In the first week of September, the Scottish composer James MacMillan sat in the ‘composition hut’ in the backyard of his Glasgow house, finishing the music he’d been commissioned to write for the Pope’s Mass at Westminster Cathedral.
In the first week of September, the Scottish composer James MacMillan sat in the ‘composition hut’ in the backyard of his Glasgow house, finishing the music he’d been commissioned to write for the Pope’s Mass at Westminster Cathedral. ‘I’m enjoying it — oh, the triumphalism!’ he wrote on his blog.
He wasn’t kidding. Two weeks later, as the small, frail figure of Benedict XVI processed into the cathedral, a fanfare sounded over his head. ‘Tu Es Petrus,’ sang the choir, proclaiming the papal authority in giant Brucknerian chords. The organ roared at full throttle and cymbals clashed, visibly startling members of the congregation. Benedict’s eyes lit up. The faces of liberal bishops — who had wanted the Pope to be greeted by hippie songs — hardened into scowls. MacMillan was a few rows in front of me and when he turned round the glint of mischief was unmistakable.
Tu Es Petrus is more than an occasional piece: it’s a declaration of loyalty to Joseph Ratzinger by a Catholic composer who knows from experience that elements in the hierarchy are sabotaging the Pope’s liturgical reforms, which seek to restore grandeur to worship. MacMillan was also commissioned to write a congregational setting of the Mass for Newman’s beatification and the Pope’s Mass in Glasgow. It’s catchy, accessible, but its classical harmonies offended the ‘liturgists’ who control Church music in Scotland. Led by one Mgr Gerry Fitzpatrick — himself a composer of hilariously bad folk-style antiphons — they lobbied for it to be scrapped. They failed, but it was a nasty campaign: Boosey & Hawkes, MacMillan’s publishers, had never experienced such ‘rudeness and shoddy behaviour’, according to the composer.
I’m pleased that the row was made public. First, because the tactics of the Catholic liturgical mafia have been exposed. Second, because it has further raised the profile of a magnificent composer. Critics would say that the whole business was typical Jimmy MacMillan: he’ll cross the road to start a fight, whether it’s with liberal Catholics, secular bigots or fellow Celtic supporters whom he suspects of supporting the IRA. There’s some truth in that. In person, MacMillan is gentle, but in print he can be ferocious. To reconcile the two, you have to listen to his music with an open mind, which isn’t easy if you have settled ideas about how a Roman Catholic composer should behave.
MacMillan’s output is stylistically complex: he’s a polyglot, equally at home in Renaissance polyphony or the orchestral textures of the early 20th century. It’s not unusual to hear spasms of discord soften into exquisite four-part harmony, rather as Berg’s Violin Concerto dissolves into a chorale. In Quickening, one of MacMillan’s masterpieces, massive late-romantic forces are interrupted by the madrigal singers of the Hilliard Ensemble — and indeed he often employs this time-travelling ‘interruption’ as he builds a movement. But sometimes the juxtaposition is violent; and in places that violence is theological and disturbingly literal, as when the nails are driven into Jesus’s flesh by an iron bar written into the score of MacMillan’s Cello Concerto.
Here’s the intriguing thing. Some critics didn’t have a problem with MacMillan’s religiosity when it was possible to say, as the BBC put it respectfully during the 1990s, that ‘the composer draws inspiration both from his Catholicism and his very strong commitment to socialism’. But, to cut a long story short, prolonged exposure to Britain’s anti-Catholic arts establishment helped weaken MacMillan’s socialist faith. There are secret clues to his disillusionment in A Scotch Bestiary (2004), a wacky organ concerto in which ‘The Rev. Cuckoo and his Parroting Chorus’ depicts — I can reveal — Bishop Richard Holloway and his politically correct sycophants. By the last election, such was MacMillan’s disgust with Labour that he voted Tory. He is now on the centre Right, which is a lonely place to find yourself in musical circles, especially in Scotland.
I don’t want to suggest that all criticism of MacMillan is motivated by a feeling that he’s let the side down politically and turned into the wrong sort of Catholic — but some of it is. And, despite the richness of his recent work, now that he’s no longer ‘a radical voice’ in the BBC sense it’s hard to imagine Newsnight Review giving him airtime. Which is a shame, because what fun it would be if a guest were to point out that ‘Her Serene and Ubiquitous Majesty, Queen Bee’, a grotesquely shrill character from A Scotch Bestiary, is none other than Kirsty Wark.
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