Scotland, Suffering, and Silence: An Interview with Sir James MacMillan

Sir James MacMillan (Photo: Philip Gatward)
The pre-eminent Scottish composer discusses themes from his memoir: music, religion, and coming to terms with the tragic loss of his granddaughter.

Sir James MacMillan (b. 1959) is the pre-eminent Scottish composer of his generation. From humble beginnings in Cumnock, a small mining town in the east of Scotland, he went on to attend Edinburgh and Durham universities and first attracted critical acclaim with his celebrated BBC Proms premiere of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (1990). Since then, his concertos, symphonies, operas, and choral works have been performed by the world’s best soloists, choirs, and orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra and the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics.

In 2010, he was commissioned to write the music for Pope Benedict’s English visit and Masses at Westminster Cathedral, and he received Britain’s highest honor in 2015 when he was knighted by the queen. From nationalism to the transcendent, MacMillan is deeply engaged with contemporary political and philosophical questions, and his recent works — including A European Requiem, Stabat Mater for The Sixteen, a Trombone Concerto for Jörgen van Rijen with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the armistice oratorio All the Hills and Vales Along, first heard at the Cumnock Tryst festival founded by the composer in his Scottish hometown — are illustrative of this.

Both MacMillan’s Catholic faith and the life and loss of his multi-handicapped granddaughter Sara Maria (March 31, 2010–January 5, 2016) have had profound influences on his work. Here, with National Review’s Madeleine Kearns, MacMillan discusses these themes, which he writes about in his recent memoir A Scots Song: A Life of Music.

Madeleine Kearns: I often tell people that, compared with America, Scotland isn’t a small country — it’s a tiny country. Perhaps illustrative of this is that, not only did I grow up singing your music, but I went to school with your kids. I remember, in 2009, you wrote a song for our school choir, “Serenity.” I think that’s a good place for us to start this discussion since — set to two religious texts, Reinhold Niebuhr’s “serenity prayer,” and St. Thomas Aquinas’s “O Salutaris Hostia,” and featuring signature Scottish sounds (e.g., Scotch snaps and a pedal drone), and written to be performed by amateurs — it is, I think, representative of your musical style. But don’t let me put words in your mouth! How would you describe your musical style?

Sir James MacMillan: Well, it’s quite a wide-ranging style. I’ve absorbed a lot of influences over the years, including a lot of modernist influences from the 20th century. But as I get older, I find myself increasingly coming back to certain traditions. Theology has always been a big interest for me and has always fed into my music one way or another. Not just in the little, quasi-liturgical pieces like “Serenity,” that you mentioned, but even in big pieces like symphonies and oratorios. My fifth symphony has just premiered at the Edinburgh Festival, and it’s a massive big thing for two choirs and orchestra, exploring the mystery of the Holy Spirit. So there was a lot of range there to really dig deep, in purely musical ways but also philosophical and theological ways as well.

MK: You say that you first realized your love for music thanks to your grandfather, who, like my great-grandfather, was a coal miner. Can you help explain for our American readers how we Scots are invested in ideas of class and aspiration?

SJM: Yes. My grandfather, probably like your great-grandfather, valued culture. My grandfather was under the ground, hacking coal for 50 years. What a terrible life, in a way. But he lived for music. His dreams were about music. He played the euphonium in local bands with other coal miners. He sang in the local Catholic church choir, at quite a good level, during the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s. And he was always finding out about music and musicians. He loved singers and some of the great classical and other singers of the day, including people like Paul Robson. When I was a little boy, I’d find all these pieces of music and scores lying about the house, and some of them belonged to my mother. She played the Chopin piano etudes and bits of Beethoven sonatas. So, all that music was in the house, but then there was this other stuff: four-part motets, usually in sort of old-fashioned 19th-century editions. And these had come from my grandfather.

But he wasn’t just an isolated individual. There were whole communities like that. He lived with other men and women who shared that same desire to engage with culture. Both practically as singers and players, but also in the learning that’s involved in it and hearing music and finding out about the lives of composers. And that engagement with classical culture was there in working-class communities. In some ways that is not there today. The working classes of old in Scotland had a thirst for knowledge and learning, which unfortunately you could see might be on the wane. . . .

