A few days ago, CWR was pleased to publish “Musica Sacra”, a fine profile of the Catholic composer, James MacMillian. The author, Kevin McCormick, is himself a talented musician (classical guitar, among other instruments) and composer (with several recorded albums), and he brought a sensitivity and insight fitting to his own talents. I first heard of MacMillan in the mid-1990s; I think it was in the pages of a classical music magazine. The featured piece was the then recently-released cantata for chorus and voice, Seven Last Words from the Cross, a remarkable and powerful work. I bought more of MacMillan’s albums, but hardly made a dent, as he is incredibly prolific. In fact, anyone new to MacMillan is likely to be overwhelmed a bit by the sheer volume of his recorded work (and MacMillan is still just in his fifties).
While I’ve not listened to all of the Scot’s work (not even close!), and although I am not a classical music expert by any stretch of the imagination, I do have my preferences. Below is a little piece about MacMillan, taken from this larger article I co-authored for Our Sunday Visitor newspaper this past summer about (living) Catholic musicians, bands, and composers. At the end, I offer some suggestions for where to begin with MacMillan’s music:
The Scottish composer James MacMillan (b. 1959) made waves with the 1990 premiere of his symphonic debut, “The Confession of Isobel Gowdie”, and he has been making them ever since. His 1992 percussion concerto, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, earned rave reviews from both critics and audiences (it has been performed over 400 times), as MacMillan distinguished himself as a modern composer able to write accessible, engaging music. The Penguin Guide, in recommending that concerto, said it “reveals the composer’s rare gift of communicating with electric intensity to a wide audience” and noted that MacMillan was “motivated by his devout Catholicism and his equally passionate left-wing stance”.
The devotion to Catholicism has remained ever strong (MacMillan and his wife are third-order Dominicans), but the composer once described as a “Marxist firebrand” is long removed from his former socialist tendencies, having distinguished himself as vocal and public champion of the Catholic faith. He has also taken up the pen repeatedly in the service of good music, having written over two hundred works—symphonies, operas, masses, concertos, and much more—and many dozen essays and op-eds about politics, religion, and (of course) music. In 2010, he was commissioned by the Bishops’ Conferences of England, Wales and Scotland to write the music to be used at two of the masses celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI during the Holy Father’s visit to Britain to mark the beatification of John Henry Newman. Not surprisingly, controversy ensued, as MacMillan wrote an essay for The Telegraph titled, “How trendy ‘liturgists’ tried to stop my Mass being performed for the Pope” (Oct 27, 2010), in which he decried bureaucratic “ideologues” who disdain “Gregorian chant” and traditional forms of liturgical music.
That might seem contradictory considering the many “modern” elements in MacMillan’s compositions. But MacMillan’s respect for and knowledge of traditional choral music, his ability to write beautiful and often haunting melodies, and his unabashed love for the sacred are obvious and appealing. He doesn’t pander to audiences nor does he seek to shock them, except with beauty. Reviews of his Piano Concerto No. 3, The Mysteries of Light, included descriptive terms such as “turbulent,” “dazzling,” “incantatory,” “perplexing,” “virtuosic,” and “luminous.” The same could be applied consistently of his work.
More adventurous listeners might consider Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, the stunning cantata, Seven Last Words from the Cross, or the pulsating piano concerto, The Berserking. Those interested in more traditional renderings will enjoy the recent releases, Tenebrae: New Choral Music by James MacMillan (which includes the music for the 2010 papal mass) and the ethereal Miserere. For a mixture of the two, listen to Visitatio Sepulchri-Sun-Dogs, which was a finalist in the choral category for the 2011 Gramophone Classical Music Awards, or the monumental and acclaimed St John Passion, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.