Edinburgh International Festival: Sir James MacMillan prepares for premiere of Fifth Symphony

As he prepares for the world premiere of his Fifth Symphony – and a showcase of his best work – Sir James MacMillan talks to Ken Walton.

Sir James MacMillan. Picture: EIF
Sir James MacMillan. Picture: EIF

Of the three Edinburgh International Festivals in which Sir James MacMillan has featured significantly, this year’s celebration of his 60th birthday is perhaps the one he is most at ease with.

Think back 20 years to his notorious Festival lecture, Scotland’s Shame, which castigated Scotland for its endemic anti-Catholicism, fuelling vociferous debate and personal threats to the composer and his family. “I’ve been gearing up for questions on this recently because it’s the 20th anniversary,” he admits. “I’m kind of avoiding it. I’ve just moved on. I just don’t want to be drawn back to it because it was fraught. It wasn’t nice.”

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Is he a different person nowadays? “Yes, in the sense that I was up for a barney then. Maybe I pick my fights more carefully now.”

Six years earlier, the then International Festival director Brian McMaster put the 34-year-old MacMillan’s music under the world spotlight in his 1993 programme. “That was kind of terrifying and put me under the cosh a bit,” recalls MacMillan. Professionally, he had suddenly become the composer everyone wanted to commission, so demands on him were high. And he was dealing with a lot in his personal life, too.

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“They just threw everything at that Festival, the good and the bad, presenting the premiere of the trumpet concerto Epiclesis and many other things, including a piece called Tourist

Variations, which I found the score of a few years ago and realised it was nothing to write home about. They were willing to take a risk, which I was very grateful for.”

In recent years, the leftist political anger that once fuelled a furious passion within the former card-carrying communist has visibly softened. His views have shifted to the right, and he opposes the nationalist cause. He is relaxed with his monumental popularity worldwide, the success of his flourishing Cumnock Tryst Festival, the imminent wedding of his daughter Clare, one of the twins, and the quiet family life he enjoys at home on the Ayrshire coast, where he continues to work prolifically.

He is genuinely delighted, though, to find himself yet again one of the central focuses of an Edinburgh International Festival. “They have put together a good package, ranging from my chamber music up to big choral pieces and including two symphonies,” he says, referring to a series of five major concerts, supported through the Scottish Government’s Festivals Expo

Fund, that culminate in the world premiere of the highly-anticipated Fifth Symphony (Le grand inconnu), featuring the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and the singers of The Sixteen and Genesis Sixteen under Harry Christophers.

In its finalised form, this three-movement work is an exploration and reflection on the concept of the Holy Spirit, with texts which incorporate repetitions of the words for breath in Hebrew (ruach), Greek (pneuma) and Latin (spiritus) – as well as poetry by John of the Cross and some scripture.

But these came late in the compositional process, reveals an untypically puzzled MacMillan. “The funny thing is I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. I started out without any real knowledge of what text I would set. I had ideas in my mind certainly, to do with the Holy Spirit, or what breath, fire and water might sound like as music. It wasn’t until I put notes down on the page, though, that the texts eventually suggested themselves. That was an unexpected way of working for me. It hadn’t happened before.”

Another major coup for the Festival is the premiere by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under Edward Gardner, of a brand new version of the epic 1998 cantata The Quickening, which also features the joint choral forces of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, RSNO Junior Chorus and The King’s Singers.


It was the involvement of the last of these – substituting for the original Hilliard Ensemble, which no longer exists – that inspired MacMillan to add a new movement to the original four. “I’ve been developing a relationship with The King’s Singers and wrote a substantial cycle for them, A Rumoured Seed, settings of Michael Symmons Roberts,” he explains.

“Quickening was originally a collection of five poems by Michael and I set four of them, which worked fine as a cycle. But since I was writing things for The King’s Singers recently, I thought

‘Why not bring them on board?’ and set that extra movement from A Rumoured Seed and incorporated it into the cycle. It gives a new lease of life to the piece.”

The 60th birthday series also brings to Scottish audiences MacMillan’s riotous A Scotch Bestiary for organ and orchestra (organist Stephan Farr and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra) with its barbed references to sectarian anthems. The same concert features the virtuosic concerto for orchestra, Women of the Apocalypse, conducted by Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro.

On a smaller scale, the Nash Ensemble perform Fourteen Little Pictures at the Queen’s Hall, while MacMillan’s new oratorio commemorating the fallen in the First World War, All the Hills and Vales Along, which wowed audiences at last year’s Cumnock Tryst, gets a Festival airing at Greyfriars Kirk by the brilliant National Youth Choir of Scotland and Whitburn Brass Band under Christopher Bell.

At 60, and frequently travelling the world to either hear or conduct performances of his music, what is it that makes MacMillan tick these days? “The most satisfaction I get as a composer is the daily feeling of whether something’s working or not,” he replies. “I’m in the middle of writing a Christmas Oratorio. Some days are brilliant. Some days are not. Today’s a bit of a watershed when I got going on the sixth of 14 movements. This oratorio is going to obsess me for the rest of the year.”

But what about the next ten years? Are there particular challenges, ambitions he’s looking forward to? “I don’t think of it that way. I think there are gaps that need to be addressed. I’ve not written enough chamber music and I want to get back to that.” Expect at least a couple of string quartets.

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Modesty aside, has he reached a stage in his creative life where he might justifiably claim a place in the canon of western classical music? “Whether I or other composers have a place in the canon is neither here nor there. It’s the compunction to write that matters. I do believe in the canon, which puts me in an unpopular professional position in relation to some dreadful articles I’ve just been reading by young American musicologists which basically trash it. They’re saying, because it’s essentially about dead white European males, it deserves to be trashed and abandoned.

“Some of the worst ideas in the world come from the US, especially its universities, and especially the kind of root-and-branch attacks on classical music from this kind of bogus ideological position. I can see the storm clouds ahead, and all of us are going to have to defend what is best about our classical culture.”


He may be eligible for his bus pass, but when fired up MacMillan still packs a formidable verbal punch.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, The Sixteen, and Genesis Sixteen perform Sir James MacMillan’s Symphony No. 2 and Symphony No. 5 “Le grand inconnu” at the Usher Hall on 17 August. For details of the rest of the Sir James MacMillan at 60 series, or to book, 0131-473 2000/www.eif.co.uk