Talking Heads: Sir James MacMillan

Music has had an important role to play in the celebration of Christmas for as long as we can remember. In spite of the enormous choice of repertoire available, however, new works continue to be created, the inspiration never waning – and the next premiere is less than a week away as we write.

It is a major work, too – Sir James MacMillan filling a whole concert with his Christmas Oratorio. Written in 2019, it had a European premiere in Amsterdam in January 2020, and was due for performance by the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra later the same year. For sadly predictable reasons that did not happen, but happily MacMillan is now ready for the UK premiere at the Royal Festival Hall.

Arcana hooked up with the composer via Zoom at his North Ayrshire home, to find out more – and began by asking him for the first experiences of Christmas music he could recall. “The magic of Christmas was the music for me I suppose, going back even to the days before I was involved in music. Hearing the carols at school, and the church, and the home, amongst families, with the piano being played, are all very early memories. I loved it at school especially, and then gradually we were ushered into actually singing and performing the music. I would be pressed into service eventually to accompany some of the carols in the class, and that sort of thing.”

Were there any particular pieces that made a strong impression? “The usual ones or the popular ones, but I always remember it was the Advent carols that got me really excited, as that was the indication that Christmas was coming. It was things like O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and a few other children’s carols. I was at a children’s Catholic school, and there was a lot of that kind of thing covered in the way that the school ran.”

Recalling the first piece of Christmas music he composed proves a little trickier. “I do remember as a teenager being asked to write a setting of one of the Isaiah texts for a singer. It was one of the teachers at the school, who sang it at a local Christmas concert. I would have been around 16 or 17, and I’ve lost the music for that. There isn’t a lot of Christmas music in the catalogue, as most composers get asked to write more music associated with Passiontide If anything. There is an issue perhaps that there isn’t enough Christmas music, as it’s not necessarily the kind of liturgical area that composers get drawn to, which is a pity because there’s a lot to be done! There’s a couple of little things in my catalogue written as a student, and Ex Cathedra asked me to write something a couple of years together which got me going.”

The Christmas Oratorio is a much larger piece – billed, like Bach, as a celebration of Christmas? “I think so. On the basis of what I’ve just said about the lack of Christmas music, my mind turned towards trying to fill the gap in a substantial way. In my discussions with the LPO in the early days, I had flagged up the idea that at some stage I would like to write a big Christmas piece. It had been in my mind for some time. I’ve written two passion settings already, and quite a lot of my music already relates to that point in the liturgical calendar, and it just seemed to be a big, empty space that needed to be filled. The LPO picked up on it and liked the idea, and they gave me carte blanche to produce a very substantial piece. It’s a full evening’s programme, in fact.”

The compositional process, as he recounts it, seems remarkably straightforward. “The next stage was what text do I set, what forces do I use, and it became clear that the chorus should be used quite substantially as well as the orchestra. Then I thought about soloists. Once those practical considerations were made and in place, the next question was what do I give to the different choral groups? The way it worked out was that I decided on a mixture of early English poetry, mostly given to the two soloists, liturgical texts in Latin associated with liturgy and scripture given to the chorus, largely, and then these orchestral interludes. All are inspired by the memories of Bach cantatas, and the sinfonias. A pattern emerged by starting and ending each half with a sinfonia, and using a palindromic structure, with arias for the soprano and baritone, choral items and a central tableau in each part to bring everybody together on a big gospel narrative, a New Testament text.”

At every point the composer had his eye on the bigger structure. “When I began to break it down and look at all the constituent parts, the question was how to build it up into a coherent structure, one that was replicated from part one to part two.” This multi-layered approach would seem to suit audience involvement. “When I did the performance in January, we went over to Amsterdam and did it live on Dutch radio. There was no audience, but I was able to prepare the piece and perform it knowing that there were people listening. I got a sense of how it was stitching together and how the different sections related to each other. I’m pleased with how the different movements complement each other, and how they go from Latin to English, from one aspect of the story to another, in very different ways. The instrumental commentaries stand back from the drama of the storytelling and allow a reflection of either serenity, joy or exultation.”

