Musica Sacra

James MacMillan and his sacred music for our time

In September 2010, when Pope Benedict made his historic and transformative visit to the United Kingdom, his first stop was Glasgow, Scotland. There, as he inaugurated the first-ever official state visit by the pope to the UK, he celebrated the opening Mass to the sounds of newly commissioned liturgical music. The music was thoughtful, joyful, singable, yet richly musical. It was the premiere of a work by a man well known in the contemporary classical music community but less known to those outside it: Scottish composer James MacMillan.

James MacMillan has accomplished the seemingly impossible for a contemporary artist of any medium. The Scottish composer and conductor has created a deep repertoire of compositions spanning from small chamber pieces to orchestral works and full-blown operas. His music successfully blends modern compositional expressions with a traditional musical understanding. His work is respected by the avant-garde and well-received by the customary classical concertgoer. His compositional style is praised by performers, conductors, and other composers. He maintains an active and internationally renowned musical life as a highly commissioned composer and heavily-booked guest conductor. And somehow he is able to reserve time to work regularly with his own parish choir in Glasgow.

All of this at the relatively young (for a composer) age of 52. 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.

Against the fad, with the grain

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 oppression…as 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.

A “Newman” Mass

But with Pope Benedict’s visit to the United Kingdom James MacMillan rose to a broader prominence, reaching a new audience. His “Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman” was commissioned to be used twice during the weekend, once in Scotland and a second time for the beatification in England. Additionally his “Tu es Petrus” was the played for the Pontiff’s processional during the Mass at Westminster Abbey and his “Gospel Fanfare” was played as well.

A relatively last-minute commission, the Newman Mass nearly didn’t happen. MacMillan was chosen by special request of the Scottish bishops to compose the Mass for the Pope’s visit. Wisely, they requested that his work be a setting of the new translation of the Mass in English. But this meant that MacMillan would be working with a brand new text, and with very little breathing room for completing it and preparing it with the musicians and choirs. Further, he had to work quickly and fulfill the rather daunting task of making it both worthy of the historic occasion and also accessible for the congregation to sing. “It was tricky because the request came very late, and I can understand the anxieties relating to how it could be made known in time to enough people, so that they could fully participate,” MacMillan said.

MacMillan’s urgent work to complete the Mass was almost undone by a conflict that will sound familiar to anyone involved in 21st-century Catholic parishes—the guardians of “spirit of Vatican II” didn’t like it. MacMillan has said that a committee was set up to review the Mass and, “The music was felt to be ‘not pastoral enough,’ and there were complaints (yes, complaints!) that it needed a competent organist.” 

In the end, the sacred triumphed over the sappy, and the Mass provided both a reflective and a glorious setting for the sung sacred word. William Oddie, writing for the Catholic Herald, called it “distinguished, memorable and (with minimal practice I would have thought) eminently singable setting of part of the new translation of the Mass. It was sung by a large choir, but also by the congregation, who had been run through it during the hours they had to wait. It was everything a congregational setting ought to be.”

MacMillan has great hopes for its use in many churches around the world, but recognizes the potential challenges to its acceptance. “I can imagine it being used enthusiastically in many countries around the world,” he has said. “There is a different ‘sound’ to the new setting, which perhaps owes something to my love of chant, traditional hymnody, and authentic folk music, and nothing at all to the St Louis Jesuits and all the other dumbed-down, sentimental bubble-gum music which has been shoved down our throats for the last few decades in the Catholic Church. And therein might lie the problem…”

As can be gleaned from such remarks, MacMillan is not always restrained in his comments, particularly regarding subjects most dear to him, such as the Church. He is certainly unapologetic in his apologetics for Catholicism. And though reserved and somewhat gentle in speech, he offers strong philosophical considerations as a lay Dominican sharing his faith and his observations.

Close to home

For all of his work on concert stages around the world, it’s a refreshing surprise to find that MacMillan also writes weekly psalm responses for his own parish in Glasgow. A part of MacMillan’s vocation includes composing, teaching, and encouraging the development of new music for the parochial Mass. He works with the small choir at his home parish, trying to instill his love for Gregorian chant into the setting of the post-conciliar liturgy, which can be heard in his St. John Newman Mass. He cites the work of other parish choral leaders as hopeful signs of the possible integration of chant into the common parish experience. “Composers can do more than ‘compose’ in the traditional sense,” he said. “I have been especially impressed by the work of Americans like Adam Bartlett, who has used traditional models and melodic shapes in his Simple English Propers, which is an attempt to get the Church singing the right texts which change daily, and week on week.”

Certainly an essential part of fulfilling the renewed call to evangelization in the Church is reaching out through the arts, as MacMillan does in his concert music. But it is also possible to re-evangelize the average pew-sitter through the liturgy. In September this year the composer premiered a new motet, “Cum Vidisset Jesus,” as the featured artist at a conference on sacred music at the University Notre Dame. Entitled “The Musical Modes of Mary and the Cross,” the conference focused on the direction that sacred writing is taking in our time.     

MacMillan was a perfect fit for such a discussion, as he has both considerable experience with the musical questions at hand and the desire to reinvigorate the liturgy with a return to the sacred. He sympathizes with those Catholics who desire an improvement in the music used at parish liturgies. “I do think that the Church needs to rediscover the Catholic paradigm of Gregorian chant—in the vernacular as well as Latin—as the way forward in its desire to resacralise our ecclesial rituals,” he says. “Happily, there are many American initiatives at the forefront of this.”

MacMillan enjoys the challenge of trying to energize the ordinary Catholic to sing prayer, and is encouraged by the new translation of the Mass in English, as well as the cross-pollination that the Anglican-use parishes bring to the Roman-rite liturgy. “It is an exciting development—true ecumenism in action,” he says.

Truth in song

Perhaps MacMillan’s most valuable role at this time in the history of the Church is that of a respected composer, deeply Catholic and willing to stand up in favor of truth, on the world stage. With so much of progressive secularism having overshadowed our conservatories and concert halls, in many ways forcing apart the natural union of art and music with the transcendent Creator, James MacMillan brings a deft and well-versed pen to the scene to reunite us with that simple idea: that there is truth. It may be that his great contribution to the cultural conversation is his respect for the importance of tradition informing contemporary music. So much of modernity fears the clear understanding that truth offers—and so hides itself behind the blinds of relativism, sneaking a peak but pretending not to notice the captivating figure behind the slats—that much contemporary art has become an indistinct wash of faded gray.

MacMillan stands as a clear and colorful contrast. When asked if he believes that the creation of beauty is one of the goals of the artist, MacMillan leaves his answer unadorned: “Yes.” And that is what makes his art worth listening to.

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About Kevin McCormick 0 Articles
Kevin McCormick is a Texas-based guitarist and composer whose compositions range from solo and chamber guitar pieces to experimental rock and jazz works to a complete Mass. Visit him online at