MK: Well, you’ve anticipated my next question. Do you worry that classical music is now seen as almost exclusively for “high culture,” while pop and folk are seen as almost exclusively for “low culture”?

SJM: Yes, I suppose that I’m worried about it. Though people have been talking about the demise of classical music for well over a hundred years, and people have been talking about its class basis for probably longer. Going back to Mozart and Haydn’s time: The class nature of musical engagement was far, far worse than it is now. We’ve come a long way, and we are instilling, generation to generation, with a deeper engagement with people who were from poorer backgrounds, if you like.

It was a particularly good crop with people like my grandfather, and it might have become problematic a bit in recent years, but we’ve always got to be wary and indulge in a little bit of activism. So, pushing the boat out and taking music — a serious musical culture — into schools, into communities that might not get in immediate engagement with it. And I’ve been involved in that kind of activism for all my life. And the Cumnock Tryst, this new festival I’ve set up, is an extension of that. It has grown out of that desire to make music palpable and real and vital in communities that you would not normally expect it to be.

MK: You write that “there is a profound melancholic sigh in much British musical modernism that can be traced back some generations.” I’m glad you wrote that, because I think modernism is underrated by many cultural conservatives, which is odd given that many modernist composers, artists, and writers were actually conservative in their pursuits: at least, when you think of it as reforming to conserve. Could you say more about that?

SJM: Yes. Composers have to be schooled in a deep-seated tradition and learn skills that go back not just generations but centuries. So, you find that even the most thrusting, cutting-edge modernists have a deep knowledge of musical history, and a respect for musical history, and indeed the values and worlds that produced those traditions, including religion.

That kind of culture-war stuff that you get sometimes in the other arts just doesn’t really appear in the world of music, because there’s this deep knowledge, respect, understanding, and learning about the art of music. For that reason, you find lots of composers who are all over the place politically, but on many things you could say that they are conserving an ancient craft, an ancient tradition. They’re deeply plugged into the roots and in ways that sometimes other artists and other media are not.

MK: You’re a Catholic — and we’ll get on to discussing how that influences your life and work in a minute — but, for now, what did it mean to be a Catholic growing up in Scotland in the 1960s and ’70s? And what does it mean, do you think, to grow up Catholic in Scotland now?

SJM: I was thinking about this recently, about how it is different. I’d be interested to hear what you have to say, but that sense of slight isolation within a subculture that we had in the ’60s and ’70s isn’t really there as much, certainly not for my kids. They’re much more fluid in Scottish society than we were. I mean, there’s been a lot of talk over the years about sectarianism and prejudice and so on. And that certainly was part and parcel of the whole culture of growing up as a Catholic in the ’60s and ’70s, though it has to be said that part of it was self-imposed. There was a way of the Catholic community, not closing down its social options as such, but keeping within itself — amongst your own. And every small, immigrant-based community will know what that feels like. I probably got the tail end of that internal isolation where Catholics did keep themselves to themselves for one reason or another. And so, going to a Protestant service was a big thing in the ’60s. And I had to get permission, too, once when I was a little boy from the local parish priest to go to an armistice service that involved the Cub Scouts.

But nowadays it’s not so much the Catholic–Protestant relations that are problematical. It’s something that Catholics in every country in the modern world would recognize as a problem. It’s become very countercultural to be a Catholic, because you just seem to be against the grain all the time. And that grain is an internationally recognized political correctness. So defending Catholic values when it comes to, say, the sanctity of life or the particular nature of Catholic love, for example, or sacramental marriage, and so on. It’s becoming more and more difficult for all Catholics because we’re besieged by a misconception of what our religion is, an ignorance of theology, perhaps. And so that tension is there for all of us, whatever Western country we’re in.

MK: As a young man, you leaned left politically. In fact, “leaned” might be underselling it a bit. You were, at one point I believe, a member of the Young Communist League. What’s interesting is that you seem now to consider this phase to be a manifestation of your religious instinct, which later would bring you back in communion with the Church. For instance, you describe Marxism as an “anti-religious religion.” Can you say more on that?