It might seem odd performing a Christmas work in January, but this proved surprisingly natural for MacMillan. “In essence it’s still part of the season”, he explains. “In Holland and Germany especially, they keep their Christmas trees up until early February. The key thing is to keep the decorations up to the Feast of the Presentation. In European terms there is still something of the Christmas character alive at that time, although we Brits have flat packed our decorations away! It was odd stepping back, but any excuse for live music making was happily received.”

MacMillan took an approach that was aware of what other composers have written for Christmastime, but one presence especially loomed large. “When I’m writing these big pieces, I’m certainly aware of antecedents and models established by great employers in the past. As far as the Passions were concerned when I was writing them it was very much the Bach passions that stuck in my mind, but sometimes it’s more of a hindrance than a help, and it’s trying to put all of that out of one’s mind. Nevertheless, the pattern was there, and the model was set in the Bach Christmas Oratorio, which was very much in my mind. Bach is an inescapable ghost, he hovers over all our shoulders. It certainly has been the case with me as I’ve written these big liturgical pieces.”

The composer has been writing more for choir of late, part of a general resurgence for choral music in the last few years. “That’s true. My background as a young musician was in instrumental music. I was a brass player, I played in brass bands as well as school and university orchestras. I did have some choral involvement as a teenager at high school, and that was that was a very important experience for me. I sang and conducted a lot of choral music as an undergraduate. There was something about a general thrust in modernism especially at that time – the 1970s and 1980s – which emphasised instrumental music over choral music, and certainly over vocal music. It’s probably because modernism valued that kind of extreme virtuosity that instrumentalists were able to achieve. When you look at the great modernists, composers of that time, even their vocal music looks and sounds instrumental, for instance the Berio Sequenza for voice.”

He continues. “Even the choral music of Webern and Schoenberg, going back into the early part of the 20th century, it’s very instrumentally crafted. I was exposed to early polyphony, and the Bach cantatas, and then more modern music that I regard as really important by British composers like Benjamin Britten. You see that there is a different way of imagining the choir and the kind of muscle memory of choral singing that has been kept alive in the British tradition. I grafted myself on to that. Britten was a great composer and there are these other great British composers that keep the choral tradition alive. It’s partly through the church experience and experience of the great English cathedrals in particular, but it’s also the local choral unions and choral societies.”

The tradition reaches well beyond professional singers. “The whole amateur way of working has kept the choral flame alive, and it is a very important part of the musical ecology of these islands. There is that love of choral music which is very deeply embedded into the amateur experience as. As that grew in me, I decided to start writing more and more choral music. And the other thing that has to be said, is that as a young composer in the 1970s in particular, I and many others didn’t see the rise of those fabulous English choral ensembles that have become much more prominent in recent years.”

He name-checks a few examples. “Those are The Sixteen, Tenebrae and Polyphony, The Marian Ensemble and other new groups that are making music of a very, very high standard, and increasingly, incrementally higher standards. This is a very exciting time, not just for British choral singing, but for those of us who value choral music. You’re beginning to see that these groups are commissioning and getting living composers to write for them, and they’re being programmed alongside early music, which makes sense. A brand new piece of 21st century music sits alongside music from the past, and all audiences seem to be at ease with that and seem to see it as a natural complement.”

It is an approach which, to your interviewer at least, makes the early music feel current while the new music gains a historical perspective, the two meeting in the middle. Talking of new music, and MacMillan’s work nurturing new composers, does he have any pointers for the next generation? “Yes. Very recently I’ve been involved in a mentoring process along with The Sixteen and Genesis Sixteen, set up by the Genesis Foundation and directed by Harry Christophers. I’ve worked with them the last seven or eight years now. The last tranche of three composers I met and worked with just a few weeks ago, and Genesis Sixteen brought the course up to Scotland for the first time. There was a Scottish composer, Lisa Robertson, who I have mentored before in choral music at the University of St. Andrews, and also in orchestral music. She’s an all-rounder in that sense, a very gifted young composer. There was an Irish composer, Eoghan Desmond, a very gifted composer, and Anna Semple was the third, a very fine composer too. We workshopped their music – three works in progress, but close to completion. Eventually The Sixteen will take on board the completed works, perform and record them.”

