The composer and conductor James MacMillan was born on 16 July 1959 in Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland. His music is revered and realized throughout North America, the United Kingdom, continental Europe, and Asia. MacMillan’s relationship with the Bible reaches the very core of his existence, as the text and its themes have been crucial components of his upbringing and adult life. A son of a working-class family, MacMillan attended a Catholic primary school where he received instruction from the Nuns of the Sacred Heart. It was in that setting, as well as the weekly liturgy, that the traditions of sacred music were thrust upon him. While a student at the University of Edinburgh, MacMillan worked closely with members of the Dominican order in assisting with their music ministry. At Edinburgh he also worked extensively with the choir of the Catholic chaplaincy, which offered him many opportunities to perform his own compositions.
Despite having built a major international career as a conductor, MacMillan remains involved with leading his local parish choir in Glasgow (St. Columba’s in Maryhill) and regularly composes new music specifically for liturgical use by amateur church choirs. One example is his Missa Brevis (1977), which sets the Catholic ordinary for mixed a cappella choir. MacMillan’s compositions, particularly those that set biblical texts and texts by religious figures, place him in a long distinguished lineage of composers from Great Britain whose music engages with sacred themes. Luminaries such as William Byrd (ca. 1540–1623), Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934), Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), and Kenneth Leighton (1929–1988) have influenced MacMillan’s approach to sacred composition. Byrd’s style of Renaissance vocal writing, Elgar’s penchant for deeply British oratorios, Britten’s sacred choral works for liturgical and secular performance, and Leighton’s instruction in the fundamentals of composition are all referenced in MacMillan’s music.
Scholars frequently compare MacMillan to the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992), the most famous twentieth-century art music composer to have based a large proportion of his compositions on Catholic teachings, and the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935), whose sacred choral works are one of his country’s principal artistic exports. MacMillan’s compositional voice incorporates elements of Renaissance modality, modernism, postmodernism, post-Romanticism, and serialism. He has cultivated a unique musical idiom that identifies him within the cluttered world of contemporary art music.
MacMillan’s life and work attract labels in critical commentary and scholarship—Glaswegian, Scottish, Catholic, British, communist, and socialist, to name a few. These identifiers unnecessarily force interpretations of his music that stunt the compositions’ potential for inspiring reflection. In interviews and writings MacMillan reveals that he wishes for his music to resonate with as many different peoples and cultures as possible by addressing themes common to all forms of humanity, including conscience, charity, love, betrayal, oppression, and the role of institutions in society. As such, the purpose of his compositions is didactic and similar to that of the Bible.
Diverse types of compositions comprise MacMillan’s oeuvre, including sacred works composed for secular settings (Veni, Veni Emmanuel, 1991–1992), sacred works for liturgical settings (Christus Vincit, 1994), secular works informed by the subconscious role of religion in his biography (the chamber opera Clemency, 2009–2010), and secular works that avoid even indirect reference to religion (The Gallant Weaver, 1997). His corpus contains accompanied and unaccompanied choral works, solo instrumental works, instrumental chamber music, solo concertos, symphonies, works for wind ensemble, large-scale choral-orchestral works, and operas. These works have in common that they seek direct and indirect resonance with all points of contact, whether individual, communal, secular, or sacred. This approach is quite similar to that of religious missionaries and has enabled people of drastically different cultural backgrounds, from Scotland to the American South, to connect with his music spiritually and intellectually.
The ongoing conflict between secular society and organized religion is addressed in MacMillan’s compositions. He describes his music—both text-based and purely instrumental—as reflecting the state of religion in contemporary Western society. In a 2010 interview he commented, “we’re living at a time when the debate, or the discussion about religion, is more fraught than it has been for quite a while. … ” MacMillan’s music acts as a perpetually evolving entré into the psyche of contemporary society, addressing political and social tropes that determine the human species’ ability to self-evaluate and develop (or regress).
