JS Bach came back as James MacMillan

A hundred years from now people will be mentioning James MacMillan in the same breath as Bach. At least that’s what I always said.

But I was wrong. The time to speak of Sir James in those terms is now, not in a hundred years.

If you question this judgement, you obviously were nowhere near the Royal Festival Hall last Saturday, when Sir James’s Christmas Oratorio was premiered by the London Philharmonic.

I shan’t attempt to describe the work or its performance in any detail, other than suggesting that no one since Bach has handled the chorale with the same mastery and inexhaustible stream of ideas.

One gets the impression that, had he lived to be two hundred, Bach still wouldn’t have run out of surprises, spellbinding the listener with every phrase, every note. The same can be said of Sir James, with nary a hyperbole anywhere in sight.

I can’t even conceive of a mind capable of constructing a work of such architectural magnitude, while still continuing to jolt and unsettle the listener with a profusion of startling details. No wonder the Oratorio took a year to write.

MacMillan doesn’t encourage complacency – every listener has to remain his hardworking co-author throughout, only to realise the sheer impossibility of keeping pace with the mesmeric harmonic progressions. We fail, but never has a failure been so rewarding.

MacMillan calls himself a modernist, but that, I suspect, is merely kowtowing to the current obsession with formal labelling. He is no more a modernist composer than Bach was a baroque one.

For the first question about art in general, music in particular and Western music especially starts with ‘what’, not ‘how’. The content goes beyond the form, and the form goes beyond its time. If God gives an artist something universal to say, he also gives him the universal means of doing so.

Specific techniques differ from one artist to another, and from one period to the next. But the essence of music transcends its technique. Like a gothic cathedral, music is built from the inside out.

Musicologists tend to identify music by its specific shell, often borrowing designations from architecture. The two arts indeed have much in common: if architecture is an artistic arrangement of space, music is an artistic arrangement of time. In fact, a gothic cathedral has sometimes been described as frozen music or music in stone.

But attaching a specific architectural tag to a composer of genius is a losing proposition, especially if such labelling is based mainly on chronology. In what way, for example, is Bach a baroque composer?

True, baroque was the dominant architectural idiom during his lifetime. But put a baroque cathedral side by side with a gothic one and see which one resembles Bach’s music more. Correct. So was Bach a gothic composer then? This is simply to point out the danger of pigeonholing genius, especially a musical one.

So yes, MacMillan’s musical palette includes atonality, alongside Gregorian chant, Bachian polyphony, direct quotations from Beethoven (who was neither gothic, nor baroque nor modernist), references to Scottish songs and dance music – and I’ll leave it for musicologists to extend this list.

I discerned all those inputs in the Oratorio and, if I hear it again, I may notice some more. However, this will always remain incidental to the essence of music, and not many composers have ever told us what it is in MacMillan’s uncertain terms.

Now that we are into dangerously approximate analogies, music is to other arts is what philosophy is to other sciences. Both have as their exclusive domain first causes and last things – if they don’t, they are in default of their brief.

But unlike philosophy, music goes to the first causes directly, without any verbal mediation – this, even if it includes words, as the Christmas Oratorio obviously does. One could paraphrase St Augustine to say that music is the audible form of an inaudible grace.

Great vocal music uses the voice mostly, sometimes merely, as yet another instrument. That doesn’t mean that words don’t matter. They do. But I wonder if the mighty effect of the Christmas Oratorio would be in any way weakened if the words were in a language one doesn’t know.  

Judging by the loving care MacMillan takes of the sung words, he’d probably disagree with me. Then again, the words he uses – the Gospels and also poems by Southwell, Donne and Milton –  do demand such care.

MacMillan’s mastery is such that even the full orchestra for which the Oratorio is scored never drowns out the words, with each remaining clearly audible and understandable – a task that has defeated many a lesser composer.

I loved the way his instruments, with the celeste often prominent, reiterate the words and sometimes pick up where the words leave off. For example, the violins would wait until the soprano solo climbed as high as she could go, only then to take over seamlessly and climb higher still.