In the wake of the pandemic – be it ending or ongoing – has MacMillan’s approach to composition altered at all? “The only difference I’ve noticed is that I’ve got on with more music writing. Some of our projects were brought forward, because a lot of the other things I do were just obliterated, and I had no contact with universities or students. In a sense I was able to get back to the day job. I wouldn’t say I was more focused on inspired than usual, but I suppose I was given more space to think about the music in more detail. I have written a lot – some choral, some orchestral, some chamber music, which I’m writing just now.”

He continued working with ensembles to. “I did a couple of things with orchestras, because as you know, choirs were shut down. I got to work with the LPO on a mentoring course, but not to a live audience. We recorded the process of rehearsal and performance with several young composers, and I did a Radio 3 recording with the BBC Concert Orchestra. I did filmed concerts with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, too, and I eventually got to conduct them with a live audience, which was wonderful. It’s just a great thrill to get back to the live concert.”

Does he get nervous before a premiere such as the Christmas Oratorio? “I can never tell before just how nervous I’ll be. Sometimes I’m placidly calm, other times, I’m really on edge, and there’s no single factor determining how I’m going to be.”

Turning back to the music, I ask if it is important with composition to express the importance of being Scottish, and MacMillan’s Catholic faith? “It’s part of my DNA in different ways, part of the given circumstances of who I am. When I was younger, I got involved with Scottish traditional music. I played and sung with folk bands, and I did feel at the time as if it was a kind of absorption process, deliberately trying to absorb the experience of what it was to perform Scottish traditional music with an eye on how it might transform itself into the music I was writing. I was aware that that was an ongoing process, but performing Scottish folk music was a very important experience that had a knock-on effect on some of the music that I made. I don’t do that anymore. Perhaps the experience of Scottish traditional music is much more kind of underground, subconscious rather than conscious.”

He takes more time to consider. “There is perhaps an analogy there with the religious thing. There were times in the past where I thought more consciously and more anxiously about what it meant to engage with religion in modern music, and now I don’t think about it as it’s become much more part of the natural pattern. It’s what I do, it’s who I am. I will write lots of pieces with settings of sacred text, but then I will turn my hand to something else that has nothing to do with text or directly theological considerations.”

Does that make for a stronger connection with the audience, music that is part of MacMillan himself rather than consciously signposted? “That would be good if it was the case! I feel I have a lot in common with my audiences regardless of whether they are Scottish or English, Brazilian or Russian!” You do tend to meet people who love music as much as I do, who will use almost quasi spiritual language to account for the impact of music on their lives. Those are sometimes deeply sceptical people when it comes to religious matters, but it’s an acknowledgement that there’s something about music which is bigger than who we are, and perhaps it does point to a spiritual dimension in the art form.”

Finally, a completely different subject – craft beer! James has been sampling some during lockdown, so does he have any tips to pass on to a likeminded enthusiast? “I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, I’m very much a dilettante, finding things as I go. I keep meeting people who know much more about it than I do. I did manage to get to the States during the summer and ended up in Vermont, where the local craft beers are just wonderful, if a whole lot stronger! After a few of them you’ve had an experience, put it that way!”

James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio will be performed at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 4 December at the Royal Festival Hall, and then again on Sunday 5 December at Saffron Hall. Sir Mark Elder will conduct the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, with soloists Lucy Crowe (soprano) and Roderick Williams (baritone)

For ticket information, click here for the Royal Festival Hall and here for Saffron Hall. Meanwhile you can find a web guide to MacMillan’s choral music from his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, here

Music for Burns Night

Here is an Arcana playlist for Burns Night! Made up of Scottish classical music and settings of the poet, it is a mixture of vocal and instrumental music that will hopefully give an idea of the breadth of responses to Robert Burns and his poetry – not to mention his own songwriting. Make sure you serve with haggis, neaps and tatties, and a warming whisky…

Wigmore Mondays – Alec Frank-Gemmill & Alasdair Beatson: John Casken world premiere

Horn player Alec-Frank Gemill and pianist Alasdair Beatson give the world premiere of a new work by John Casken at the Wigmore Hall

alec-frank-gemmillWigmore Hall, London, 1 February 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window) – available until 3 March

What’s the music?

