The Cathy List 10: James MacMillan’s Choral Music

Posted by on Apr 2, 2016 in Uncategorized | No Comments


I’ve been meaning to post this list for quite a while, ever since I did a talk on James MacMillan, one of the UK’s leading composers.  I love his choral work and think it has an immediate appeal.  He has a very distinct creative voice which draws on certain key ingredients, the most prominent of which is his Scottish heritage.

To ease you in, the first track, ‘The Tryst’ is a folksong he wrote for the quaintly-named ‘Whistlebinkies’.  This is MacMillan writing from the heart, in a style very dear to him. And you get to hear him singing on this track, too.

‘The Gallant Weaver’ opens with a very similar shape to ‘The Tryst’.  I love the fluid overlapping of the voices throughout as the music shifts between folksong and hymn. Every bar feels Celtic, somehow.

I think contemporary composers sometimes find it difficult to express intense joy in their music.  The darker emotions seem to flow more readily.  MacMillan, though, finds a spiritual expression of joy and hope even in the most tragic of subjects: the massacre of children at a primary school in Dunblane. The opening and closing duets recall the purity of two children’s voices. It’s a simply constructed yet deeply affecting tribute.

For many, his absolute masterpiece is the ‘7 Last Words of Christ from the Cross’ for choir and string orchestra. I’m tempted to post all of it here, but to give a flavour I’ve put the ‘Behold the Wood of the Cross’ in the hope you’ll find time to listen to the whole work.  You’ll hear the Middle Eastern colour immediately in the plainchant of the basses at the beginning. The verse gets repeated in different registers, going heavenwards from basses up to ethereal sopranos. There’s a prayerful refrain of ‘Venite Adoremus’ which is given a halo by exquisitely high violins. The higher the verse gets, the more ecstatic the mood. 

I’m hoping you’ll now recognise the Celtic qualities in his ‘Strathclyde Motet’, which starts with such a dramatic cry.  He manages to evoke the Ancient whilst remaining modern and individual. I hope you find it as moving as I do.

[The ‘Cathy Lists’ were created for my sister-in-law, Cathy, who wanted some help getting into classical music. You can follow the complete playlist here on Spotify.]