Ongoing conflict within the Catholic Church has touched upon MacMillan’s music. As the most prominent living British Catholic composer, MacMillan was invited by the church to provide music for several portions of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United Kingdom in 2010. This was the first official papal state visit to the United Kingdom, and it was therefore significant for MacMillan’s music to be featured on multiple occasions. He composed the Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman (2010) for performance in Scotland and England. Tu es Petrus (2010) and Gospel Fanfare (2010) were performed during a papal mass at Westminster Cathedral. According to MacMillan—and as should have been expected—proponents of the Second Vatican Council found his works insufficiently “pastoral.” The Gospel Fanfare is in fact imposing and dark, perhaps a commentary on the state of the modern papacy. The organizers of the papal visit even installed a committee to review the Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman, which utilizes a controversial new translation of the mass text. Negative reactions may have been a response to MacMillan’s affinity for liberation theology, a teaching that remains politically charged within the church. MacMillan responded publicly to the situation by publishing a blog on The Telegraph’s website, calling the whole mess “an almighty row.”
James MacMillan’s choral composition catalog includes more than 100 works. The choral genre is traditionally the most visible type of sacred music. MacMillan’s choral music ranges in difficulty from simple chant-based works that may be sung by amateur choirs (like “The Canticle of Zachariah” from The Strathclyde Motets, 2007; text from Luke 1:68–79) to massive works requiring multiple performing forces that are best suited to venues such as London’s Royal Albert Hall (Quickening for soloists, children’s chorus, mixed chorus, and orchestra, 1998; text by Michael Symmons Roberts).
Two translations of the Bible are most prevalent throughout MacMillan’s music, the Revised Standard Version and the Vulgate. They are sometimes used simultaneously in the same work, such as the cantata Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993), in which MacMillan modifies the biblical texts. He compiles portions of the four Gospels and presents a hybrid of excerpts from the two Bible translations. This work was commissioned by the BBC and was broadcast on television on each night of Holy Week in 1994. MacMillan has set numerous psalms, including Psalm 28 (Sedebit Dominus Rex, 2005), Psalm 42 (Give Me Justice, 2003), Psalm 84 (Dominus dabit benignitatem, 2008), Psalm 96 (A New Song, 1997), and Psalm 109 (In splendoribus sanctorum, 2005).
Other religious texts featured in MacMillan’s choral works are the Roman Breviary (The Strathclyde Motets, 2005–2008, and Tenebrae Responsories, 2006), the tenth-century Worcester Acclamations (Christus Vincit, 1994), the Latin Mass (Missa Brevis, 1977), an excerpt from the 33rd canto of Dante’s Paradiso (Laudi alla Vergine Maria, 2004), and a prayer attributed to Padre Pio (Padre Pio’s Prayer, 2008). Visitatio Sepulchri (1992–1993) sets a fourteenth-century Easter liturgical drama and the Te Deum.
Many of MacMillan’s instrumental works incorporate biblical tropes, such as original sin, benediction, the Ten Commandments, the Passion, and the parables. There are two principal ways in which biblical themes inform his instrumental works. Both types of works offer MacMillan the opportunity to connect with secular concert audiences via teachings of the Bible. In a sense, the fact that he pursues these topics without text is more impressive than similar efforts in works for voice.
The first type of work is represented in Triduum (1995–1997). A collection of three works, Triduum offers an interpretation and abstract retelling of specific sections of the Bible (in this case the teachings related to Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday). Ronald Weitzman’s study of Triduum for the journal Tempo posits some specific biblical connections to the three works that comprise “MacMillan’s Easter triptych.” The first work, The World’s Ransoming, is scored for orchestra and English horn obbligato and is based on the Holy Thursday liturgy. Weitzman considers a poignant sounding of a single bell (played on the crotales) to be symbolic of benediction. The bell also signals the magnitude of Christ’s words accepting his fate during prayer at Gethsemane, “Behold, the hour is at hand when the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners” (Matt 26:45, NAB).