SJM: Oh, yes. In fact, when I did join the Young Communist League when I was a teenager, that was a long while ago, I didn’t stop practicing the faith. And that sometimes baffles people, because they see them as being antithetical, and I suppose — in fact, I know — they most certainly are. But there was, I suppose, an interest in just finding out stuff at the time. And there was a kind of a dialogue beginning to arise then, which hasn’t been very fruitful, between the Church and the Left. Usually the Church loses out in these dialogues: They get used and abused. They become useful fools to the secular Left. So I became aware of that. But certainly, I was always aware that there was a sort of parallelism between the ideals of the gospel, especially the defense of the poor, and certain strains in the Left. It might be simplistic to draw too many analogies, but that’s what I did, and that’s what many people did at the time, and sometimes still do.

But I grew away from the Left gradually. It wasn’t a Damascus experience; it was a gradual thing. And one thing after the other just sort of faded away. I wouldn’t say I’ve gone to the Right; no, I wouldn’t say that. I would say that I’ve lost my youthful certainties when it comes to an anti-religious religion like Marxism.

MK: What are your current political priorities? I’m thinking of Scotland in particular: domestic policies, culture, independence, and then, obviously the big one at the moment, Brexit.

SJM: Well, I mean, yes, I’ve got views on all these things — most people do. But I’m much more cautious about expressing them now. And that’s partly because I’m kind of all over the place from one issue to the next. So it’s not an easy thing to describe. Of course, I have views on how taxes should be used and how they should be raised. And I’m in favor of a kind of fiscal caution when it comes to the economy and that sort of thing. But why should anybody bother what a composer thinks about the economy? For that reason, I’m not going to waste people’s time with my views.

And in Scotland, of course, we have that very divisive and toxic independence referendum some years ago. And I, at the time, did come out in favor of one side rather than the other. And in some ways, I regret it, because its toxicity was just too severe. As you know, it’s an issue that divided families; it ended friendships. And I certainly regret that, although my views haven’t changed. So, when I saw this other referendum coming down the tracks a few years later, I vowed not to get involved and not to say anything about it — certainly not publicly. And I’ve maintained that, and I’m quite pleased that I have.

MK: I don’t blame you. Okay, back to religion. Our friend George Weigel has described Catholicism as “an optic, a way of seeing things, a distinctive perception of reality.” As a comprehensive, unsentimental — and, to borrow from Flannery O’Connor — “habit of being.” I’d perhaps add that there’s no opt-out box: Even Catholics who no longer live as Catholics still think like Catholics, whether they like it or not. What do you think is so distinct about the Catholic imagination in music in particular?

SJM: Well, I mean, through the centuries, composers in the Catholic Church have been midwives to faith, because they have inspired the prayers of the faithful. They’ve set the prayers of the faithful to music, whether they’re sung by the ordinary people or sung by choirs, that would have been featured as part of the liturgy. So that umbilical link between music and religion, music and the faith, has always been there. And even in modernity, when that link has dissolved and the kind of master–servant relationship between the Church and composers has gone — nevertheless, in our own time, certainly over the last hundred years, and today, you can still see that composers are searching for the sacred in different ways. And some of them are conventionally religious, as well as others who are searchers who might do it more unconventionally.

When you think about it, though, there were some of the major composers of the 20th and the 21st century who were profoundly religious men and women of one stripe or another. I mentioned in the book, of course, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, who was Jewish, and John Cage — there’s a fascinating story about him, of course. And then composers like Olivier Messiaen, the great French composer, and other French composers, like Francis Poulenc, and many composers from behind what was the Iron Curtain. Immediately after the wall came down, it was clear that many of those artists were all profoundly religious. So, there’s obviously something going on in modernity that has linked the past with the present. And for Catholic composers these links are inescapable; they’ll never go away. They go back through the centuries.

