of the “Messiaen effect”: If concertgoers with a professed dislike of musical modernism could be induced to sit through a live performance of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, they’d emerge, more often than not, transformed—sometimes even in tears. Poulenc’s opera Dialogues des Carmélites has been observed to have a similar effect. Messiaen and Poulenc were devout Catholics. At some point, even the most cocksure atheist has to ask himself whether there might be a causal link.
MacMillan’s music seems to have the same effect on a surprisingly broad range of listeners: a capacity, time and again, to convey a meaning, a purpose, and a sense of fulfillment that remains rare in the contemporary concert hall. “To a Scottish male, like me, brought up in a macho, working class culture in Ayrshire, I hardly ever heard the word ‘beauty’ being uttered in my formative years,” he has written. “And yet, beauty is at the heart of our Christian faith.” The struggle is not always easy, or even pleasant; least of all, you sense, for MacMillan himself. But he’s not out to proselytize—simply to tell the truth as he perceives it. The best course is simply to listen to his music, and see if it speaks to you. In my experience, there’s a better than even chance that you’ll find yourself moved to awe, terror, pity, and profound contemplation. And possibly even—most wonderful of all, in an age that’s almost forgotten what it is to believe without cynicism—to laugh out loud in pure, incredulous joy.
Richard Bratby writes from Lichfield, England.