Classical: A Passion for our troubled times

The Scottish composer James MacMillan has always found inspiration in the strength of his Catholic faith. So it is natural that his latest works, just released on CD, should form an Easter trilogy. Their spiritual appeal, however, is universal.owan
A time there was when God and music were so closely inter-related that it was often impossible to disassociate them. Could Bach's St Matthew Passion, Mozart's great Masses or Beethoven's Missa solemnis have happened without the presumed certainty of a Divine Being? Never. Could Bruckner have toiled long and hard over his symphonic monuments without employing the raw material of Divine Awe? Unthinkable. The question never occurred, because religious faith was an accepted prerequisite. Today, things are rather different. Mention music and religion, and the standard imagery is of an earthbound mix of acoustic guitars, gospel singing and swaying in the aisles.

More recently, higher vistas have revealed themselves through the spatially generous music of such composers as Tavener, Grecki, Part and Kancheli. Theirs are routes to contemplation, desolate or soothing, or both. But for the Scottish composer James MacMillan, contemplation is a near relation of spiritual confrontation. Christ becomes our contemporary and the Easter triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil shakes the world anew.

If you are in any doubt, then listen to his "Easter Trilogy", just released on the Swedish BIS label. This is no soft-option opiate, but a humbling response to a living narrative, profoundly honest in both its ecstasy and its outrage. The World's Ransoming delegates crucial material to the cor anglais; the Cello Concerto was written for - and premiered by - Rostropovich, and the 50-minute symphony Vigil was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra.

"The music would be something very different if it weren't for the specific inspiration of the Passion story" says MacMillan. "For me, these are the most important three days in the history of our world. They mark the interference in history by the Divine. I've been circling them, writing round them for years - and will probably continue to do so for the rest of my life."

MacMillan is a quietly spoken, football-loving Ayrshire lad who is due to hit 40 this July. He shot to prominence on the British music scene when his orchestral work The Confession of Isobel Gowdie scored a hit at the 1990 Proms, and has since gone on to win critical accolades worldwide. He confesses to a personal quest for perfection and maintains that "there is a red-hot necessity for a piece to exist only if it is truly perfect in itself. It's an unattainable goal, I know - but it's the one thing that keeps me wanting to write, and not just stopping to survey the success of my achievement to date."

When MacMillan composes, the scaffolding always comes first. He feels a need to build his ideas into a discernible dramatic structure; he also has to exert absolute control over his material, "otherwise it can become chaotic and the structure can be very flabby".

He is currently working on a 40-minute choral symphony that will involve the Westminster Cathedral Boys' Choir and the Hilliard Ensemble. Michael Symmons Roberts is providing the texts. "He's a kind of soul-mate in that we're interested in similar territories. I find his poetry very beautiful and very dense: every line opens up another staircase into something much deeper."

Although deeply religious, MacMillan is crucially aware that music happens in what he calls "a theologically neutral space", and that people come to his work without specific regard for its inspiration. "If the music communicates to them and they have no idea what it is that has caused it, then fine - as long as it communicates profoundly and powerfully. Then again, if listeners find out, in retrospect, the true nature of my inspiration, I think that the circle will have been completed."

He does not see his music as a proselytising force, however. "I am not here to preach theology," he insists, "but I am aware that because of the kind of person I am, theology - for the want of a better word - does interest me."

And yet it could be argued that MacMillan's music stands as a sort of sound-track to specific events in the spiritual history of the world. Or is that an excessively fanciful idea? "Absolutely!" he replies emphatically. "I'm a musician, and my music has to stand on its own two feet. In fact, I take a pride in the fact that music is the most abstract of the arts. At the fundamental level, it needs no explanation other than its own substance, its own parameters.

"On the other hand, I do believe that music is the most spiritual of the arts. It forges this connection with the hidden crevices between the relationship of the Divine and the human. It gets into those cracks and seems to speak directly to our dark, secret selves. We don't know exactly what it's saying, but we know it's relating something about our humanity. I've heard it described as the `deep arithmetic of creation'. Music is this constant counting, a mathematical process that makes sense of what we are."

Being a sort of "universal code", music is especially responsive to the views and reactions of listeners who are not part of what MacMillan describes as "The High Priesthood of Musicologists". Psychologists, philosophers and theologians are often far more enlightening on the subject. "Music is not just a preserve of the initiates," MacMillan reiterates, "though there are many within the world of music who unfortunately try to see it that way." He talks of selective anti-intellectualism, a resentment that the intellectual qualities of music are porous, that they seep out of their restrictive boxes and have connections with other aspects of our lives.

"It's also a form of self-protection," he says. "You know the sort of thinking: `we have access to the secrets of this thing that is music'." Professional commentators tend to forget that music speaks as much to the amateur as to the initiate. MacMillan learned his first music through records: Haydn's Trumpet Concerto, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and Quintet (with Benny Goodman) and Beethoven sonatas were among his seminal influences.

He is a family man with three young children and experiences a great sense of deja-vu when he sees his kids relate to music. "My eldest, Catherine, comes with me to concerts," he says proudly. "Being a musician, I don't want to push her into music, but she plays the cello and she's actually quite good. She loves music, sits and listens actively, and is self-disciplined enough not to fidget. The other two - they're five-year-old twins - are not quite that responsive yet. But they too have an inherent musicality".

He can observe it in the way they sing, dance and move. "They pitch things well, too, and it's great to see that music is transforming their lives." He tells me of a particular occasion when his eldest daughter watched Purcell's Dido and Aeneas on television, and her eyes suddenly flooded with tears. "It was an immensely moving thing to witness," he recalls. "It was an adult story, but she somehow knew there was something about it that had a connection with deepest humanity; although she is just a child, she related to it."

For MacMillan, active childhood involvement with music is largely down to family encouragement. "Catherine sat down and watched Dido because we all wanted to watch it. I can think of thousands of households that would have turned over to watch Gladiators, or something similar. Junk TV, Coca-Cola culture. That is a great shame, and that's where schools, musicians, composers and orchestras working in schools can counter-act the worst excesses of throw-away culture. If I feel evangelistic about anything, it's about taking music to young people who would not normally have the chance to encounter it. Getting them to feel the magic in it, the mysticism, the depths, and to see how much it means to us, to people who are enthused by music and whose lives revolve around it. That's why I love being involved in education composition projects - and the more, the better.

"After all, music has the potential to change our lives, but only when we are totally open to its transforming power."

BIS has just released MacMillan's `The World's Ransoming' (with Christine Pendrill, cor anglais) and Cello Concerto (with Raphael Wallfisch) on BIS CD-989, and the Symphony `Vigil' on CD-990. Both feature the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vanska