James MacMillan’s music makes one think, and not just about music

Stravinsky once said that music expresses nothing but music. As far as aphorisms go, this is no worse than most and better than some. Yet it raises all manner of questions.

Surely a composer must also express his epoch, if only tangentially? Otherwise why do composers, different as they may be individually, usually all write in a similar style at roughly the same time? Where does vocal music fit in, and how much does it depend on the words?

Once we have wrestled with these, we are compelled to delve into the next, deeper stratum where we are confounded with more difficult questions, such as: What makes one composer greater than another? How does music relate to other arts and, more generally, our civilisation?

In every piece he writes, James MacMillan asks all these questions, wittingly or unwittingly, and answers most of them the way no one else does today. Recently I attended the London premiere of Since It Was the Day of Preparation…, MacMillan’s sequel to his 2007 St John Passion, and afterwards, once I caught my breath, I recalled what Schumann said when he first heard Chopin’s music: ‘Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!’

The music, scored for five instruments and five voices, is utterly modern, but the words are anything but, coming as they do either from the Latin of the Vulgate or from the English of the Revised Standard Version. One would think that the form would be at odds with the content, but in fact the two go into each other without remainder: the same grandeur, the same noble, poignant emotion, all achieved with the same laconic means.

Having first relied on Schumann, I have taken a fortnight to find my own words, drag the appropriate ones out of their chaotic whirlwind and arrange them in more or less the right sequence. The most immediate thoughts had to deal with modern art.

Many persons of an aesthetically conservative disposition will decry modern art because they are incapable of separating it from modern artists. As they realise that the latter are mostly charlatans, they think the former is mostly subversive.

This is a forgivable misapprehension, but a misapprehension nonetheless. Since my present medium does not allow musical examples, perhaps I could illustrate the point by a sample of another art, a sublime poem by E.E. Cummings:

anyone lived in a pretty how town

(with up so floating many bells down)

spring summer autumn winter

he sang his didn’t, he danced his did

women and men (both little and small)

cared for anyone not at all

they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same

sun moon stars rain

children guessed (but only a few

and down they forgot as up they grew

autumn winter spring summer)

that none loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf

she laughed his joy she cried his grief

bird by snow and stir by still

anyone’s any was all for her

someones married their everyones

laughed their cryings and did their dance

(sleep wake hope and then) they

said their nerves they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon

(and only the snow can begin to explain

how children are apt to forget to remember

with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess

(and noone stooped to kiss his face)

busy folk buried them side by side

little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep

and more by more they dream their sleep

noone and anyone earth by april

wish by spirit and if by yes

women and men (both dong and ding)

summer autumn winter spring

reaped their sowing and went their came

sun moon stars rain

The orthography is eccentric, the words modern, but one has to have a tin ear and a neutered spirit not to hear the sound of eternity in every line. We begin to realise that, though the language of even great art changes from one epoch to the next, it never prevents a great artist from conveying orthodox truths, which is what makes him great.

For these orthodox truths are both true and orthodox precisely because they are timeless. Thus, though we are aware that the language of Shakespeare, never mind Chaucer, is archaic, the truth of Romeo and Juliet or The Canterbury Tales is no less true in our time than in any other. Eternal verities cannot superannuate by definition.

An artist will always reflect his time, along with his own personality largely formed by his time. However, if he reflects nothing but his own time and personality, he will never rise above mediocrity. Whether the artist’s work is religious or secular, such an ascent is impossible unless he is able to secure a foothold on the flinty slope of eternal truth reaching for heaven.

Just as a man can speak the truth in any language, an artist can express it in any idiom. Conversely, any language can lend itself to mouthing platitudinous nothings. Bach used counterpoint to convey undying prophecy going beyond his own time, possibly even beyond his own art or indeed his own personality. Yet his contemporaries, the Reinckens, Frobergers and Kerlls of this world, used the same idiom only to chain themselves to their time. As the chain could be neither broken nor slipped, they stayed mired in their own slot for ever.

If artists can do no other than speak in the contemporaneous language, why do we pour scorn on the chaps who plonk abominations like the Shard or Centre Pompidou into our great cities? After all, we can no more expect them to use the architectural language of Lincoln Cathedral than we can demand that Eliot or Cummings write in the English of Macbeth.

The answer is obvious: it is not the language those architects use that is objectionable but what they say in it. It is not that their work deviates from tradition, it is that it breaks away from it completely. Antoni Gaudí, to cite one example, showed that timeless architecture can come across in an idiom that the architect’s contemporaries find shocking. Yet as long as a great artist does not set out deliberately and solely to shock, as long as he merely modifies the means without trying to destroy the content, the shock waves will attenuate in time. The greatness will remain.

I do not wish to speculate on the exact place James MacMillan occupies in the pecking order of Scottish, British or world composers. Artists after all are not tennis players: they neither gain ranking points for wins nor drop them for losses. Suffice it to say that in his every work MacMillan manages to use a very modern, atonal idiom of his time to rise above his time, and also above Scotland, Britain or indeed the world. Only very great artists can do that, and I am convinced that MacMillan’s music will be heard on concert platforms long after Elgar’s or SaintSaëns’s has joined Ebler’s or Piccini’s in the footnotes of learned monographs.

MacMillan’s language is modern but not shockingly so. In the 61 years since Schoenberg died, our ears have grown accustomed to unusual harmonies and daring tonal systems. Alas, at the same time our souls have been anaesthetised to eternity, and our minds trained to deny its very existence. Therefore I doubt that MacMillan’s mass appeal will ever approach that of much lesser composers, such as Elgar.

But true music lovers will always marvel at the strands of modernity and eternity for which MacMillan’s work is the counterpoint. And I, for one, shall remain grateful for his musical answers to my extra-musical questions, including those I had not thought of asking.

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