Community music-making is the jewel in the British crown

April 1, 2021

James Macmillan is a Scottish composer and conductor

Music is a universal language. The style which has enraptured me since my childhood, classical music has always had an international dimension, and has taken me around the world in the decades since. But even in those early boyhood encounters I became aware of music and musicians from many different lands and eras. Apart from the beauty and excitement of the music itself, the art form became an early gateway for me to languages, history, geography, philosophy, theology and much more.

There were clearly a lot Germans to grapple with (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms) – and some French (Debussy, Ravel) – Italians (Vivaldi, Verdi) and lots of Russians too (Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich). But where did my own country figure in all of this? It’s generally thought that Britain was a bit behind the mainland European curve in the early stages of the classical evolution, but we caught up fast, what with the arrival of Handel in London in 1712. But in due course the young music student learns of a rich hinterland of earlier music in England and Scotland embracing Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Henry Purcell and many others. And pre-Reformation Scotland threw up a genuine composing genius in Robert Carver (c.1485-c.1570).

It’s strange that a culture so proud of its own history and character and fond of trumpeting its own Scottish exceptionalism is strangely mute about our great 16th century composer. But modern Scotland is equally coy about its early literary heroes too – John Barbour, Robert Henryson and William Dunbar. It’s as if patriotic modern Scotland is embarrassed or bewildered by its Catholic beginnings. Is this why we have never truly celebrated Carver, one of Europe’s greatest  composers of the period, who just happened to be Scottish?

Influenced by composers in continental Europe, it is thought that he might even have travelled to Rome and the Netherlands in the learning of his craft. Highly ornate in style, decorative and polyphonically dense, it resembles most closely the rich, glorious music of England’s Eton Choirbook. Carver has a special place in my heart. Scotland’s greatest composer, he proffers a fond memory of our Catholic roots and a signal of musical depth and complexity that can inspire composers like me today.

But it’s the twentieth century that has most impact on the living British composer today – an era which saw an incredible flowering and opening up in art music on these islands: an astonishing proliferation of music with a healthy breadth of reference, of which the likes of Vaughan Williams, Holst and Benjamin Britten were all important figures.

There is profundity, sophistication and beauty in the work of these 20th century English composers. When I am invited to conduct abroad I am keen to include some of this music in my programmes. In Germany, France, Italy and even in the US there is still some lack of engagement with the likes of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. I enjoy taking this music to audiences who are relatively inexperienced in the British tradition, knowing that something unique may be communicated in these unexpected encounters. Conducting Vaughan Williams 4thSymphony at the Grafenegg Festival in Austria, or his Fantasia on a Theme on Thomas Tallis in Germany and Belgium were some of the highlights of my life as a conductor. The musicians and their audiences were surprised and beguiled by music they had heard about, but which had remained hazy, unexplored territory until these performances.

The British composer can seem an odd beast to our mainland European counterparts. First of all they think we only write “pastoral” music, and they don’t just mean Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi. They even detect this musical and aesthetic “defect” in the likes of Harrison Birtwistle. I suppose I do too, but I don’t think it’s defective — there is a profound melancholic sigh in much British musical modernism that can indeed be traced back some generations. But there is something else that we Brits do that many mainland European composers can’t get their heads around — we write serious music for amateurs in our communities as well as for the great professionals. From Vaughan Williams and Holst to Britten, Tippett and Maxwell Davies, we have valued the role of the non-specialist in the nation’s musical life. This has led many of our composers to write significant works for amateur choirs, local bands, workers’ collectives and children. Some of the mainland European composers think this is beneath them (they’ve told me so!) and this may explain their dismissive attitude to us as musical dilettantes.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Local amateur music-making is the jewel in the British crown and is a vital core of the musical ecology of these islands. This can be seen in the composer-led festivals that have sprung up here over the decades. Aldeburgh was established by Benjamin Britten in 1948, and community music-making, including new operas for local children to perform, was an essential ingredient in its blossoming success. Peter Maxwell Davies created the St Magnus Festival in Orkney in 1977 and a similar pattern emerged there too. I remember attending some of the early festivals as an undergraduate, trekking up to Kirkwall with a two-man tent and hardly any money. In church and village halls there would be performances by some of the world’s great musicians, but Max was keen from the start that the local people would have both ownership and input into the proceedings. A Festival Chorus was formed from the people on the islands, and it performed alongside visiting orchestras. Max wrote new works all the time, and some of these were for local performers, including his children’s opera Cinderella, the première of which I attended in 1980.

