An Open Letter To Sir James MacMillan, CBE
MacMillan is an Ayrshire born composer. There are times I don’t believe he exists so extreme and hair-brained are his published pronouncements on Scotland’s culture. Alas, the evidence is overwhelming – he really does exist. I have some of his music on CDs.
MacMillan’s regular leaden fulminations are risible; there is an acrid whiff of kow-towing to the elite. For example, in an article penned for the Spectator – that Scotland loving rag – he chooses to let the creative community in Scotland know they are duffers, second-rate, losers. It’s an extraordinary outburst.
MacMillan must shiver given the affectionate title of Scotland’s national composer, but delight in the category of ‘leading Catholic composer’, bestowed upon him by the Catholic church. Therein lies his strength and his catastrophic weakness. He is at home with ritual, unquestioning loyalty, supplication. He exemplifies Scotland’s cultural cringe.
MacMillan’s rush to be painted among the saints on the apse contrasts poorly with English national composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams refused a knighthood a record three times. “I want people to know I’m approachable. They can knock on my door and commission work anytime.”
Almost from the day he came to public notice with his London Proms premiere of “The Confession of Isobel Gowdie“, MacMillan has chosen to identify with the establishment of church and state. He collaborates with the Catholic church both in musical projects and in politics. I would describe him as a liturgical composer.
Luckily for him, the Scottish government chooses to exercise diplomatic decorum over his barroom bollocks. Fools who think democracy the preserve of the privileged and the wealthy repeat his fabrications with glee.
MacMillan is outraged that the people of Scotland, many English, do not conform to his idea of a strict two-party democracy, Labour and Tory, these days perceived as one party, the Business Party. He is furious we voted for a third party, one dedicated to the interests of Scotland. This he condemns as a one-party state, one in which there is a voting system that guarantees those with the fewest popular votes will still gain a seat in parliament, and the presiding party is likely to be a minority government.
MacMillan the Frustrated Priest
MacMillan joins that happy clappy band of slanderous colonials, their condescension equivalent to their treatment of that “little naked Indian fakir Gandhi”. (Churchill.)
By repetition in the right-wing press MacMillan demonstrates he’s an opponent of elementary civil rights.
A far as one can tell MacMillan thinks the Nazi party run Scotland. This is an unusual attitude from an obsessional lay Dominican of the Catholic Church, (as is his wife) the same church that invented the Inquisition, a brutal, fundamentalist inner group that, to most people’s surprise, still exists. It torments unorthodox South American priests these days because they’re easy targets, individuals not under the gaze of the western press.
The Dominican order was established in 1216, just about the time MacMillan’s intellectual development ceased. It’s a sect commissioned to go out and preach rather than stay cloistered in monasteries.
I am unsure to which task MacMillan gives priority, composing or converting, because the tenets of Catholicism infects, (my choice of verb, he’d say infuses) all his music. To hear him speak politics is to hear him waffle, hesitate, unable to make his thoughts coherent. To hear his compositions is to listen to the Catholic Mass in Latin.
Catholicism Good, Civil Rights Bad
To be a good Catholic, indeed, to remain a Catholic, you must ignore the edicts of the Pope, so anti-life and anti-happiness is the church’s demands on strict adherence to Catholic law. In fact, you also have to stomach the permanent destruction of trust caused by rapacious paedophile priests, the protection of those criminals by cardinals, and the well-recorded money laundering of the Vatican bank.
None of those ‘indiscretions’ appear in MacMillan’s compositions sacrées, and nothing of the Catholic church’s attitude to abortion, a creed that condemns a victim of rape and syphilis to give birth. You won’t find MacMillan speaking out against those crimes in the Spectator magazine or elsewhere.
Achieving a balance
MacMillan claims “culture and education are being weaponised [sic] by political voices.” What political voices? If they exist outside his head do they have influence, do they have power? Does he refer to over 300 years of inculcation by our colonial neighbour? Or does he refer to an understandable reassessment of standards and values by people in the street enjoying Scotland’s New Enlightenment?
