Catholic composer of sacred music: James MacMillan

From Catholic World Report comes a long article about the Catholic composer of sacred music James MacMillan:

James MacMillan and his sacred music for our time
Kevin McCormick

In September 2010, when Pope Benedict made his historic and transformative visit to the United Kingdom, his first stop was Glasgow, Scotland. There, as he inaugurated the first-ever official state visit [And important distinction… it was a state visit.] by the pope to the UK, he celebrated the opening Mass to the sounds of newly commissioned liturgical music. The music was thoughtful, joyful, singable, yet richly musical. It was the premiere of a work by a man well known in the contemporary classical music community but less known to those outside it: Scottish composer James MacMillan.

James MacMillan has accomplished the seemingly impossible for a contemporary artist of any medium. The Scottish composer and conductor has created a deep repertoire of compositions spanning from small chamber pieces to orchestral works and full-blown operas. His music successfully blends modern compositional expressions with a traditional musical understanding. His work is respected by the avant-garde and well-received by the customary classical concertgoer. His compositional style is praised by performers, conductors, and other composers. He maintains an active and internationally renowned musical life as a highly commissioned composer and heavily-booked guest conductor. And somehow he is able to reserve time to work regularly with his own parish choir in Glasgow.

All of this at the relatively young (for a composer) age of 52. The son of a welder and teacher, MacMillan’s childhood included study of piano and trumpet. He began composing at an early age, and by secondary school already had a penchant for the sounds of Renaissance church music. Eventually making his way to undergraduate work at Edinburgh University, he passed on the opportunity of the more focused conservatory life for the broader experience offered in the university setting.

This early choice is indicative of MacMillan’s interest in a wider appreciation of the language of music, a trait which informs much of his writing. Like his British predecessor Benjamin Britten, he composes compelling vocal melodies with rich choral arrangements with ease. And like Debussy, he possesses an evocative musical vocabulary which allows him great latitude in his compositional structures. Perhaps not coincidentally he shares with both of those composers an enthusiasm for the sounds of the East Asian hammered-bell instrument called the gamelan, which sometimes overtly, other times more subtly, finds its way into his music. That is not to say that his music shares the trance-like meditative quality of much of the music of East. He infuses an intensity into his scores, one which reflects the fundamental struggle between good and evil inherent in the human drama.

Against the fad, with the grain

Though his early writings include Marxist leanings from liberation theology, MacMillan admits in his more recent interviews that he is a “lapsed lefty.” MacMillan has been courageous in confronting the “liberal assumption” that is often militantly and sneeringly guarded by captains of the “Arts élite.” Growing up in a community that he regarded as often hostile to his Catholic religion and its community, MacMillan knows the struggle of living in contradiction to the majority around him.


Not surprisingly this theological approach informs much of his vocal writing as well. His earliest musical memories are of the ritual of the Mass and the balance of his considerable list of works leans heavily toward sacred choral, and often specifically liturgical, music. He has composed prayers and cantatas, motets and Masses with a brilliant use of harmonic tension and resolution. Much of this vocal music exudes a haunting quality found in the work of other contemporary sacred composers, like the well-known work of Arvo Pärt and John Tavener.

A “Newman” Mass

But with Pope Benedict’s visit to the United Kingdom James MacMillan rose to a broader prominence, reaching a new audience. His “Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman” was commissioned to be used twice during the weekend, once in Scotland and a second time for the beatification in England. Additionally his “Tu es Petrus” was the played for the Pontiff’s processional during the Mass at Westminster Abbey and his “Gospel Fanfare” was played as well.

A relatively last-minute commission, the Newman Mass nearly didn’t happen. […]

Read the rest there.


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  1. An American Mother says:

    Good music. We’ve sung a couple of his motets, and when the Westminster Cathedral choir toured here they sang parts of one of his Masses. He is rather like Tavener (but easier to sing).

