James MacMillan

Born 1959

James MacMillan

Composer • Conductor

Biography

James MacMillan is a prominent Scottish composer and conductor. Writing primarily for orchestra, chamber ensembles, and chorus, his colorful and dramatic music has found many enthusiastic supporters. He finds particular inspiration in the Catholic faith, frequently borrowing melody, form and ideas from Christian liturgy and beliefs, creating a stunning blend of ancient and modern. 

MacMillan was born in Kilwinning, North Ayrshire, and was introduced to music by his grandfather, who was a coalminer. He studied piano and trumpet and began composing as a young child. He went on to study composition at the University of Edinburgh, and completed a Doctoral degree at Durham University. Following his studies he taught for two years at Manchester’s Victoria University before returning to Scotland in 1988, where he became Associate Composer at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. 

One of MacMillan’s earliest major successes was The Confession of Isobel Gowdie , premiered at the 1990 BBC Proms. The single-movement programmatic work portrays the execution of a young woman during the Reformation-era witch hunts in Scotland, where as many as 4,500 people, primarily women, were executed under suspicion of witchcraft. The work, which MacMillan called a Requiem, begins simply with an ancient-sounding, serene blur of Scottish chants, litanies, and songs, gradually building up in the strings before brass and percussion join in for a violent portrayal of the execution. The work returns to peace at the end with a final massive crescendo to end the work, perhaps a warning to listeners of future witch hunts.

This success was followed by MacMillan’s percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel in 1992. Composed for Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, it has become one of the most frequently performed concertos for percussion, having received nearly 500 performances since its premiere. MacMillan has spoken of its liturgical roots, with a constant “heartbeat” throughout the five sections of the single movement work, and the usage of French Advent plainchant melodies. Beginning with a breathtaking virtuosic introduction leading to a brass fanfare, the work is filled with different atmospheres and characters, ranging from violent dissonance to delicate writing for pitched percussion and strings, and even including some very catchy melodies. 

The Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich proved to be an important supporter of MacMillan in the 1990s.  They met when Rostropovich conducted the first performance ofVeni, Veni, Emmanuel in Washington DC. Rostropovich asked shortly afterward for two new pieces: a cello concerto and what would become MacMillan’s first symphony,Vigil, both of which would be premiered by theLondon Symphony Orchestra, in 1996 and 1997 respectively, forming the second and third works of a triptych of works for the orchestra, entitledTriduum, with the first part being The World’s Ransoming (1996).

As in the previous two works of the set, Vigil is inspired by Catholic liturgy and utilizes traditional plainchant melodies as building blocks and compositional material.Vigil focuses particularly on the roles of fire and water in the liturgy of the Easter Vigil, with MacMillan examining the dichotomy of light and shade in sound. Referring to the work’s relationship with the context of symphonic tradition, MacMillan writes: “Many earlier works in the symphonic genre have focused on fundamental human and spiritual archetypes such as life forms, life spans, natural transformations, or the journey from life to death. This symphony can be viewed as a further exploration of the theme, particularly the passing of one existence and the beginnings of another, new and on another plane.”

Sacrifice (2006) is the second of MacMillan’s operas, written for the Welsh National Opera. The storyline was discovered in the Mabinogion, a medieval collection of Welsh tales. With a libretto by Michael Symmons Roberts based on the Tale of Branwen, the story, set in a dystopian future, tells of a feud between two tribes and the sacrifice made to put an end to the cyclical violence. Instrumental portions were arranged for an orchestral pieceThree Interludes from ‘The Sacrifice’, premiered at the Cabrillo Festival in 2009. 

Two important recent works are MacMillan’s St John Passion (2008) and St Luke Passion (2013). The St John Passionwas dedicated to Sir Colin Davis and commissioned jointly by theLondon Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, and the Berlin Radio Choir. MacMillan was attracted to the St John setting because of its personal quality – John was present himself at the crucifixion and knew the subjects of the story personally. Scored for baritone soloist, chamber choir, full chorus, and slightly reduced orchestra, the work follows in the historical footsteps of previous Passions, although with some changes including the use of a chamber choir as narrator and portions of the text sung in English. Inspired by his own experience participating in Gregorian and Dominican chant on Good Fridays, the work is in 10 movements, with the last an instrumental “song without words,” which introduces a Scottish melody.

The Saint Luke Passion, written five years later, reflects an extension of some of the ideas found in his previous passion. In a break with tradition, he does not utilize any soloists, relying solely on a chorus, with some flexibility left to the ensemble to determine the fullness of the choir at given moments. Christ is portrayed by a children’s choir, of which MacMillan writes “Any passion that casts Christ as a soloist immediately makes him take human form as an adult male, whereas I wanted to examine his otherness, sanctity, and mystery.” Another surprise is that the text is completely in English, a decision prompted the success of the English language portions of the earlierSt John Passion. The composition also reflects an effort to keep the choral writing technically accessible and the orchestra streamlined, to make performance possible by amateur, university, or community ensembles.

MacMillan’s conducting career began in earnest in the early 1990s. He has appeared with the Detroit, Baltimore, and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestras and was appointed guest composer and conductor of theBBC Philharmonic in 2000, with whom he recorded A Scotch Bestiary with Chandos records. In 2009, he was named the Principal Guest Conductor of theNetherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, with whom he recorded his Sun-Dogs and Visitatio Sepulchri with BIS records . In 2004 he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

James MacMillan’s music is dramatic, colourful, and communicative. It is a unique expression of his Scottish heritage and religious beliefs, from which he derives musical material, content, and structure. The combination of the ancient qualities of his two great inspirations with a thoroughly modern technique and mindset has led to the creation of some of the most effective large-scale works in recent years.

Photo credit: Header image by Philip Gatward Long image at Cumnock Parish Church by Richard Campbell Square image by Hans van der Woerd

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