horizontal line

For someone with plenty to say on everything from politics and culture to religion, James MacMillan’s A Scots Song: A life of Music is surprisingly short, just shy of 100 pages. Published to coincide with the composer’s 60th birthday the book nevertheless covers a lot of ground, beginning with MacMillan’s early musical roots and the development of his compositional voice.

Being spellbound by Gregorian chant during Mass at the age of five or six might have sparked MacMillan’s musical curiosity but it was the plastic recorder thrust into his hands in Primary 5 that he says lit the touch paper. ‘This event was like a light going on for me, from that day I knew I would be involved in and create music. It wasn’t long before I was playing the piano, the trumpet and cornet and being pressed into service by the nuns at St John’s to accompany classroom hymns.’

MacMillan is zealous about free music education and its ability to transform lives. ‘Why would those in power allow poorer children to miss out on such a vital ingredient of their education?’ he rightly asks. It’s not just about creating professional musicians and composers but enriching people’s lives. He is full of praise for amateur music-making (‘the jewel in the British crown’) especially the choral tradition. A keen singer himself, MacMillan expands on the inclusion of community singing groups alongside professional groups at the festival he set up in his Ayrshire home town in 2014, the Cumnock Tryst.

There’s an interesting mix of compositional influences on MacMillan beginning with Kenneth Leighton who taught him the disciplines of counterpoint and fugal exposition at Edinburgh University and John Casken at Durham. But it’s the music of the Church with its rituals and liturgies that fuel his spirituality. Hugely inspired by Scot Robert Carver, whose work was heard all over Europe, MacMillan’s love of the 16th-century composer’s complex and ornate polyphonic music shines through a modern lens in his own output.

The book is also deeply personal with MacMillan placing under the microscope his teenage flirtation with communism – ‘one of the worst things I’ve ever done.’ He wonders if his subsequent ‘political self- liberation’ has parallels in the musical world when it comes to a composer’s sense of place. As part of this he questions the anti-tonality of modernism and wonders how different our musical world might have been had the prevailing winds of change favoured Janáček rather than Schoenberg.

In the final chapter, The Accompaniment of Silence, MacMillan writes movingly about the grief of losing his granddaughter Sara, who was born with severe disabilities. He started writing a Stabat Mater for her few months before she died, not long before her sixth birthday, and speaks of how Sara is always present in the sounds that inspire his music as well as in the silences. He also points out that Cage’s infamous 4’33” is the length of the Extraordinary Form of the Tridentine Mass and that the original title was Silent Prayer.

Read the full review on Agora Classica

   Read full review   

To continue reading, please upgrade to a premium account. You will have immediate full access.

Read more classical music reviews online here:

Classical Music, 2019 - ©Rhinegold Publishing