In the second part, Cello Concerto (1996), MacMillan intentionally avoids representing Christ and his disciples with a single instrument, which would be reasonable given the inclusion of solo cellist. He instead conveys the blurred divisions between supporters of Christ and his denouncers, capturing the power of Judas’s betrayal (Matt 26:14–16) and Peter’s thrice denial of affiliation (John 18:15–18, 25–27). This notion of confused loyalties, an important principle of the Good Friday story, is conveyed musically by the integrated instrumentation. The cello and orchestra have their turns at representing Jesus, his opponents, and those who were disloyal, highlighting conflicts of identity. Symphony (Vigil) concludes Triduum. It is orchestrated for large orchestra, with a massive percussion battery and separate brass quintet. MacMillan employs instrumentation to represent symbols of mourning, the Vigil, and the light of the Resurrection.
The second type of work addresses political and social issues through an indirect lens of biblical teachings. The Exorcism of Rio Sumpúl for chamber orchestra (1989) is one example. It was composed as a response to a 1986 attack on a small village in El Salvador by the country’s armed forces. Miraculously, the inhabitants all survived a harrowing barrage of helicopter gunfire. After the attack the townsfolk, led by the village priest, ran around imitating the sounds of the helicopter. MacMillan tells the story in three parts: “Assault,” “Reflection,” and “Exorcism.” The chaotic dancing is portrayed as an exorcism intended as a response to the perceived miracle of survival. It conveys the teaching of the letter of James: “So submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. … Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you” (Jas 4:7, 10). Because MacMillan’s telling of the Rio Sumpúl story is delivered via an instrumental work, it is possible for listeners of varying faith backgrounds to have very individual interpretations of the historical event, religious or otherwise. The use of the word “exorcism” does provoke mixed reactions, however, and can taint nonreligious interpretations of the work. For example, in some modern churches “exorcisms” are used to “treat” perceived affronts to heteronormativity. That association has the potential to prompt negative sociopolitical responses that MacMillan may wish to remain separate from reception of The Exorcism and its account of an atrocity that is universally accepted as criminal.
One of the major factors in determining the intended venue setting of MacMillan’s sacred vocal works is the level of difficulty in the vocal parts. A work such as the St. John Passion (2007), which sets the Passion text from the Revised Standard Bible, requires a baritone soloist, narrator chorus, large symphonic chorus, and orchestra. Those forces are not available in most liturgical music ministries. Additionally, the Passion was commissioned by secular institutions (Rundfunkchor Berlin, Boston Symphony, and London Symphony) and premiered in concert halls.
MacMillan acknowledges a significant influence from Bach’s Lutheran passions, though he sought to create, in his words, “a twenty-first-century version, but also a Catholic version.” He succeeded in creating a Catholic passion by incorporating music that is associated with the Catholic liturgy (such as the Reproaches, the Stabat Mater, antiphons, and responsories). Despite liturgical differences, Bach’s Lutheran Passion settings loom over all contemporary composers. MacMillan has remarked, “My Passion is just as Protestant as it is Catholic,” suggesting a direct influence from Bach, “because his work has been absorbed and subsumed into secular music-making culture, and has marked what we now think of the Passion for a secular world, for a concert world.”
Passion settings by twentieth-century composers, such as Tan Dun, Sofia Gabaidulina, Osvaldo Golijov, Arvo Pärt, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Wolfgang Rihm, have also influenced MacMillan. These settings are ingredients in an ongoing conversation that considers the place of religion in a Western world that has shifted drastically toward overall secularization in the last one hundred years. The continued commissioning of modern Passion settings for the concert hall has maintained a foothold on MacMillan’s thoughts for some time. He describes direct musical influence from the Penderecki St. Luke Passion (1966), an avant-garde work that was “revolutionary” to MacMillan for its heavy use of tone clusters. MacMillan points to modern Passion settings as revealing that “the timeless texts of Christian worship seem to still provide a huge potent reservoir for creative arts today, which is good.”
