Interview: James MacMillan, composer

James MacMillan. Picture: Neil Bennett
James MacMillan. Picture: Neil Bennett
Have your say

The Gospels according to James MacMillan is the latest plan from a Scottish composer whose creativity knows no limits

With the Olympic exploits of Team GB filling us all with national pride, consider the current international success of Scotland’s most prolific and celebrated composer, James MacMillan. It is truly Olympian.

This Saturday, at the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz California, Marin Alsop conducts the world premiere of his new concerto for orchestra Woman of the Apocalypse. The following night at the London Proms, his humdinger of an Olympic Commission, Fanfare upon one note (first heard in March’s Sport Nation concert at Glasgow’s Clyde Auditorium), receives its London premiere played by the combined BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.

Forty eight hours later, also at the Proms, the BBC Philharmonic gives the world premiere of Macmillan’s Credo. Then at the Edinburgh International Festival (22 August in Greyfriars Kirk), the Hebrides Ensemble unveils yet another major new work – Since it was the day of Preparation – followed a week later (31 August) in Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre by the Scottish premiere of his chamber opera Clemency, forming part of Scottish Opera’s contemporary mini-opera blitz at the tail end of the Festival.

Add to that the launch last week of the first recording in a new 4-CD project with the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra of MacMillan conducting his own works (see next Monday’s CD review page), an almost daily schedule of his music being played somewhere in the world over the coming month, and the fact that he also composed a specially commissioned Gloria to mark the 50th anniversary of Coventry Cathedral back in June, and the truly ubiquitous presence of this 53-year-old composer and conductor becomes powerfully clear.

I caught up with MacMillan a few weeks ago in Glasgow’s West End, where – fresh from a conducting stint in Japan – he still lives, works and somehow finds time to fulfil his new role as a grandfather. It’s been a while since we spoke – around 12 years I think – but little has changed in his private demeanour.

He remains soft-spoken and modestly profound when discussing his many latest musical offerings, and – when the tape recorder is off – is generously humorous in subjects as fundamentally West of Scotland as the current Rangers debacle. “Couldn’t have happened to a better team”, jibed classical music’s best-known Celtic supporter.

On the serious side, MacMillan’s prolific creativity is brilliantly ripe with no signs of letting up. In fact, he has a plan to take him well into his pensionable years. For one of his central ambitions is to follow up his visceral 2004 setting of the St John Passion, which received its glorious Scottish premiere as an opener to last year’s BBC SSO season, with successive settings of the other three Gospel accounts.

“I want to take the rest of my life to do the other three, but I don’t want to do them one immediately after the other,” he says. “I’m working on the St Luke just now. I’m already talking to people about the St Mark, which would be about ten years from now, when I’ll be in my early 60s. Then maybe I’ll think about doing the St Matthew ten years after that. The plan is to get them smaller and smaller.”

“The St Luke has less orchestra, more soloists; the St Mark will be for choir and organ, more liturgical in purpose; the St Matthew will just be for unaccompanied singers.”

In effect, the four Passions look set to provide a spiritual backbone to the significant crop of music that is likely to define MacMillan’s mature years. But they are by no means all he has in mind. There’s a Fourth Symphony in the pipeline, which almost emerged as the work Marin Alsop is premiering on Saturday in America. “She wanted a major orchestral piece”, he explains. “I hadn’t written a purely orchestral work for a while, not since the Third Symphony, and at one point thought this new one might have turned out to be the Fourth. But it didn’t work that way. It had too many ideas from extra-musical sources – including portraits of the mad woman of the Apocalypse by Rubens and Blake, and a fantastic woodcut by Dürer – so it had to be a tone poem.”

But the Fourth Symphony will come eventually, he promises.

Whether he will ever succumb to the purely abstract – there were notable leanings in that direction, he says, in the Horn Quintet and String Quartet No 3 – both works featuring at the Edinburgh Festival are definitely not, being typically rooted in power-driven, evocative biblical imagery and inspiration. Indeed, the new piece for the Hebrides Ensemble is nothing less than a crunching postscript to his St John Passion – part of a “frame of reference” which, MacMillan claims, “often finds me referring, without any planned intention, to other works”.

“When I finished writing the Passion at the point where Christ dies, my mind turned immediately to the next bit of text, opening with the words ‘since it was the day of preparation’.” The challenge in front of him was “to pick up the story again and take it right through to the Resurrection” in an hour-long chamber work in which the figure of Christ (bass Brindley Sherratt) is supported by only five instruments.

As for the 50-minute opera Clemency – premiered last year at the Linbury Studio at London’s Royal Opera House – the subject is again Biblical (the weird Genesis story of Sarah’s visitation by three angelic figures), and the scale – five singers and string ensemble – is exactly how he likes it - short, concise and to the point.

“I wrote it in two weeks,” he says. “Michael Symmons Roberts [MacMillan’s librettist] and I just went away and completed it without knowing who might perform it.” When a production did come to fruition, directed by Katie Mitchell and co-commissioned by Scottish Opera, it was described by one critic as “subtly haunting and quietly powerful”.

But does another full-scale opera to follow Inès de Castro and The Sacrifice feature in MacMillan’s future plans? “There’s an awful lot of faffing around over writing a big opera,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll ever do another one. I like what you can do on a small scale, that’s what I’ve done with Clemency, and that’s part of the discussions I’m having with Alex Reedijk at Scottish Opera.”

Ah, so might there be a partner work on the cards for Scottish Opera? It would be great to see MacMillan back writing exclusively for Team Scotland.

• The Hebrides Ensemble and Synergy Vocals premiere MacMillan’s Since it was the Day of Preparation at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh on 22 August. Scottish Opera performs Clemency at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh on 31 August and 1 September. Tel 0131-473 2000 or visit