December 25, 2014


Musica Sacra : James MacMillan and his sacred music for our time (Kevin McCormick, 11/27/12, Catholic World Report)

The son of a welder and teacher, MacMillan's childhood included study of piano and trumpet. He began composing at an early age, and by secondary school already had a penchant for the sounds of Renaissance church music. Eventually making his way to undergraduate work at Edinburgh University, he passed on the opportunity of the more focused conservatory life for the broader experience offered in the university setting. 

This early choice is indicative of MacMillan's interest in a wider appreciation of the language of music, a trait which informs much of his writing. Like his British predecessor Benjamin Britten, he composes compelling vocal melodies with rich choral arrangements with ease. And like Debussy, he possesses an evocative musical vocabulary which allows him great latitude in his compositional structures. Perhaps not coincidentally he shares with both of those composers an enthusiasm for the sounds of the East Asian hammered-bell instrument called the gamelan, which sometimes overtly, other times more subtly, finds its way into his music. That is not to say that his music shares the trance-like meditative quality of much of the music of East. He infuses an intensity into his scores, one which reflects the fundamental struggle between good and evil inherent in the human drama.

Though his early writings include Marxist leanings from liberation theology, MacMillan admits in his more recent interviews that he is a "lapsed lefty." MacMillan has been courageous in confronting the "liberal assumption" that is often militantly and sneeringly guarded by captains of the "Arts élite." Growing up in a community that he regarded as often hostile to his Catholic religion and its community, MacMillan knows the struggle of living in contradiction to the majority around him. 

Perhaps it was this struggle which allowed him, from the earliest stages, to compose more freely and with less concern for being blown by the whimsical winds of the avant-garde. Whatever the case, MacMillan's solid grounding in classical compositional structures have provided him a freedom in blending styles and moods into a synthesis which is historically contiguous with past masters.

He draws from a broad palette of influences to paint portraits and landscapes upon which he stages powerful musical dramas. Dramatic tension and resolution are major components of his writing. His brief "After the Tryst" for violin and piano is the perfect example, contrasting a sudden violence intermittently giving way to a delicate and poetic accompaniment. His orchestral work, "Brittania" pairs folk-like melodies with explosive intrusions. Clearly MacMillan is not interested in lulling the listener to sleep. "I need to create dramas and the best stories are the ones that have resolutions of conflict, not just resolution," he has said.

Because his works include a considerable number of instrumental pieces, he is able to bridge the sacred-secular divide in a way that is more difficult for those trying to challenge the standard guards of opera or theater or even much of today's choral music. In 1992, he collaborated with another young and upcoming Scot, renowned deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie, in a concerto for percussion and orchestra called Veni, Veni Emmanuel. From a formal musical standpoint the 25-minute piece draws on 15th-century French plainchant for its harmonic content while a tense conversation plays out between soloist and orchestra. But as the title suggests, there is a theological underpinning to the work, not only of Christ's nativity, as one might guess, but also hints of his death and resurrection. To the casual listener (if there can be such a thing for music of such passion) it is a simply a dramatic work for percussion, challenging the soloist through a tremendous range of virtuosic passages and a variety of instruments.  For those more attentive, and certainly for the composer himself, the work evokes the tension of the great Labor of Love of the Creator entering his own creation. MacMillan describes the work as an attempt to mirror in music "the promised day of liberation from fear, anguish, and found in Luke 21: 'There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars; on earth nations in agony.'" MacMillan brings to such a work a theological depth to his instrumental writing which, while common and expected at the height of the classical era, is remarkable in our highly secularized times. 

Not surprisingly this theological approach informs much of his vocal writing as well. His earliest musical memories are of the ritual of the Mass and the balance of his considerable list of works leans heavily toward sacred choral, and often specifically liturgical, music. He has composed prayers and cantatas, motets and Masses with a brilliant use of harmonic tension and resolution. Much of this vocal music exudes a haunting quality found in the work of other contemporary sacred composers, like the well-known work of Arvo Pärt and John Tavener.

Posted by at December 25, 2014 5:41 AM

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