Book reviews: The Music of James MacMillan by Philip A Cooke | A Scots Song: A Life of Music, by James MacMillan

Detail from a portrait of James MacMillan by the artist Calum Colvin
Detail from a portrait of James MacMillan by the artist Calum Colvin
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Writing a book about a composer who is still alive has inevitable consequences. For a start, it will be out of date the moment it hits the bookshops, and this is particularly true when the composer in question is as prolific as Sir James MacMillan, whose rate of production, at the age of 60, remains on an industrial scale.

Phillip A Cooke’s perceptive new study, The Music of James MacMillan, went to print well before the recent Edinburgh International Festival 60th birthday celebration series, thereby missing the world premiere of MacMillan’s Fifth Symphony, the latest major landmark in his compositional story. Still, it’s easy to understand the author’s eagerness to draw together the complex threads of MacMillan’s life: his often controversial public persona; the way his music evolved from his Ayrshire working class background; his early communist leanings; his rocketing to international success with The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at the 1990 BBC Proms; his devout Catholicism; the decade of fallout following his notorious Scotland’s Shame speech at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival, in which he railed against Scotland’s “sleep-walking bigotry;” family tragedy; and the success of the Cumnock Tryst Festival he and his wife Lynne instigated and now run in the town of their birth.

Cooke handles the life story and the musical analyses with uncluttered logic, and he is as selective with biographical content as with the works chosen for discussion.

Those of us who have lived through the MacMillan story – I first interviewed him in 1988 when he was on the brink of his initial success – are perhaps too close to be as dispassionate as Cooke, himself a composer and Aberdeen-based academic. From his neutral standpoint he perceives both singularity and plurality in the MacMillan phenomenon. And he illustrates that powerful paradox with clinical precision and empirical fairness.

From The Keening, completed in 1986 during MacMillan’s PhD studies in Durham, to the St Luke Passion of 2013, the author traces the milestones of a compositional journey that has embraced multiple influences, musical and non-musical.

His unpretentious forensic analysis avoids needless detail in surveying the various stages of MacMillan’s career: the “sudden surge of new works” following his return to Glasgow in 1988 and the rock-style 1990 Proms reception that greeted Isobel Gowdie; the ensuing period of sustained success up to the opera Inès de Castro in 1996; the “consolidation” years to 2000, peaking with the epic oratorio Quickening (notably expanded and revised for this year’s EIF performance); and the bitterness and ultimate stylistic turnaround in the decade following Scotland’s Shame.

Then, of course, came the remarkable torrent of recent productivity that has seen MacMillan reach the height of his abstractly expressive powers – a continuous outflow of music, dizzily multifarious in character, but recognisable for the ease and expertise with which he applies and appeases vying imperatives from his earlier years: the mystical Scottishness, the religious ritualism of Veni, Veni Emmanuel, the satirical bite of A Scotch Bestiary, the personal grief in response to the death three years ago of his infant granddaughter.

As for singularity, Cooke makes two key observations. First, that MacMillan’s musical thumbprint means “it can often take only one plangent line of melody for the composer to be identified.” Second, that the thing ultimately defining MacMillan as a composer is “his unswerving faith.” Since the death of John Tavener, he writes, “it is hard to think of another composer who is so identified with his or her religion.”

Time will tell what MacMillan’s ultimate legacy will be. His Cumnock Tryst Festival will feature significantly in any future story. Cooke’s book is an inspirational basis for future research and fuller biography.

It comes out at the same time as MacMillan’s own book of thoughts and reflections, A Scots Song: A Life of Music. Part memoir, part reflection, and readable in a few hours, it’s a thought-provoking companion publication, contextualising much of what the composer has said publicly over the years, albeit another unfinished story. Ken Walton

The Music of James MacMillan, by Philip A Cooke, The Boydell Press, 317pp, £30

A Scots Song: A Life of Music, by James MacMillan, Birlinn, 96pp, £7.99