The Bridge Builder
Sir James MacMillan
Whenever he hears someone describing classical music as “elitist”, James MacMillan winces. He knows why they say it; but he also knows they’re wrong.
The biggest name in sacred music in Britain, and one of the world’s leading living classical musicians, owes it all to his maternal grandfather – a coal miner. He played the euphonium in the colliery band, and he introduced the young Jimmy to the joys of music-making, an epiphany from which the composer never looked back. For as long as he can remember, he was making up music as well as playing it. “From the moment I was given my first plastic recorder, I was composing for it,” he says.
We are chatting in a cafe in Largs, a seaside town on the west coast of Scotland, home to the Nardini ice cream shop on the harbour where the CalMac ferry docks. MacMillan, who was knighted for his services to music in 2015, lives just outside the town, in a house he says sounds remote but is, in fact, a wonderful place to work, with stunning views. Recently he’s been working on his Fifth Symphony, which is being produced to mark his sixtieth birthday next year. Another work, All the Hills and Vales Along, inspired by the writing of the Scottish First World War poet Charles Hamilton Sorley, will be premiered at the Barbican, in London, this autumn.
The first thing MacMillan wants to talk about today, though, isn’t the symphony: it’s the TheoArtistry Festival, which takes place at the University of St Andrews this coming week (4-6 March). The festival will feature performances of six new musical compositions of divine encounter, inspired by the biblical accounts of God speaking to Adam and Eve, Jacob, Moses, Samuel and Elijah, and speaking through Solomon. What’s significant about these works is that the composers, as well as enjoying MacMillan’s input as a mentor, have also each been paired with a theologian, enabling them to get deeper insights into the biblical texts.
It is, MacMillan agrees, an unusual arrangement. “Many composers would throw their hands up at it; they’d feel it was removing autonomy. This kind of collaboration worries purists because, they say, why should music need these outside interferences?” MacMillan, though, takes a different tack. “We need to have humility and a sense of enquiry, so we can open our minds to a whole range of voices,” he says. “And composers have always had a huge range of inspiration.”
The irony, of course, is that Christianity has spawned many thousands of musical works, just as it has inspired countless works of visual and other art forms. But what MacMillan calls “the business link” between the Church and musicians has largely broken down in recent years, as it has with other creative artists.
Here, though, is where MacMillan’s take is interesting: from his vantage point, he believes what he’d term the bridge between the worlds of music and spirituality has not been dismantled as comprehensively as it has, say, between the visual arts and spirituality. “Many of the leading figures of modern music – Schoenberg, for example – are profoundly religious. It’s almost as though there’s something inherent in the art of music that has to be an acknowledgement of the sacred.” Not for nothing, says MacMillan, is music sometimes referred to as the most spiritual of the arts. He takes it a stage further: “Spirituality and music are so deeply entwined that to dispute the link is to negate the art form.”
So could music lead the world of artistic endeavour back to the wellspring of faith and spirituality? That’s clearly his direction of travel; at the end of the day, he says, the twentieth century’s “spasm of iconoclasm” will not be enough to break the bonds that have fused liturgy and music for many hundreds of years. The festival at St Andrews underlines the importance of safeguarding the link; although, he says, the works to be premiered are not necessarily liturgical or even devotional, since the only specification for the six composers was that the work had to be suitable for a choir and organ.
There’s more than a hint of Scottish properness and formality about MacMillan, but it turns to warmth as he talks about his family: his mother was a teacher, then a social worker; his father is a retired carpenter. His home town in East Ayrshire, Cumnock, had more than its share of social deprivation: there can’t have been many working-class kids from there heading off to study music, which he did first at the University of Edinburgh and then as a postgraduate at Durham.
Having been raised a Catholic, he got involved in the chaplaincy at Edinburgh, where he first came into contact with the Dominican priest and scholar Aidan Nichols, who has been an important figure in his life, and who even dedicated his first book to MacMillan.
Nichols officiated when Macmillan and his wife, Lynne, a convert to Catholicism, were married 35 years ago: they went on to have three children – Catherine, who is 27, and 24-year-old twins Aidan and Clare. But it was the arrival of a grandchild eight years ago that one suspects changed MacMillan’s life more than anything else: because, in 2010, Catherine gave birth to a little girl named Sara, who was born with a complex and life-restricting condition called Dandy-Walker syndrome.
At first, says MacMillan, Sara wasn’t expected to survive at all; then, she wasn’t expected to live long. And yet she grew and became a wonderful child whose presence lit up the world for those around her; and her unexpected death, almost exactly two years ago, was a tragedy from which the family seems, understandably, to be still reeling.
The MacMillans put their life on hold for Sara: their membership of the lay Dominican order, he explains, was one of the many commitments that had to take a back seat to care for her and Catherine. But the joy Sara brought him is evident, and movingly so, from the expression on his face when he talks about her.
To MacMillan’s delight, Sara loved music; sharing it was something tangible he could do for her every day. Has losing her changed his faith? In a way, he says, it’s made it stronger. “We would have gone to pieces, I think, if it hadn’t been for the Church and the Mass and the structure and support.”
That acknowledgement of the power of structure, and what it means to him, cuts to the essence of MacMillan. He’s known as a conservative Catholic – more of a natural follower of Benedict, for whose UK visit in 2010 he composed several pieces of music – than of Francis; but he prefers to call himself an “ordinary Catholic”. The Church, he says, has “always been there as an important strand of my life, and sometimes the most important strand”.
For MacMillan, Catholicism is not about sides or factions – “it’s much more profound than that” – and though he has been an excoriating critic of the banality of much post-Vatican II church music, he now finds the so-called “liturgy wars” wearing. “I can’t be bothered with any of that any more,” he tells me. “Sara’s death made me realise what is important in life, and what is not.”
On the threshold of his seventh decade, life doesn’t seem to be getting any quieter: the week after we meet, he will be travelling to Dublin, and as well as his birthday symphony there are several other projects in the pipeline, some still under wraps. One of his proudest achievements is the festival he founded in the town where he was born, the Cumnock Tryst. It’s not an “obvious” place for this kind of musical event, he says; but then again, as his grandfather’s talents proved, perhaps that only reveals a mistaken idea of what’s obvious and what’s not.
Tickets for the TheoArtistry Festival can be booked via the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, www.byretheatre.com