Music interview: James MacMillan on a new work inspired by war poems, premiering at this year's Cumnock Tryst

At the heart of this year's Cumnock Tryst Festival, themed around the Armistice Day centenary, is a major new work by the festival's founder and director, Sir James MacMillan. It's an oratorio based on texts by a First Word War poet, though not a name we'd readily identify among the customary ranks of Sassoon, Owen and Gurney.

James MacMillan
James MacMillan

These are from the pen of Aberdonian poet Charles Hamilton Sorley, the son of a university professor, whose education at Marlborough and King’s College Cambridge placed him in a similar cultural strata to the likes of Sassoon.

He was shot in the head by a sniper at Loos in 1915, aged just 20. His last poem, “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead,” was discovered in a satchel lying beside his corpse.

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“I’d been given a compendium of First Word War poems, but among all the usual big names there was this young Scot,” MacMillan explains. “I discovered that the poetry establishment really valued his work. [John] Masefield and Sassoon thought him among the top war poets. His works capture in a special way the horror, the pathos, the human soul under such pressure in these terrible situations. I felt it had to be a Scots poet for a work being premiered in Cumnock.”

All the Hills and Vales Along lasts for half an hour and sets five of Sorley’s poems for the mixed combination of solo tenor, chorus, brass band and strings. Commissioned by 14-18 NOW, MacMillan has conceived two versions; a large one, with full string orchestra, featuring in November’s London premiere by the London Symphony Orchestra under conductor Gianandrea Noseda; and the more intimate one featuring string quintet, which Macmillan himself will conduct in the Cumnock world premiere on 6 October.

The Scottish performance is a matter of personal pride for Cumnock-born MacMillan in the way it celebrates the raison-d’être of his annual festival. “I’ve always been wanting to bring together some of the starry visiting artists with some of the local musicians who work in Ayrshire”, he says. Sure enough, alongside the towering presence of tenor Ian Bostridge and this year’s artists-in-residence the Edinburgh Quartet and SCO principal double-bassist Nikita Naumov are the nearby Dalmellington Band and the Tryst’s burgeoning Festival Chorus, with members drawn from all over Ayrshire.

The whole programme that evening reflects the menagerie of musicians required for the new oratorio, giving MacMillan an opportunity to indulge his idiosyncratic passions. There’s his commitment to platforming local young composers, in this instance the Dalry-based Electra Perivolaris, from whom he has commissioned a short wind quartet – A Hand Holds a Candle – to be performed by the Sirocco Winds. “She’s one to watch,” he predicts of the young Royal Conservatoire of Scotland student.

The Siroccos are primarily there to provide the weird wind textures in Charles Ives’ strangely contemplative The Unanswered Question. “Its long been one of my aspirations to perform this haunting curiosity at Cumnock,” says MacMillan. “We already had the offstage strings and brass player, but it does require getting in the winds.”

Elsewhere, the programme includes some Holst from the Dalmellington Band and Vaughan Williams from the Festival Chorus under the direction of Eamonn Dougan.

But that’s just one of many concerts in this fifth Cumnock Tryst. It opens with an Edinburgh Quartet recital on Thursday 4 October featuring a new string quartet by Ayrshire-born Rory Boyle. Friday’s key billing goes to Ian Bostridge, in songs by Mahler, Britten and Brahms. His accompanist, Italian-Dutch pianist Saskia Giorgini, goes solo on the Saturday with music by Enescu, Schubert and Liszt.

Sunday’s traditional afternoon promenade concert at Dumfries House precedes an evening finale by The Sixteen, whose choral programme in Trinity Church opens with sacred music from the 15th century Eton Choirbook.

This year’s commercial success is a given. “We’ve more or less sold out everything,” says MacMillan. “Our sales are the best yet.” And once again, the area’s youth are in on the act. The big educational project comes to fruition in The Chronicles of Cumnock, a theatrical collaboration with the Citizens’ Theatre, based on contemporary First World War reports in the Cumnock Chronicle, and featuring music by pupils of Doone Academy and dancers and string players from the RCS’s Ayrshire educational hub.

Will such success lead to the expansion of future festivals? “I think the four-day format is brilliant, but we do have ambitions to spread our wings, especially to develop activity at other times of the year outwith the festival,” says MacMillan. “In the early days, locals weren’t quite sure what was happening. Now, they love it.” n

The Cumnock Tryst runs from 4-7 October. Tickets are available from the RCS Box Office, 0141-332 5057, or online at