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MacMillan, Sir James (b1959)
© Philip Gatward

Sir James MacMillan

born: 16 July 1959
country: Scotland

Sir James MacMillan was born in Kilwinning, Ayrshire, on 16 July 1959 and grew up in Cumnock. After reading Music at the University of Edinburgh from 1977 to 1981, he studied composition with John Casken at the University of Durham (1981–83). Returning to Scotland in 1988, he settled in Glasgow, seeking the means to achieve a creative synthesis in music of his Roman Catholic faith, socialist ideals, and relationship with his homeland.

Directly communicative and emotionally affecting, James MacMillan’s music often has a strong sense of narrative inspired by history or theology. Even in his scores that are intended to be purely abstract there is a distinct feeling of struggle and conflict between contrasting thematic materials. Common to all his output are a keen sense of structure and a shrewd understanding of the need to balance the expected with the unexpected in the development of musical ideas.

MacMillan’s powerful orchestral elegy The Confession of Isobel Gowdie premiered at the 1990 Proms to an ecstatic reception, launching his international career. The exultant percussion concerto Veni, veni, Emmanuel, first performed by Dame Evelyn Glennie at the 1992 Proms, promptly entered the repertoire. Other notable orchestral pieces to date include five symphonies, concertos for cello, violin, viola, oboe, trombone and saxophone, three concertos for piano, and a second percussion concerto.

A natural facility for developing ideas on a substantial scale enhances his music for the stage. Inés de Castro was premiered by Scottish Opera at the 1996 Edinburgh Festival, and in 2007 Welsh National Opera produced The Sacrifice. A one-act chamber opera Clemency made its debut at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio in 2011.

MacMillan’s deep love of the human voice has resulted in the song cycle Raising Sparks, and several major choral works such as the cantata Seven Last Words from the Cross, the St Luke Passion for chorus and chamber orchestra, Stabat mater for choir and string orchestra, and A European Requiem, commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival.

Among various instrumental and chamber pieces, Tuireadh for clarinet and string quartet is dedicated to the victims of the Piper Alpha disaster and their families, and exploits the composer’s experience of Scottish folk music. By contrast, Kiss on Wood for violin and piano has a private, devotional atmosphere that connects with his liturgical works.

from notes by Paul Conway © 2020


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