James MacMillan

Community music-making is the jewel in the British crown

The nation’s composers have long celebrated its vital role in the musical ecology of these islands

Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, performed on the beach at Aldeburgh festival in 2013. Credit: Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

Music is a universal language. The style that has enraptured me since childhood, classical music, has always had an international dimension, and has taken me around the world in the decades since. But even in those early boyhood encounters I became aware of music and musicians from many different lands and eras. Apart from the beauty and excitement of the music itself, the art form became an early gateway for me to languages, history, geography, philosophy, theology and much more.

There were clearly a lot of Germans to grapple with (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms) — and some French (Debussy, Ravel) —as well as Italians (Vivaldi, Verdi) and lots of Russians too (Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich). But where did my own country figure in all of this? It’s generally thought that Britain was a bit behind the mainland European curve in the early stages of the classical evolution, but we caught up fast with the arrival of Handel in London in 1712. But in due course the young music student learns of a rich hinterland of earlier music in England and Scotland embracing Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Henry Purcell and many others. And pre-Reformation Scotland threw up a genuine composing genius in Robert Carver (c.1485-c.1570).

It’s strange that a culture so proud of its own history and character and fond of trumpeting its Scottish exceptionalism is curiously mute about our great 16th-century composer. But modern Scotland is equally coy about its early literary heroes — John Barbour, Robert Henryson and William Dunbar. It’s as if patriotic modern Scotland is embarrassed or bewildered by its Catholic beginnings. Is this why we have never truly celebrated Carver, one of Europe’s greatest composers of the period, who just happened to be Scottish?

Influenced by composers in continental Europe, it is thought that he might even have travelled to Rome and the Netherlands in the learning of his craft.

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