Proms premiere – Sir James MacMillan: Symphony no.4


Sir James MacMillan

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Donald Runnicles (Prom 24)

Duration: 40 minutes

BBC iPlayer link


Meanwhile a full score of the piece can be viewed here (log-in needed)

What’s the story behind the piece?

It is always a bold move for a contemporary composer to write a new symphony, because that form seems to indicate a really major piece. However in the case of Sir James MacMillan that’s exactly what the Symphony no.4 is, a massive single movement for orchestra that the composer has dedicated to Donald Runnicles as a 60th birthday present.

The conductor describes it as having an ‘ancient and modern’ feel. The ancient is MacMillan’s quotes from much older music, and in particular the Mass Dum sacrum mysterium of the Scottish composer Robert Carver (c1485-1570) – an homage to an important figure in his musical development. There are “echoes of plainsong and chorales floating in the background”.

When discussing the piece on the radio broadcast beforehand, MacMillan talks of the importance of ‘music as ritual’. He says this is more an abstract work but still has a sense of that ritual. In an interview with The Scotsman MacMillan speaks of how the work became a symphony:

MacMillan also speaks warmly of his relationship with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, who gave the first performance of his breakthrough piece The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at the Proms in 1990 under their then chief conductor Jerzy Maksymiuk. He talked of how he has got to know the people as characters rather than the instruments they play.

Did you know?

MacMillan is an avid Glasgow Celtic fan.

Initial verdict

With such a big piece it is difficult to appraise a symphony on first go. But the effect of hearing the Carver early on is striking, as it wends its way slowly through the busier orchestral accompaniment, as though the orchestra is processing into the room.
The undulating string passage at 8:12 on the link above bears Sibelius’ influence and is purely outdoor music, but gradually the strings cluster together in pitch. Then the attention turns to brighter treble sounds, with clarinets and brass occupying some higher pitches and sharp timbres. Then the drums come in with a big thwack (from 16:10) and the music moves into a much faster section.

The reverential sections come back and contrast with the greater movement, and there is a passage at around 29:00 where the orchestra really comes together in a moment of glassy clarity, expressing a keenly felt and slightly sweetened emotion.

Then around the 30:50 mark the piece would seem to have found a defining tonality of D minor, part of a slower coda that really hits the heights of emotion with the strings from 35:00.

From 37:45 there is a very ominous driving force at work, the bass drum powering the music as though driving home a great stake until the music cuts to the glistening rattle of a triangle, showing at first hand one of MacMillan’s great strengths, his mastery of orchestral colour. Then the piece builds with a massive gathering of orchestral power, cutting again to liquid percussion sounds and bells, an extraordinary effect, before a last chord dies away.
The Fourth Symphony does come across as a very spiritual work, and it carries a weighty emotional impact. One I look forward to hearing again!

Second hearing


Where can I hear more?

Further exploration of Sir James MacMillan’s music is carried out by the BBC here:

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