The first performances of MacMillan’s St. John Passion prompted a new chapter in this dialogue, about the purpose and nature of sacred themes being conveyed to audiences of mixed religious/atheist beliefs. His setting also inflamed a sensitive conversation about the Catholic Reproaches, which some perceive as a direct blaming of the Jewish people for Christ’s persecution. MacMillan included the Reproaches in the St. John Passion to maintain the integrity of the Catholic liturgy that contains the text. Some critics and performers voiced concern about the inclusion of the Reproaches, going so far as to accuse MacMillan of bigotry and anti-Semitism. One response in the Jewish Daily Forward describes the Passion as “full of hatred.” Consideration of MacMillan’s response is vital to interpreting the St. John Passion.
MacMillan admits to naiveté in thinking that his inclusion of the controversial Reproaches would be accepted without recourse. He suggests that most Catholics are exposed to their faith via the liturgical presentation of the Bible, rather than actually reading the text. In MacMillan’s opinion the Reproaches are “more associated with the crucifixion itself” and the brutality of the Roman soldiers. He describes being “absolutely flabbergasted to be accused of anti-Semitism,” given that he is a member of the Scottish Friends of Israel and a firm believer in cultural pluralism.
In 2014 MacMillan’s St. Luke’s Passion (2012–2013), for chorus and orchestra, premiered in the United States and Europe. One of MacMillan’s aims in composing the St. Luke Passion was to create a Passion setting that would be more accessible to amateur choirs than the St. John Passion, which is best suited for performance by the top international level of musicians. This mission represents MacMillan’s eagerness to connect with multiple musical constituencies. He has never shied away from composing music for all levels of skill and experience, while always maintaining the integrity of his creative voice. MacMillan hopes to compose a St. Mark Passion in the future that would be smaller in scale than even the St. Luke, “maybe just [for] choir and organ.” This instrumentation would facilitate more secular performances and liturgical presentations than are possible with the St. John Passion and St. Luke Passion.
- Ivry, Benjamin. “MacMillan and Strife: A New ‘St. John Passion’.” Jewish Daily Forward, 24 February 2009. www.forward.com/articles/103343.
- MacMillan, James. “The Exorcism of Rio Sumpúl Program Note.” London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1990. www.boosey.com/cr/music/James-MacMillan-The-Exorcism-of-Rio-Sump-l/5105.
- MacMillan, James. St. John Passion. London: Boosey & Hawkes, 2007.
- MacMillan, James. “How Trendy ‘Liturgists’ Tried to Stop My Mass Being Performed for the Pope.” Telegraph, 27 October 2010a. blogs.Telegraph.co.uk/culture/jmacmillan/100048309/ how-trendy-liturgists-tried-to-stop-my-mass-being-performed-for-the-pope.
- MacMillan, James. Interview by Nicholas Alexander Brown, 3 December 2010b. Digital recording. Nicholas Alexander Brown Collection.
- MacMillan, James, and Richard McGregor. “James MacMillan: A Conversation and Commentary.” Musical Times 151, no. 1912 (Autumn 2010): 69–100.
- McCormick, Kevin. “James MacMillan and His Sacred Music for Our Time.” Catholic World Report, 27 November 2012. www.catholicworldreport.com/Item/1768/musica_sacra.aspx.
- Spicer, Paul. “James MacMillan Choral Music: A Practical Commentary and Survey.” London: Boosey & Hawkes, 2009. www.boosey.com/downloads/MacMillanChoralPDF09finalWEB.pdf.
- Telford, James. “Reconciling Opposing Forces: The Young James MacMillan—A Performance History.” Tempo 65, no. 257 (July 2011): 40–51.
- Weitzman, Ronald. “MacMillan’s Easter Triptych.” Tempo no. 204 (April 1998): 32–36.
Nicholas Alexander Brown