  2. Supertradmum says:

    I like Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. and I thought the Newman Mass was a lot better than music from the ubiquitous (over here) Bernadette Farrell and Christopher Walker settings, the latter who was at Clifton Cathedral when I was a student and teacher in Bristol. As to the music being as good as Britten or the like of Purcell, Byrd, Monteverdi, well…not in my mind. Maybe the trend will be back to more classical forms.

  3. An American Mother says:

    I agree — he’s not in the league of the greatest English composers.
    Britten was an odd bird, but he had flashes of genius. He’s not in the Byrd-Purcell-Tallis league either.
    What we’re seeing is a sliding scale, as the rigorous musical education provided to Byrd’s generation has disappeared. Britten had some but not all the tools for his work, but MacMillan has had to rediscover them pretty much on his own. They don’t even teach counterpoint anymore in most music schools!
    Our choirmaster is an excellent composer, you should hear him rant about the deficiencies of modern music schools!

  4. Christine says:

    Does anyone have a link to any of his music for the Mass?

  5. It occurs to me that, if one’s acquaintance with the guitar were limited to its use by country singers and two-fingered Catholic liturgists, he might be amazed to read at the bottom of such a sensitive and well-informed piece of musical criticism that it was written by a “Texas guitarist”.

  6. VexillaRegis says:

    MacMillan’s music is undoubtedly of much much higher quality than most of the newer stuff that is played and sung in many Catholic churches. However I don’t think he belongs to the musical “nobility” where you find composers like Arvo Pärt.

    Did you read the rest of the article in CWR? I almost choked, when I read, that this Mass was reviewed by a music committee in the “Spirit of Vat II” and not found pastoral enough and that there were complaints, that it needed a competent organist!!!! Every Mass needs a competent organist, for heavens sake!

    Sorry, please excuse this biased musician :-) The organ is the King of instruments, ha!

  7. scotus says:

    ‘his first stop was Glasgow’

    Edinburgh ain’t going to like that, although I suppose it all depends on what you mean by ‘stop’.

  8. asophist says:

    Lest anybody think ecumenism has gone as far as a papal mass in Westminster Abbey as the above article by Kevin McCormick implies, I feel the urge to point out that the papal mass took place at Westminster Cathedral – an entirely different venue. The Abbey, though built Catholic (dating back to the 11th century), has been in the hands of the protestant Church of England since the time of Henry VIII, whereas the Cathedral is (and has been since it’s inception) Catholic, being a beautiful Byzantine-style structure built in the 19th century. I hope and pray for the day a truly Catholic Mass actually is celebrated in Westminster Abbey once again.

  9. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Thank you for this!

    The first of his works I heard was The World’s Ransoming, about which he says, “The World’s Ransoming focuses on Maundy Thursday and its musical material includes references to plainsongs for that day, Pange lingua and Ubi caritas as well as a Bach chorale (Ach wie nichtig) which I have heard being sung in the eucharistic procession to the altar of repose.”

    And now (excuse my repeating, if it has already been noted here, and I missed it!) I just learned of the recent discovery – or rather identification – by Barry Cooper of Beethoven’s harmonization from c. 1820 of Tantum Ergo!

    It’s premiere is loaded on YouTube by universitymanchester under

    Lost Beethoven hymn – Pange Lingua

    with a link to a note with the details of identification, etc. In that, Professor Cooper says, “Gregorian chant was sung much slower in those days, so it’s striking that he used the same slow chordal style for the Opus 132 quartet written in 1825. I believe this is the first time he did this.”

    That, in turn, without anyone being conscious of it previously, makes a connexion with T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, which he deliberately related to Beethoven’s late quartets!

    Incidentally, I cannot find anything about the music of grandpa Lodewijk van Beethoven (1712-73), the Flemish Kapellmeister in Bonn – has none of his service music survived?

    With Advent in mind, I note that some of MacMillan’s Veni, veni, Emmanuel is loaded on YouTube (I presume legally, by the performer, Ben Runkel), though none, alas, on Dame Evelyn Glennie’s channel.

    With respect

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