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MacMillan, James

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One of the most prolific in the UK, Scottish composer James MacMillan’s music is oft-programmed and recorded. But exactly who is he? Here’s a brief guide…

Who is James MacMillan

When was James MacMillan born?

James MacMillan – middle name ‘Loy’, if you’re interested – was born in Kilwinning, North Ayrshire in Scotland on 16 July 1959. A proud Scotsman, MacMillan lives not too far away from there today, in Glasgow. He studied at Edinburgh and Durham Universities in the 1980s, with the likes of Kenneth Leighton and John Casken, before joining the teaching staff at Manchester University for a spell.

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What sort of music does James MacMillan write?

A lot of MacMillan’s music is inspired by elements of spirituality, politics and his Scottish roots; it’s also known for being emotional and meditative. He has written music in all the major forms – including at least five symphonies, a handful of piano concertos and six operas, plus a huge amount of choral music.

What was James MacMillan’s big break?

1990 was a big year for the composer. He premiered Tryst at the St Magnus Festival and was soon snapped up by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra as an affiliate composer. That same year his work The Confession of Isobel Gowdie was premiered at the BBC Proms by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop. That opened the ears of the world to his music and international commissions followed.

What are James MacMillan best works?

The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (1990) is a symphonic Requiem for the real-life 17th-century Scot, who was burned as a witch. Its success at the Proms led to the commissioning of another of his most popular works, the percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel – which was written for Evelyn Glennie. It has been performed all over the world, at least 500 times. His 1993 cantata, The Seven Last Words from the Cross has been followed by other spiritual works for choir, including a Stabat Mater (2015), St John Passion (2008) and St Luke Passion (2013). Another notable works is 2004’s A Scotch Bestiary, which was written to inaugurate the new pipe organ at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Can James MacMillan conduct?

Why yes he can! In fact he was a regular with the BBC Philharmonic in the early noughties and was principal guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic. He has also conducted his own works in concert and on recordings.

Isn’t James MacMillan a Sir?

That’s right, ‘Sir James’ arose in 2015 after he made it on the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. That wasn’t his first visit to Buckingham Palace, though, for he had already been awarded a CBE in 2004.

James MacMillan’s best recordings

Evelyn Glennie’s recording of Veni, Veni, Emmanuel with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra ought to be in your collection… (RCA Red Seal)

James MacMillan himself conducts this recording of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, along with his Third Symphony… (Chandos)

Read our reviews of the latest James Macmillan recordings

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Top image credit: Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images