The choice of poets is telling. Southwell was a Catholic, like Sir James himself; Donne was an Anglican; Milton was a Calvinist. Yet in MacMillan’s hands, as in Bach’s, Christian music becomes ecumenical.

Bach was a devout Lutheran, which affected his sensibility, just as MacMillan’s Catholicism affects his. Yet one no more has to be a Catholic (or indeed an exponent of any Christian confession) to appreciate MacMillan’s Oratorio than one has to be a Lutheran to appreciate Bach’s.

Real music breaks the boundaries of everything: quotidian problems, religion in general, confessional differences in particular. That’s why it’s the true art of the first cause – it soars up to a height from which most of our concerns look small.

The programme notes cite Dominic Peter Wells’s book on MacMillan, describing him as “a political composer… operating between the political-aesthetic extremes from autonomy (‘art for art’s sake’) to agitprop, or political propaganda.”

On the basis of that description, a chap who has never heard MacMillan’s music would place him somewhere between Rouget de Lisle, who wrote La Marseillaise, and John Philip Sousa, the composer of jingoistic American marches.

However, anyone who has indeed heard MacMillan’s works would gasp at the arrant nonsense he has just read. He is the least political composer one could possibly imagine. Even though much (though far from all) of MacMillan’s music is overtly religious, I wouldn’t even call him a religious composer.

I’d simply call him a sublime composer who, as such, operates in a sphere infinitely higher than any mundane activity, such as politics, can touch even tangentially. His place is close to Bach, not next to Lisle or Sousa.

When Schumann first heard Chopin’s music, he cried: “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius.” If I didn’t mind plagiarism, I’d say the same thing about James MacMillan.

Single issues are worse than none

Some things about candidates for public office excite us (rarely, these days), while others are an instant turn-off.

The eyes have it

One thing that invariably crosses a candidate off my list is his excessive commitment to a single issue. This, even if I happen to agree with the issue.

It’s awful to say so, but I’d rather be governed by an unprincipled, lightweight weathercock like Johnson than by a champion of one cause above all.

For example, I consider the EU wicked and detested Britain’s membership in it. Nevertheless I was wary of activists – and I knew quite a few – who defined their whole political being by a craving for Brexit.

Without those zealots Brexit wouldn’t have happened, and I’m grateful to them. Unlike single-issue politicians, single-issue campaigners are indispensable. But if, say, Nigel Farage had stood for Parliament in my constituency in, say, 2015, I wouldn’t have voted for him.

Governing a country is a complex, multifarious activity that doesn’t lend itself to simplistic reductions. Anyone who doesn’t realise this will always end up cutting his own political throat with Occam’s razor.

There’s always a tinge of fanaticism about single-issue politicians, and a concomitant inability to sense nuances and seek workable balances. This brings me to Eric Zemmour, who has now officially announced his candidature for France’s presidency.

Perhaps it’s unfair to describe him as a single-issue politician. If I were to express Zemmour’s electoral programme in a schematic, it would look like a trident: hate the Muslims – dislike les anglo-saxons, especially Britain – love Putin.

But the prongs of this trident are of unequal sizes: the biggest one by far is Zemmour’s palpable hatred of Muslims. He believes they threaten to make Houellebecq’s dystopic fantasy come true by replacing the indigenous population and turning France into an Islamic republic.

As a believer in individual free will, and therefore individual guilt, I’m uneasy about hatred by category. I much prefer the Christian duality of loving the sinner while hating the sin.

But if we overlook the dangerous glimmer in his eyes, by and large I’m with Zemmour on this one. Simple arithmetic seems to vindicate the replacement theory: due to growing immigration and relative birth rates, France’s demographic balance is indeed shifting the wrong way.

France has failed worse than Britain (which is saying a lot) in trying to assimilate the Muslim population – mainly because the French proceed from a dubious cultural premise. They regard any native Francophone as French, expecting their cherished language to act as a magic wand whose wave can work miracles.

(In War and Peace, Tolstoy observed this national trait with his usual acuity. A French officer insists Pierre Bezukhov is French even though he knows he is Russian. But Pierre’s impeccable French elevates him to the Gallic Olympus.)