James MacMillan – Motet V from ‘Since it was the day of Preparation’ (for solo horn) (2010-11) (8 minutes)

Beethoven – Horn Sonata in F major Op. 17 (1800) (16 minutes)

John Casken – Serpents of Wisdom (world première, 2015) (12 minutes)

Schumann – Adagio and Allegro in A flat major Op. 70 (1849) (9 minutes)


Unfortunately neither the MacMillan nor the Casken pieces are available to stream at present. However you can hear the Beethoven and Schumann on the link here:

About the music

There is a pleasing amount of recent music written for the solo horn – and Alec-Frank Gemmill begins this concert with an extract from a much larger work by Sir James MacMillan. Since it was the day of Preparation… is a large, 70-minute piece using texts from St John’s Gospel – but within it are sections for solo instruments from the ensemble, using the sort of structure a composer like Benjamin Britten would have employed. A substantial one of these, for solo horn, is heard here.

John Casken wrote Serpents of Wisdom for this concert and these players, and was inspired by the imagery of a serpent primarily through the poem Celtic Cross by Norman MacCaig. As he wrote he was taken through the idea of a musical representation of the coils of brass that make up the horn. Through the piece he uses some unusual effects such as natural harmonics, which make the horn sound out of tune but are intended.

Beethoven wrote one of the very first sonatas for horn and piano, a three-movement construction that he started – and finished – the day before giving it in concert with the horn player known as Giovanni Punto. Meanwhile Schumann’s only work for horn and piano, the Adagio and Allegro, was written for a member of the Dresden Court Orchestra. It has been a little unfairly taken on by viola and cello players, and is more commonly heard in that version. Reverting to horn and piano enables us to hear why the theme for the Allegro works so well in its original form.

Performance verdict

A pleasant change for a Monday lunchtime from the Wigmore Hall – the first horn recital they have programmed at such a time for years. It was made all the better by the choice of a world premiere, and by the artistry of Alec Frank-Gemmill and Alasdair Beatson, an exciting duo fully justifying their billing as young musicians well worth experiencing live.

Frank-Gemmill is a really excellent player, and took on the Casken with impressive belief and skill. While clearly not an easy piece to play it made a powerful impression – equally so in the piano part, where Beatson had to work hard with some tricky passage work. Although inspired by the coils of brass, Casken’s piece often felt to me as though it was craggy in outline, and while its impression was largely gruff and unforgiving, there were some surprisingly tender asides.

The MacMillan was a striking piece, clearly in homage to Britten – and reminiscent of some of his writing for Dennis Brain – but also showing how it is possible to write quietly for the horn without losing any expression. Frank-Gemmill managed the low notes brilliantly here.

The Beethoven and Schumann were much more conventional but equally enjoyable. Beethoven writes for the horn without any inhibitions and there was plenty of gusto in the outer movements of this performance. The Schumann is a glorious piece, a true musical evocation of happiness, though this account did not completely lift itself off the printed page. No matter, for the new pieces had already left a lasting imprint – and an encore, Glazunov’s Rêverie, made for a lovely finish.

What should I listen out for?


1:41 – MacMillan’s piece has a soft and reverential opening which gives the piece a tonality and also a very low main note, which makes a lovely sound on the horn.

The melody has the appearance of plainchant, and gradually it grows in breadth and confidence. Then around 7:20 the music takes a confrontational approach, whooping excitedly and going all the way up to a remarkably high note at 8:04 – before its relatively calm finish.


11:58 – a brief yet quite understated fanfare from the horn begins the work – and it receives ample support from the more graceful piano theme behind it. A thoughtful second theme is heard at 12:55 before the first section of the first movement is repeated at 14’29. After a short development we hear the main tune once again at 18:15, and the second theme – now in the same key as the main one – at 18:59.

