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.

3 thoughts on “JS Bach came back as James MacMillan”

  1. “Real music breaks the boundaries of everything”

    Five hundred years from now American rap artists will only have their true genius recognized?

    1. No doubt. I have especially high hopes for Niggas With Attitude – that music will live long after our civilisation has died. In fact, one could say that our civilisation will die partly because such ‘music’ lives.

  2. Many years ago I gave up listening to contemporary “classical” music, not only because all of it that I’d heard so far was garbage, but also because it seemed unlikely that the policies of the Arts Council and the BBC would allow any new music that wasn’t garbage to be performed in future. As a result I’ve never heard James MacMillan, but I’ll give him a try on your recommendation.

    I quite like the little I’ve heard of Olli Mustonen.

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