Turns out the wand isn’t as magic as all that: even many native-born Muslims trash cities to the accompaniment of a thunderous “Nique la France!” choir (the first word has four letters in English). This goes to show that, language or no language, you can’t assimilate people who won’t assimilate.

Such widespread recalcitrance creates a catastrophic social problem with a group that already makes up almost 10 per cent of the country’s population – especially if it communicates its obduracy with bombs and AKs.

Looking at the hundreds of Frenchmen swimming in their own blood over the past few years, one can see Zemmour has a bloody good point. But the biggest peg on which he hangs his political mantle is way too prominent for my liking.

His manifest lack of affection for Britain is a smaller peg, and it’s cut out of Zemmour’s general traditionalism. Judging by his campaign pronouncements and articles in Le Figaro, he regards the Middle Ages as France’s golden age.

Again I agree with him, as does anyone who compares the intellectual level of Paris University in the 13th century and now – or, for that matter, Notre-Dame Cathedral or La Sainte Chapelle with Tour Montparnasse or La Défense. Alas, that period ended in a Hundred Years’ War with England, and Zemmour’s medievalism seems to come as a package deal.

His affection for Putin and, even worse, Putinism is the third prong of the triad, and I first noticed it in his 2013 article Tsar Poutine. This third prong extends from the same shaft as the other two. Zemmour, along with so many Europeans who are sick of our woke modernity, detects, with his viscera more than his mind, a kindred soul in the KGB colonel.

Unlike “Yeltsyn who sold his country out to trans-Atlantic groups”, he wrote, Putin “has restored the state. And Russian patriotism. By authoritarian methods. In the tradition of the tsars…

“Little by little, he has become the leader of world opposition to the new ideological order dominated by the West [and characterised by] anti-racism, globalism, homophilia, feminism, Islamophilia and Christianophobia.”

Hence, if elected,  Zemmour plans to move France away from NATO and closer to Russia. That would effectively give the freedom of Europe to an evil state formed by history’s unique fusion of secret police and organised crime.

We are observing an interesting phenomenon here. To paraphrase Buffon ever so slightly, Le style, c’est la politique même – the style is politics itself.

This modified aphorism gains validity as one moves away in any direction from a solid conservative centre towards the extreme periphery. The closer to the edges one gets, the more importance does style acquire at the expense of substance.

That’s why Zemmour feels kinship with Putin – he goes beyond the appalling facts of Putin’s tenure, which I’m sure he knows and, if queried, would disavow.

But, like a woman reaching tropistically for the energy exuded by an alpha male, Zemmour clearly responds to the fascisoid miasma emanating from Putin’s every pore. And because he responds to it, one knows he is fascisoid himself. He doesn’t seem to mind “authoritarian methods”.

The problems he talks about are real, and they do demand a solution if the last vestiges of our civilisation are to survive – everywhere, not just in France. Yet the right remedies must be administered by the right people.

If the people are wrong, the remedies won’t remain right for long. They’ll kill the patient more surely and quickly than the disease itself.

P.S. There’s a cultural trend I’d call PROC (Prole Overcompensation). For example, our less fortunate countrymen have heard that the pronoun ‘me’ is suspect in many sentences. Trying to overcompensate, they hope to sound toff by saying things like “They invited my friend and I”, only succeeding in sounding illiterate.

Now PROC is doing seasonal duty, with every newspaper talking about ‘Christmas lunch’. Our under-privileged writers know not to refer to the afternoon meal as ‘dinner’, the way their parents did. Hence ‘Christmas lunch’ is supposed to sound ‘posh’. It doesn’t. This meal has always been Christmas dinner, and, as far as I’m concerned, so it’ll remain.

“He is conservative but good”

Thus spoke in 1973 my American friend, when we were watching William F Buckley’s talk show Firing Line.

William F Buckley

Having only been in America for less than a week, I knew little and understood less about Western politics. But I still thought the correct conjunction in my friend’s sentence would have been ‘and’, not ‘but’.

I was an intuitive, temperamental conservative, which is to say a real one. Conservatism (or for that matter its opposite) is a character trait more than any set of ideas. Those can be changed at the drop of a hat, while one’s personality is more or less immutable.