21:04 – a slower movement that begins with a soft and slightly sad air – but it doesn’t last long, as essentially it serves as a long introduction to the final movement, beginning at…

22:30 – quite an angular main tune for this movement, which proceeds in high spirits. The main theme comes back again, signs off brilliantly around 27:27


29:39 – a brisk start, energetic too. The first of the ‘natural’ notes is heard at 30:13 – you can hear it is out of tune but it is meant to be. The slower music at 30:44 is brooding and paints a relatively austere picture. As the music gets quieter the horn turns to the mute.

There is then an extended piece of writing with impressive energy and stature from the horn, which is required to perform a number of very difficult tasks, usually in cahoots with the piano, which itself has a jagged outline to its music. A slower section runs around 38:30, but then the piece gathers itself for a big finish at 40:15.


42:42 – a slow and romantic Adagio, led by the horn, which is largely graceful but has some tricky high notes. This leads into the exuberant Allegro at 46:59. This has a tricky theme with a wide range.


53:19 – as a soft-hearted encore the pair play the Rêverie in D flat major by Glazunov, which is a warm piece, even when it reaches the depths at 54:55. (4 minutes)

Further listening

This very fine disc from Richard Watkins, on the NMC label, brings together writing for horn from a number of highly respected modern composers, among them Gerald Barry, Peter Maxwell Davies, Robin Holloway, Colin Matthews, David Matthews, Mark Anthony Turnage and Huw Watkins. You can listen here:

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:

Vaughan Williams and Sir James MacMillan – Oboe Concertos


Nicholas Daniel teams up with the Britten Sinfonia and Harmonia Mundi to present the recorded premiere of the Oboe Concerto by the recently knighted Sir James MacMillan. He couples this with a much shorter piece by the composer, One, and another British oboe concerto, the well-loved Vaughan Williams. Completing a varied cross-section of styles is Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes (A Time There Was), his final completed orchestral work.

What’s the music like?

MacMillan has written a bold Oboe Concerto, a substantial work lasting nearly 25 minutes that makes great technical demands on its soloist. It is a rewrite of an earlier piece for oboe and orchestra, In Angustiis, which responded to the horrors of 9/11. While the piece is essentially optimistic in tone, these thoughts can be felt in the second movement, essentially a lament, where the strings sigh painfully, and in a moment of deep thought that occurs towards the end of the first movement – in complete contrast to the jaunty, angular main material.

Vaughan Williams’ concerto is a lovely piece, its dreamy first theme coloured with strings to evoke a picture of hazy sunshine. Completed in 1944, it is a largely positive work in the face of the Second World War, especially in the third movement, where a dance plays out between oboe and strings.

Britten’s suite, as with so many of his orchestral works, is a model of economy, saying in fifteen minutes what many lesser composers would do in 25. It is extremely resourceful in its use of ten folk tunes, but it is also tinged with pain, the composer aware that he is in his last days – and this is felt in Daniel’s cor anglais solo in the tune Lord Melbourne.

One, the second MacMillan piece here also shows his love for his home country, based on a single, arching tune based on the traditional song of Scotland and Ireland.

Does it all work?

Nicholas Daniel is one of our finest oboists, and although even he admits to difficulties in learning the part for the MacMillan his playing is absolutely superb. The energy of that work contrasts with the soulful Vaughan Williams, an affectionate performance where the slightly reduced forces of the Britten Sinfonia (in comparison to a full scale orchestra) mean more detail can be heard and enjoyed. Turning his hand to a conducting role, Daniel teases out Britten’s subtle affection for folk tunes through the relative darkness of illness.

Is it recommended?

Yes – and how satisfying to listen to such a substantial contemporary piece for oboe, which could hardly have a better advocate than it does here.

With contrasting styles of music this disc is an unrestricted pleasure, and is recommended for all fans of classical music from these shores.

Listen on Spotify

This disc can be heard here: