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From the Archive: James MacMillan on Stabat Mater

Nothing Concrete text
27 Oct 2020
20 min listen

In this week’s archive edition, we speak to Scottish composer and conductor, Sir James MacMillan, whose Stabat Mater was premiered at the Barbican in October 2016.

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I’m Ben Eshmade and on this week’s archive edition we speak to Sir James MacMillan, the Scottish composer and conductor, whose Stabat Mater was premiered at the Barbican on 15th October 2016.

Sacred Music from another time and place, let’s discover the sounds and process of this composer. 

James MacMillan: To be honest I wanted to be a composer right from the start although I didn’t really know what that meant at that age when I was about nine. I’m certainly aware of things being much quieter here and that having an impact on my mood and my approach to work.

BE: Few living composers communicate with the emotional directness of James MacMillan, so the world premiere of his Stabat Mater was a major occasion, also taking part in the context of a day celebrating MacMillan’s urgently communicative choral music.

Harry Christophers conducted Britten Sinfonia and The Sixteen performing the Stabat Mater and Ex-Cathedra founder Jeffrey Skidmore led his ensemble through the London premiere of Seven Angels, a choral depiction of the end of the world! We'll discover more about both works in a moment.

David Butcher, Britten Sinfonia’s then Chief Executive set the scene.

David Butcher: I mean I think that of course it’s completely natural to a certain point that composers, they’re standing on the shoulders of other composers and they’re inspired by them. But I think it’s always great when you hear that influence, Vittoria, Shostakovich, Britten of course, huge influences on James MacMillan. In this day and age particularly I’m seeing more of that, more composers being open. I think there was a moment in the ‘60s that whatever you did, you did not want it to sound like anything that had gone before. Of course to a certain extent that’s fascinating too and there’s room for it. Composers like MacMillan, Barry, Adès, others that we work with – Huw Watkins – hearing the influences but through a different lens if you like is always really, really exciting. So often audiences think they need to have a doctorate to particularly understand what Adès is doing or what MacMillan is doing in a piece – you don’t. I’m sure they would say that as well, it should be immediate, it should be an emotional response. 

BE: To the phone and a remote part of Scotland to learn more the composer himself.
So James, to start with, I wanted to ask about your experiences of music and faith. Was this when you were growing up?

JM: Yes I suppose so. I started music when I was about nine years old with a little recorder, and started playing brass music and so on after that. I grew up in the west of Scotland and I’m still here, not too far. 

BE: I wonder if the landscape crept into your work in any way?

JM: It’s hard to tell, I’m not conscious of it but it must do. Maybe not landscape as such but context, place. I’m certainly aware of things being much quieter here and that having an impact on my mood and my approach to work, volume of work even. I’m much more relaxed here than I was in the city and I hear different sounds, sometimes no sounds at all, it’s very conducive to work. But yes, I’m sure it must have an impact.

BE: I read that there was a performance of Benjamin Britten on television that had quite an impact for you?

JM: Oh yes, Owen Wingrave was shown on the television. In fact it was written for television in the 1970s. I was certainly a youngster then, I think he might still have been alive so it must have been ’75, ’76. I remember seeing that on the television and being fairly struck by it. It was also the fact that Britten was a living composer, at a time when I was beginning to realise that all composers weren’t necessarily dead, it was quite an important realisation for me that here was a major figure who was just a few hundred miles down the road as it were and was producing this great music in their own time.

BE: …and was music something you were being exposed to as you attended church?

JM: Yes and no. I mean one of my very earliest memories, even before I started playing music, was hearing music being sung during a liturgy. So I must have been about four or five, my parents would have taken me to Edinburgh for a holiday, visiting relatives and I would have gone along to St Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral, the catholic cathedral there. And the director of music at that time, looking back on it, Arthur Oldham was his name, an English composer and choir master. With Britten he set up the Edinburgh International Festival Chorus and he was director of music at that cathedral. So I must have heard music of a very beautiful standard, a very high quality, and knowing the liturgy then it must have been music by the likes of Palestrina. One of my earliest memories was of music and ritual happening simultaneously I suppose and that would have been the music of Renaissance polyphony.

BE: One thing I haven’t mentioned that I read was that you were involved quite heavily and musically in your local church.

JM: I was. We moved away from the city, I had to stop. We just moved out of the orbit of the church I was involved in but yes, for ten years I basically ran the music at a little parish in Glasgow. It wasn’t very sophisticated what we did, I just had a little group of volunteers who got together. But I would write for them, I’d write for the congregation as well as the choir. I certainly took a great interest in music for the non-specialist in that way and I always have. I suppose composers in Britain over the last century have always shown that interest in one way or another, with people who are not, you’d describe as non-specialist, amateurs, the congregation, ordinary people. I certainly enjoyed doing that at a church in Glasgow called St Columbus, it was a Dominican parish but it was sad when it had to come to an end but life was just too busy. I couldn’t do all my other work as a composer and be a capellmeister for a little church. Because it was full on, I had to plan the music for the liturgy week on week whenever I was there, play, conduct, but it was a delight, it was something I enjoyed doing. Writing very, very simple music for choir, scholar or congregation was a great challenge, but it was something I certainly enjoyed doing. 

BE: Was there a distinct moment where you decided to study music further?

JM:  Well I think whenever I was given an instrument was the time when I decided that I wanted to be a musician and to be honest I wanted to be a composer right from the start, although I didn’t really know what that meant at that age, when I was about nine. But the desire to write music really came simultaneously with the desire to play music. I studied in Edinburgh, Edinburgh University, then I went to, I was a postgraduate at Durham University. I’ve always wanted to compose, it was just a case of finding the right interpreters and the relevant interests here and there. When you’re younger you’re not really sure where that is or how you get involved with it. It’s a gradual thing and you can get help of course. Some of your best friends being musicians can be some of your earliest performers and interpreters which is always important for any composer.

BE: Well maybe that’s a nice link to now and the two performances. Firstly let’s talk about Ex-Cathedra - why did you write this piece for this?

JM: I wrote this piece Seven Angels specially for them. I’ve been aware of them over the years and they got me to write a smaller piece a few years ago but they were very keen – Jeffrey, the conductor was very keen – that I wrote this larger piece and it was him that suggested the text, or at least the passages of a section of scripture that might work for this piece. It was very vivid poetry, very vivid words, and it suited the desire to write quite a colourful and dramatic and serious piece for choir plus these other instruments of course, like the various forms of trumpet that are used, cello, percussion, harp. But it’s the use of the trumpet that was exciting for me as well. Not only have I used modern trumpets but I used natural trumpets, early trumpets, and even shofars, ancient Jewish temple brass instruments. I used to be a trumpeter myself, so it was nice to get back to writing quite an involved part for these players in the piece.

BE: Are they hard instruments to write for? The tuning on natural trumpets must be very difficult.

JM: Yes, I never actually played natural trumpets so I had to do a little bit of research. I’m only used to the modern trumpets, modern instruments. But I’ve spent my life with trumpet players so it was just a case of finding out basically, not so much how it works as I was aware of the natural overtones and so on it, but how it might be blended with other instruments, certainly with voices, taking into account any tuning issues that might arise. But these modern trumpeters are amazing the way they can lip things into shape and make very diatonic and brilliant sounds out of these tubes – that’s basically what they are, old, brass tubes.

BE: There’s a nice correlation, isn’t there, between the trumpet and the voice, both using the diaphragm and producing a physical effect on the audience?

JM: Yes. There’s a similar mechanism, human mechanism, that works in the playing of wind instruments and singing. It’s something that’s attracted composers over the centuries, brass and voices have been used in tandem in sacred music especially, going right back to very early times, medieval times even. 

BE: So this is based on the story of an apocalypse, how did you work with that?

JM: Well the Book of Revelation is a fascinating compendium of strange stories and strange, amazing visions. It is a kind of dream, it’s a dream world. It said it was imparted to the writer in a dream, as it were. So there is a kind of dreamscape about that text, and indeed a nightmarish aspect to the visions as well. And that’s why it’s been such a vivid inspiration to artists through the ages, one thinks of Blake’s paintings of the woman in the apocalypse and so on. And it’s no surprise that the inspiration goes on.