David Harewood

That’s why I’m wary of adult communists or other lefties who see the conservative light in their later years. ‘Adult’ is an important word there, for adolescents are hormonally given to bien pensant ideas conveyable in snappy slogans.

Yet if someone is still a communist in his late twenties, with his brain already wired properly, he remains a communist for life as far as I’m concerned. This, irrespective of the kind of politics he espouses publicly.

However, young visceral conservatives of an intellectual bent still need to find a way of relating their intuition to concrete ideas – political, philosophical and cultural. And most need guidance along that road.

This neophyte certainly did, and Buckley came to my aid. For the next 15 years I never missed a single episode of Firing Line, nor a single issue of his National Review, which was then the best journal of conservative opinion I’ve seen before or since.

Buckley’s influence on American political thought can hardly be overestimated. As he once wrote to me, it was thanks to National Review writers that the word ‘conservative’ acquired some respectability, at least this side of ‘liberal’, in effect illiberal, intelligentsia.

When years later I began to stand on my own intellectual feet, I outgrew some of Buckley’s ideas – but not the sense of gratitude I’ve always felt. His was the most immediate influence on my development, if not the deepest in the long run. (When asked who exerted a formative influence on me, I tend to mention Bach. Though this reply is usually seen as eccentric, it’s nonetheless true.)

And now the political drama Best of Enemies is playing at London’s Young Vic. It’s about the spat between Buckley and Gore Vidal during an ABC broadcast of the 1968 Republican convention.

Sight unseen, the play is just awful. And the sight will remain unseen because the reviews tell me everything I need to know.

To begin with, Buckley, with his patrician physique and accent, is played by the black actor David Harewood, as demanded by transracial rectitude. Since the rectitude is not only transracial but also transsexual, ideally the role should have gone to a black actress, lesbian for preference.

In any case, I no longer wish to subsidise even the transracial fetish, which is why all those black Hamlets and Uncle Vanyas will have to entertain someone else. Good luck to them.

One review I’ve read identifies Buckley as “a right-wing, libertarian, Christian intellectual with strong opinions on everything.” Gore Vidal, on the other hand, is described as “a liberal, left-wing, gay iconoclast.” In other words, Vidal was mainstream and Buckley a distinct outsider.

Vidal was also a successful writer of historical novels, though his scandalous fame came from a frankly pornographic book Myra Breckenridge, in which the eponymous character was a male transsexual.

I suppose one could say that, while Buckley was behind his time, Vidal was ahead of his: back in the 60s transsexuality hadn’t yet risen to the high moral ground it occupies today.

The review identifies both men as “failed politicians”, which is correct only superficially, meaning it’s wrong. Vidal indeed ran for political offices twice, once for the House then for the Senate, failing both times.

Buckley did run for mayor of New York in 1965 but, since he had no intention of winning, he didn’t really fail. In fact, when an interviewer asked him during the campaign what Buckley would do if he won, he replied: “Demand a recount”.

His reason for running was to gain a wider exposure for conservative ideas, and in that undertaking he succeeded. That, I’d suggest, would have been another interesting subject for a play, but Mr Graham is unlikely to follow my recommendations.

The central episode of his play, the sharp exchange between Buckley and Vidal, shows that conservatives hadn’t yet learned the lesson now taught universally.

When lefties insult us, we are supposed to be equable and civilised about it. By no means are we allowed to insult back, especially by mentioning pejoratively our offender’s race or sexual deviations. These days we know we could have our collar felt. But at that time the lesson hadn’t quite sunk in yet.

The contretemps started when the conversation veered towards rioting youngsters who expressed their opposition to the Vietnam war by raising Vietcong flags and burning American ones. Buckley compared them to Hitler Youth, not unreasonably. The modus operandi was indeed startlingly similar.

Vidal, on the other hand, felt that the youngsters’ protest was not just valid but commendable. “As far as I’m concerned,” he told Buckley, “the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” All par for the course, but Buckley, who fought against the Nazis as an infantryman, refused to bend over and take his punishment.

He snarled: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered.”