As the years went by and my own creative life developed I sometimes asked myself if I would ever start a similar festival myself and where it might be. One of the most important lectures I ever heard as a student was from the ethnomusicologist Peter Cooke of Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies. He asked us that when we returned home for the holidays, we should make a note of all the places in our town or village where music was made. This was a revelation for me as I began to think of the various different functions music had in the lives of ordinary people, in ordinary places. In my home town of Cumnock in Ayrshire the main industry was coal-mining, and the brass and silver band tradition was strong there. My grandfather instigated me into that tradition, and there are many other musicians from similar backgrounds who have contributed to musical life in this country, in the orchestras and in education, such as John Wallace. (He is the son of a miner in Fife who went on to be principal trumpet in the Philharmonia Orchestra and London Sinfonietta, and later Principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.)

So there was a social and communitarian dimension to music-making and it was also closely tied to ritual. Some of those rituals were religious, but not all — music filled the dance halls and working men’s clubs where courtship rituals were played out and local folk and pop bands entertained. Singing societies worked hard all year round, preparing amateur operatic works and standard oratorio performances (Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Handel, Stainer, etc.) All these early memories fed my decision to establish my own festival in my old home town. The Cumnock Tryst launched in 2014 with our first concert, given by one of the world’s greatest choirs, The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers in the church where my grandfather and I had aided the liturgy, two generations apart. Local girl Nicola Benedetti is our Patron and brought her trio to the festival in 2016 in performances of Brahms and Ravel Piano Trios which I have never heard surpassed. The Kings Singers have been, and in 2017 we were joined by the choir of Westminster Cathedral, Scottish Ensemble and star Scottish soloists Colin Currie, percussion, and Sean Shibe, guitar.

The brass theme continues year on year. At the 2017 festival the local Dalmellington Band was conducted by Martyn Brabbins, who was a band trombonist before his stellar conducting career took him around the world and most recently to the directorship of English National Opera. Like St Magnus we have also established a Festival Chorus, who are conducted by Eamonn Dougan, (one of the most gifted choral trainers in the land) covering Mozart, Fauré and Vaughan Williams so far. For the 2018 festival I composed a new work specially for the Chorus and Dalmellington Band to mark the centenary of the Armistice of WW1, All the Hills and Vales Along. The performance in the Old Church of Cumnock included the Edinburgh Quartet and star tenor soloist Ian Bostridge. I work with local kids and students, getting them to create their own music for which we give a platform. Some of them have special needs, and work with Drake Music Scotland, proving that disability is no barrier to either a love for or involvement in music. It seems a mad thing to embark on in my middle age, but I love it.

So far we have raised the right funds, but like all working in the arts we proceed with hopes and prayers. All the great musicians I speak to about Cumnock have said yes to me so far, which is monumentally exciting. The Festival Chorus love what we ask them to do and our audience of locals and visitors grows each year. It’s different from the day job and gets me out of the house! Hopefully these happy musical days will return to us soon.

There is something in these musical snapshots which says something about Britain, where we wear our national identity so lightly that we barely notice it, barely celebrate it but just get on with it. It’s our natural everyday musical culture that marks who we are, rather than all the manufactured faux-controversies around the Last Night of the Proms, for example. With depressing inevitability every September out come the various tribal culture warriors of various stripes to cause a row about Land of Hope and Glory, as if this was all the Proms were about. Musicians get really annoyed about this – the political and media class, as well as the usual trouble makers (north and south of the border), give the impression of being entirely ignorant that the Proms festival runs from mid-July to mid-September and consists of dozens of concerts with orchestras, ensembles and soloists from all around the world. And it’s regarded universally as one of the best classical music festivals on the planet. But instead there is this grim fixation with a bit of ironic and not-too-serious patriotism in the festival’s final concert.

The true nature of musical activity in these islands, one based in communities, teeming with the variety and diversity which marks modern Britain, is a far better focus in the celebration of our cultural life: because music is indeed a universal language. It brings people together rather than forcing them apart. It unites people from different backgrounds, classes, demographics, nations, races and religions. It allows musicians to communicate the essence of their local heritages and traditions to other people from all over the world. It brings about a sharing of our common humanity, and the British composer from Robert Carver to our present crop have contributed to this growth in understanding and common good. When their music begins to sound one can almost hear our divisions melt away. What divides us seems to lessen in relevance and ferocity. The vocation for filling our world, our land, with music becomes the one pressing priority for musicians and composers all over these islands that we share.


Photo Credit: Family Concert Ealing Symphony Orchestra. Leader Peter Nall. Conductor John Gibbons. St Barnabas Church, west London. 13th July 2019 Paul Robinson

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