He dislikes us questioning whether the works of Shakespeare and Dickens are the be-and-end-all of literature, and he finds it intolerable that we discover some of our own of the highest standard but ignored. Damn it all, to MacMillan’s disgust Scots even win English prizes – Booker, Turner, and are given CBEs. Maybe he should return his bauble.
Evidence? What evidence? I have hearsay.
Without a shred of evidence MacMillan asserts, “Teachers were complaining that they were being railroaded into abandoning Shakespeare and Dickens in favour of ‘dire’ modern Scottish works.” Teachers banned Rowling’s tombstone books because they are poorly written. (And full of violence.)
Who is judging Scottish works “dire”? What works are they talking about? What criteria do they draw upon to dismiss the works? Are our writers, painters, poets only to be recognised and studied if approved by London’s glitterati?
MacMillan is not claiming Scottish teachers dismiss the greats of England’s yesteryear as second-rate. He is saying some teachers judge Scotland’s “artists” [he means artistes] second-rate set against an English equivalent. I hear that colonial bell clanging loudly.
MacMillan conjures comparisons from thin air:
“Boosterism is widespread: Scottish works are treated as simultaneously sublime and neglected. J.D. Fergusson is greater than Matisse; Hamish MacCunn is greater than Mahler; Alasdair Gray is greater than James Joyce.”
Hamish MacCunn is probably on par with the English Eric Coates. Both wrote overly jaunty, patriotic works in praise of their nation. They were of their time.
No experienced painter or art historian would raise JD Fergusson to the ranks of Matisse, he was too influenced by his friends to be truly original. But there is justified argument in stating the Glasgow Boys created images easily as good if not ahead of Parisian contemporaries. Some English art critics and historians have come around to that thinking recently. Why should we not teach our children to look at Scottish-born artists?
As for Alasdair Gray, we Scots ignored him as a novelist until English elevated him, rightly, and who now patronise us by suggesting we should look after him better, as if we have the media to promote him.
The British national media promote their own. They find Scottish culture not to their taste unless it can make lots of money. But to get that largesse you must first declare yourself not a Scottish artiste, but a British one.
More Spurious Comparisons
Raise standards, know what is best, better or mediocre. Let us study Dürer in Scottish schools as well as Hockney, in addition to our own graphic artists such as John Byrne.
MacMillan’s rants are utterly crazy. If some SNP MP suggests we should study Scottish history more than we do, is that sinister?
I am challenging his banal political outlook not his music, though I could take a swipe at its echoes of Bruckneresque flows and ebbs. I’ve worked with composers on many projects. But I’ve never worked with a composer whose parallel job is to vilify an elected administration of his own nation with falsehood and fabrication.
Any administration has a duty to point out to teachers a syllabus bereft of balance in history studies about aesthetics, dance, poetry, and architecture, particularly a culturally colonialized nation used to its history rewritten, its culture side-lined.
A charge of, say, poor music provision in secondary education is an acceptable criticism of a concerned composer, but MacMillan has a loftier agenda. He has even turned upon his own church authorities accusing them of sucking up to the SNP.
Shock! Horror! Composer praises Scotland
What the hell has Scotland done to deserve a composer who berates his own people, and holds deranged notions of enemies within our borders?
When war broke out in 1939 the patriotic Finnish composer and violinist, Jean Sibelius, refused to leave his homeland. “These foreigners do not understand that a Finn does not leave his country at the moment of danger.” If only MacMillan held the same affinity with his homeland in the age Scotland embarks on a New Enlightenment.
MacMillan must shudder asked to conduct the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. If he had his way he would pare it down to the ‘Royal Orchestra’ and domicile it in London. His outrageous assertions of nefarious conduct by the SNP deserve oblivion, but the problem is, in his effort to disparage he insults an entire nation.
(After publishing this essay MacMillan blocked access to his Twitter site – he believes in demeaning a nation’s culture but not in hearing counter-argument.)