That sort of thing, says Graham, worries him more than anything else: “Of all the things I think of that terrify me – from the climate crisis to generational inequality – how we actually talk to each other or don’t talk to each other, and the anger and hate between different sides –  completely arbitrary, falsely binary, reductively simple sides – seems so unrepairable.”

What on earth is “generational inequality”? Does he mean “gender inequality”? One never knows with leftie scribes. And what exactly is “falsely binary”?

It’s the problem that worries him most, the inability to “talk to each other”, that’s truly irreparable (sorry, unrepairable, in Graham’s gobbledygook). For me at any rate.

Duels of any kind are only possible between equals – social, in the aristocratic duels of yesteryear, intellectual, in the verbal jousts of today. And, whether your chosen weapon is language or sword, the duel has to be fought according to set rules.

The rules of argumentative rhetoric were set thousands of years ago, but only conservatives ever follow them. Every left-winger with whom I’ve ever argued – and you might think I ought to have known better – speaks in ad hominems, non sequiturs, circular arguments and all other logical fallacies known to man.

One can’t argue with someone who doesn’t even know what an argument or a refutation is. “I refute you” is routinely uttered simply to register disagreement; “I disagree” is seen as QED sufficient argument.

In this particular instance, how do you argue rationally with someone who thinks that hoisting the flag of a hostile power is acceptable and desirable? Either you avoid such arguments like a French kiss with a Covid carrier or tell him to perform a ballistically improbable procedure on himself.

That’s how I’d converse with Mr Graham, should the subject of William F Buckley come up. Luckily that conversation will never happen: we revolve in different circles.

Happy birthday to me

Happy birthday to me. Well, not exactly to me. It’s just that my blog turned 10 yesterday, as a numerate reader kindly reminded me.

Today’s sacred cows shouldn’t feel safe

The blog was born on the same date as Winston Churchill and Mark Twain, though in all modesty I can’t claim any other than a chronological commonality there.

But never mind megalomaniac parallels. Instead I’ll answer the question that must have haunted you all these years, keeping you away from any normal routine and driving you to sleeping pills: Why the hell did he decide to do this?

The answer is as short as it is embarrassing: crass commercialism.

The idea, nay demand, came from my publisher. I had a book coming out at about that time, and he insisted that any hope of decent sales rested on “getting my name out there more”.

He knew that by then I had fallen out with most conservative editors in town, those who could get my name out before a big audience. My own bloody-mindedness and exaggerated sense of self-worth were to blame for those fissures.

Having spent 30 years at ad agencies, writing what and how others told me to write, I decided that in my other career I’d do things my way or no way. Editors agreed – and happily went for the second option.

They hated my tantrums thrown every time I heard the sacramental phrase “You can’t say that”. I hated their passive complicity with woke subversion.

They felt the need to edit my style. I protested that their sub-editors were illiterate.

They feared a lawsuit every time I wrote something ‘controversial’, and they certainly got flooded with torrents of PCC shrieks (the Press Complaints Commission, in case you’re wondering). I screamed freedom of speech.

Above all, respectable publications didn’t know how to handle someone who rejected post-Enlightenment modernity root and branch, not just its various excesses. Editors of even conservative papers didn’t feel I was on their side. I didn’t feel they knew what exactly they wished to conserve.

It just so happened that at about the same time my friends Paul and Jacqui also mentioned the possibility of doing a blog. Paul, aware of my computer illiteracy, even volunteered to set it up.

That he did, and he is still managing this space, gently but firmly overriding my Luddite objections every time the software gets more sophisticated. If Jacqui is this blog’s godmother, Paul is the midwife (midhusband?).

Long story short, the blog was born and, in common with so many children these days, there was no pre-planning involved in its conception. Also in common with many children, it failed to live up to lofty expectations: the new book didn’t do noticeably better than my pre-blog books had.

Yet the child isn’t exactly unloved. I’ve grown fond of the idea of running an abattoir for the sacred cows of modernity. And thousands of readers around the world don’t mind indulging their voyeurism by looking at all the blood and gore.

Thus the child has grown to a mature age of 10, but it’s moribund. Unlike most children, it’ll never outlive its father.

That’s it. No more self-indulgence, mawkish or otherwise, not until the next 10-year anniversary. Dum spiro spero, eh?