In Conversation with James MacMillan: Part two of a three-part series

James MacMillan is a classical composer and conductor known for his orchestral, operatic and choral works. In May 2018 MacMillan met with Phillip A. Cooke to discuss the work on his biography of the composer, The Music of James MacMillan, published by Boydell Press in 2019.

The following is a condensed and edited transcript of the interview.

PAC: Was the sudden flowering of choral music post-Millennium a conscious thing? Did you notice a change in the musical climate? Was it age or opportunities?

JM: All of those, probably, in different ways. We’ve mentioned before about the big modernist ‘thrust’ was towards instrumental music and that was the case with me for a long time. An unexpected development (which we’ve talked about earlier) was the development of these choirs in real positions of prominence, not just doing old music (which The Sixteen do so wonderfully) but many of them were commissioning new works. I just began to be aware of that whole aesthetic from The Sixteen and others that was different from the BBC Singers. I’d written for the BBC Singers, I’d shaped a piece called Mhairi for them, but even at that stage and through the 1990s I was still remembering what it was to sing in choirs, to conduct choirs and what choirs liked doing — it took off at a certain point, but not for any specific reason that I can remember.

PAC: There wasn’t anything about this that coincided with the appointment of Pope Benedict XVI, and his reforms? Obviously he had written a book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, was there any sense of those two things giving you a licence to write more sacred music?

JM: Probably there was a little bit of that. I did read copiously about what he had to say about music, because it was very interesting on how it impacted on the discussions the Catholic Church was having about music. It impacted most directly, and probably first of all on the Strathclyde Motets, and they came just after he arrived. I started writing them for the Catholic Chaplaincy at Strathclyde University and we got Alan Tavener’s university chamber choir to come in, and then the chaplaincy kind of left and went to St Columba’s and took over the music there. But I continued to write for the choir, it was a lovely way of making a piece of specially-composed, mostly Latin motet-type music work for a modern, post-Vatican II congregation. The ideas that developed at the time…I was more involved with making music work for the liturgy, writing simple things for the choir and congregation — how would that work? I began to think more about chant, working with the liturgy in English as well as Latin. Little pieces such as O radiant dawn and the thing with the trumpet [Jn splendoribus sanctorum] were written for the choir. It coincided with a thought I’d had about trying to write some choral music that would suit the more amateur choirs, I got some advice — I remember writing things such as Seinte Mari moder milde for King’s College, Cambridge and Martin Neary at Westminster Abbey at the time told me he loved doing my pieces but suggested ‘if you could just drop a few semitones from your top line and raise a few from the bottom’! I was getting the choir to do As all the time and low Ds, it was a huge range, and also I was writing for some of the best choirs in the country. I began to realise there was an interest in music from people who may have found it a bit too difficult, so I took that advice and began to rethink how a group like Strathclyde University Chamber Choir could work — and that has impacted on a whole range of things ever since.

PAC: You took over at St Columba’s, Maryhill, a Catholic Church in Glasgow — were you the choirmaster, or did you just come in and do special events? I presume it was the church where you worshipped?

JM: The Dominicans were given the church and there was a little community of about four Dominicans there. We sort of drifted in, we had always been close to the Dominicans in one way or another, it wasn’t our geographical parish but we decided to go there as we were involved as Lay Dominicans and so on. I suppose I did become the choirmaster, there was no money involved and no acknowledgement from anyone as to what I was doing, but no one else was doing it and I began to see the possibilities. There were a couple of other Dominican ‘hangers-on’ who I knew were interested in music and lots of things…it’s a very, sad, quite down-at-heel, working-class parish and the community has been decimated over recent decades, not just through poverty, drugs and drink, but they all moved away so the congregation had got smaller. It was a Catholic congregation that was quite small but we were getting a 100 at Mass on Sunday mornings and we managed to get some of their people to join the choir — it was a great way of fusing these different groups, as we were seen as a bunch of middle- class, academic-minded people moving in with some of the poorest people in Glasgow, there was a bit of suspicion and ‘parting of the ways’ but we tried to work together. We all knew the priests and called them by their first names, which is not something that working-class Catholics do…they thought we were a cult! The choir helped to fuse those different elements.

PAC: At the same period, you began to introduce works that you wrote when you were much younger and they start to be published — was this because you felt there was some sort of stylistic parity between these works or was it part of some broader unfolding narrative?

JM: I don’t think there is too much stylistic parity, as something such as the Edinburgh Te Deum is quite angular — I think Westminster Cathedral Choir did it first, and they were astonished as it was nothing like anything else I had done. For ages I had regarded a lot of that music as ‘not serious enough’ because it wasn’t thrusting modernism, it was something else I did — Gebrauchsmusik in many ways — so I kind of ignored it, but then I lost those inhibitions and the worry about what serious modern music was and I began to see things as what they were. I’m actually quite pleased with the pieces, especially the really early ones, they just needed a little bit of tidying up. The Edinburgh Te Deum (which wasn’t called that at the time) was written whilst an undergraduate at Edinburgh University, so I would have been about 21 or 22, but the Missa Brevis comes from my school years when I was 17 years old — I found that in the back of a drawer and I thought most of it was quite good — it’s done quite a lot actually.

Finish your conversation with James MacMillan… catch-up on part one here and part three here.

The Edinburgh International Festival hosts five concerts in August 2019, celebrating James MacMillan’s sixtieth year, including a performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra of Woman of the Apocalypse and A Scotch Bestiary, conducted by Joana Carneiro, and the first performance of Sir James MacMillan’s Fifth Symphony by The Sixteen and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Harry Christophers. Both events will take place on Saturday 17 August 2019, 5.00pm.

Follow latest news on other events at #JMacMillan60 or

Phillip A. Cooke is a Composer and Senior Lecturer and Head of Music at the University of Aberdeen. He has previously co-edited The Music of Herbert Howells for Boydell.

The Music of James MacMillan
by Phillip A. Cooke
Hardback / 9781783273706 / £22.50 or $29.96

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