James MacMillan: Visions of a November Spring

Program Note

My string quartet is the peculiar “odd man out” in my work since it is the nearest thing to an autobiographical statement. The title is an indication that the piece is a celebration of (or comment on) a newly emerging fecundity of expression which seemed to absorb me in the latter part of 1987, and which has extended itself through more recent pieces, BùsquedaInto the Ferment, and Tryst (a commission for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra). As well as marking the beginning of a particularly prolific time for me, it also marked a fusion of earlier influences and a departure on a style of writing which is both naturally and deliberately more direct and explicit.

—James MacMillan 

James MacMillan grew up in the west of Scotland, forty miles south of Glasgow. The composer describes his hometown as “a working class community where the industry was a mixture of mining, coal mining and farming. The musical culture involved lots of choral singing of one sort or another and I played in brass bands when I was young. These I remember were very important childhood excitements.” He was raised Catholic, and he remembers his experience one Sunday hearing the choir at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh as “this heavenly music pouring out of the sanctuary during the celebration of Mass and thinking there was something transcendent, transporting about it. […] I remember thinking, if music can genuinely move the soul so that you feel that you're in the presence of something great, otherworldly, numinous, it is indeed a powerful force, and therefore its association in my mind at an early stage with something spiritual seemed entirely natural and apt.”

These religious (and inherently political) associations remain at the forefront of his professional life. His career-launching work The Confession of Isabel Gowdie for orchestra, which premiered at the BBC Proms in 1990, is a requiem for a supposed witch who was burned at the stake in post-Reformation Scotland, providing commentary on the the Scottish split from the papacy in the 16th century. The success of this work spurred further commissions, including a percussion concerto for Evelyn Glennie. The result, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel (1992) is comprised of plainchant, a coda labeled “Easter”, and a recurring heartbeat motif which, according to MacMillan, represents “the human presence of Christ.”  

In the ensuing decades, MacMillan has written prolifically for many commissions, including A Scotch Bestiary (2004) for the LA Philharmonic to commemorate the new organ at Disney Hall; a St. John’s Passion (2008), co-commissioned by the London Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw, and Boston Symphony orchestras; several operas, many concerti, and four symphonies. His Stabat Mater will premiere this October at the Barbican. MacMillan was awarded a Knighthood in 2015.

—Josh Davidoff