BE: Let’s move on to the Stabat Mater, the hymn to the Virgin Mary. It’s the first large-scale work you’ve composed for The Sixteen. What are the challenges of writing an hour long piece?

JM: Well I suppose the temptation is to try to vary the elements of delivery. But there is one particular mood projected throughout the text of Stabat Mater which in a sense can’t be interfered with too much, so in a sense you have to surrender to the central point. Again, it’s a vivid text, it’s a very emotional text, it’s a very human text as well as a divine text that deals with the loss of a child, it’s a kind of sacred kindertotenlieder in a way, except it’s the mother of God that it’s about and Jesus himself. So it’s a huge challenge to write such a work, but there is a lot there, 20 verses, and it does travel in various different directions. But basically there is a choir and a string orchestra, but even within those two groups there is a possibility for variation and different colour, different solos. The Sixteen are used to, as well as being a great choral ensemble, they are a choir of soloists and I’ve been able to use individual voices from within the choir to their advantage. 

BE: Have you ever been influenced by non-Christian faiths in your work?

JM: Well the Mother faith of Christianity is of course Judaism, and when people talk about Judea or Christian culture there’s a very strong link between the two faiths there. It’s not just me but anyone responding to a Christian narrative or Christian inspiration throughout the centuries obviously acknowledges the debt of a deeper and older faith that goes back thousands of years even before Christ. So that link between Judaism and Christianity is unbreakable.

BE: I believe with this work you re-explored some melodic ideas that you’d started or stated previously?

JM: Yes, the scoring is the same as my Seven Last Words, which is choir and string orchestra, where I take up where I left off as it were at the end of that piece with little fragments of the piece and they become the beginnings of the new piece. So there are little signals as it were to the earlier piece.

BE: Is it important that the Stabat Mater is kept alive and can be reimagined and revisited?

JM: I think so. I think it’s no accident or no surprise to me anyway that composers in our time find great inspiration in these very traditional texts. This is a medieval text and composers, even James Dillon, has written a Stabat Mater recently. So there’s a great wealth in that tradition, both textural and cultural. I think it will for artists who used to come, they’ll keep re-using it in one way or another. I also enjoy sitting back and watching others do it too.

BE: Moving back to the concerts. Do you think they succeed in being a journey through your work? Even though they are quite contrasting in some ways?

JM: Yes, in many ways they’re contrasting. The mood of both pieces are very different. One is scriptural New Testament or at least at the end of the Bible, that kind of strange dream world as we were talking about. And one is this very plangent and tragic human story. There’s nothing very human about the Book of Revelation, it’s all angels and demons and the imagination. But Stabat Mater is about a mother, a son, it’s about a human condition as well as being a divine scenario. Very different moods there, different scenarios and consequently different music. The ensembles used are very different, the sound worlds are different. They will be an interesting coupling, one is about 35 minutes – that’s the Ex-Cathedra piece – and the Stabat Mater is longer with a very different feel to the span and the structure of the music.

BE: Last question, when the Stabat Mater gets performed for the first time, do you still get nervous?

JM: Yes and no – I never know what I’m going to feel like. Sometimes I feel very relaxed. I’ve just come back quite recently from Oregon where I had another big work over there at the Oregon Bach Festival, that was a setting of a Requiem Mass text and I was asked that there, am I nervous about the first performance, and I wasn’t. And it was because I had attended rehearsals, the music was in very, very good hands. Matthew Hall, the English conductor, is now the Director of the Oregon Bach Festival and he knew exactly what he was doing, he had a great orchestra and chorus and soloists. It’s not just a question of competence that can make you nervous or relaxed but a whole range of factors so to answer your question I have no idea what it will feel like in October when the Stabat Mater is launched.

BE: Thanks to the composer for his generous insight into the work. Ex-Cathedra’s performance of Seven Angels was called ‘a powerful, intense performance’ by the Guardian and the Times said of the Stabat Mater ‘an overwhelming world premiere’. I’m sure MacMillan music will return to the Barbican soon.

I’m Ben Eshmade. Thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast - here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series.
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