MK: That’s interesting. I hadn’t been aware before of David Jones’s essay “Art and Sacrament,” which you cite in your memoir, and in which he argues that artists need a theology. You said that reading this was “a lightbulb moment” for you. Are you saying that all artists — religious or not, consciously or not — are partaking in something transcendent?

SJM: I would say that. Whether they would want to agree, especially in music, is another matter! But the thing is, even when worldviews divide artists and composers, especially in matters of religion — there is this calm meeting ground where we recognize certain truths about what we do. And that what we do as musicians and composers is searching for something beyond ourselves. To be honest, even some of the atheist colleagues I know would fall silent when that was said and realize that there’s something in it. We’re certainly dealing with an art form that opens us up to seeing ourselves as more than just the sum of our parts.

MK: One of the biggest stumbling blocks to faith for so many people is suffering. C. S. Lewis talked about this in The Problem of Pain. Your life has also been touched by tragedy. Your granddaughter, wee Sara Maria, who was so profoundly vulnerable in many ways, passed from this life in January 2016, shortly before her sixth birthday. I was blessed to be at the requiem Mass in Glasgow, where your stunning piece “Think of How God Loves You” was performed by members of Capella Nova, and where you gave a powerful eulogy on the inestimable worth of every human life — in particular, of those with special needs. [Sara had Dandy-Walker syndrome; she was blind, partially deaf, and immobile.]

On this, if I may, I’d like to ask two related questions. First, how has Sara’s life and death affected your faith? And second, how has she influenced your work?

SJM: Well. Let’s see. I think she’s had a huge impact on all of the family’s faith. It’s strange. A lot of people ask, Has that affected your faith detrimentally? A tragic loss like that, does it dent faith? People kind of half-expect you to lose your faith when that happens. But actually, it’s the exact opposite. First of all, your Catholicism kicks in. But it’s not just the whole community gets to work with you, but it’s that liturgy that you mentioned, that gives shape to suffering. It gives a kind of almost aesthetic and artistic shape through music and movement and text and poetry, etc. The suffering is transformed into something beautiful. And that’s what the Catholic faith does.

I think that, in that sense, our Catholicism was strengthened. One has to deal with doubts and tragedies all the time of one sort and another. But because Sara was who she was and what she was, and because she opened up an understanding of the essence of human life — the important things in human existence are not the money you make or the power you accrue, or the influence you bear — it is something which is embodied in a little [pause], in a little broken child, like Sara.

[Pause.] And that’s the kind of revelation of sorts that comes through a knowledge of what the Catholic Church teaches. And a teaching that is made incarnate in a very damaged wee girl. But a wee girl that brought tremendous joy, and I would say religious understanding, to her mother, and to the rest of us too. Is she there in the music? Yes. Within weeks of her dying, I was back at the desk, writing music, and I definitely knew something had changed. I can still feel that change now. It’s a very hard change to take — a kind of massive convulsion — that nevertheless, inescapably, has an impact on the music.

MK: Thanks. Okay. Final question. You wrote that “silence is almost extinct” now and say that this is a real problem, a war against the “interior life.” Isn’t that an odd thing for someone who makes sounds for a living to say?

SJM: Yes, very odd. Because music is all about noise, as you know. It’s all about sound. Hearing. The manipulation of sounds on the page and how it comes off the page and into the ether — off the page and into the air, physically. And then to somebody else’s ears and into their bodies. It’s a very physical and visceral thing. But composers throughout the generations have known that music begins in silence. Again, there’s an umbilical link between silence and music. It’s in the silence of our own thoughts and feelings that the beginnings of music germinate. And, therefore, there’s a great respect that composers have for silence. And a great dwelling on it, and a great reflection on it.

And an important aspect of our work is spending a lot of time in silence, especially at the beginnings of things. So, the silence that we carve out for ourselves, whether it’s in the countryside, where I currently live, and where it’s much easier and more conducive to work, or indeed in the big noisy cities where composers can still find their own ways to seek out that space. But it’s an absolutely necessary thing, I think — a preparatory ground for the music that eventually comes forth.

Madeleine Kearns is a staff writer at National Review and a visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.