On James MacMillan…

November 10th, 2016

It only seems fitting in the week of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the UK that a little light should be shined on Britain’s most famous Catholic composer James MacMillan, or perhaps more specifically on how much music James MacMillan has written in the past five years – because it is a staggering amount. This week will see the premiere of MacMillan’s new Mass setting Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman written in celebration of the Pope’s visit – nothing unusual there (though this will be his fifth Mass setting) but when you consider how busy he has been in all fields of composition it becomes even more interesting.

In the past five years MacMillan has written a full-scale opera (with orchestral interludes), a large choral-orchestral Passion, two violin concerti, an oboe concerto, a third piano concerto, a string quartet, a horn quintet, various chamber and instrumental pieces and a huge amount of choral motets, anthems and secular pieces. In fact he has (according to the Boosey & Hawkes website) now written 85 choral pieces – not a bad return really. This means he now has written three symphonies, three piano concerti, three violin concerti, an organ concerto, two oboe concerti (admittedly one was for cor anglais but still…) a percussion concerto and various other stand-alone orchestral pieces. Add to those two operas and two music-theatre pieces (etc) and you see the point I’m making.

When I gave a paper on MacMillan’s liturgical music four years ago I got to know all his choral output, in the intervening years it has more than doubled – it appears that every choir of any worth wants a ‘MacMillan’ on its roster of commissions. If John Rutter and Bob Chilcott are the most performed British choral composers, MacMillan must be coming up strongly behind. Where does he find the time? As a reasonably busy conductor and family man as well, he must have made a deal with the devil?

I’m not making any value judgement here, just highlighting an interesting point – does quantity equate with quality? It is an age old question, and maybe with respect to MacMillan something we can’t answer just yet – but here’s an interesting question – how many pieces has Thomas Adés written in the last five years? Seven.


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