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 pronouncements on Scotland’s culture. I think he’s simply invented by adversaries of social progress who want to ridicule ‘upstart’ Scots, but the evidence is overwhelming that he really does exist. I have some of his music on CDs.
MacMillan’s regular little fulminations are risible, but this time around, in an article penned for the Spectator, he chooses to let the creative community in Scotland know they are duffers, second-rate, losers. It’s an extraordinary outburst. Writer Alan Bissett gets it in the neck most of all.
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. 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 who refused a knighthood a recorded 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.
The Scottish government chooses to exercise diplomatic decorum over his bar room bollocks. Fools who think democracy the preserve of the privileged and the wealthy repeat his fabrications with glee. It’s instructive MacMillan cannot perceive the deep contempt for democracy revealed by his supporters, or that he carries on their odious practices.
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’s outrageous assertions of nefarious conduct by the SNP deserve oblivion, but the problem is, in his effort to disparage he insults an entire nation.
MacMillan the Frustrated Priest
MacMillan joins that happy clappy band of slanderous colonials, their cacophonous condescension equivalent to their treatment of that “little naked Indian fakir Gandhi”. (Churchill.) He’s a kind of crusading Richard the Lionheart taking time off from mandolin lessons to lop the head off a passing heretic, but pudgier. By repetition in the right-wing press MacMillan demonstrates conclusively that he’s an opponent of elementary civil rights. That is crystal clear from the excerpts reproduced below.
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 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.
It is difficult to know 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 have to 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 corruption of the Vatican.
None of those ‘indiscretions’ appear in MacMillan’s compositions sacrées, and nothing of the Catholic church’s attitude to abortion, where a victim of rape and syphilis is condemned to give birth. You won’t find MacMillan speaking out against those crimes in the Spectator magazine or elsewhere.
MacMillan claims that “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? Or is he referring to an enthusiastic reassessing of standards and values by people in the street, cafes, and houses 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 is of the highest standard, and maybe Tolstoy is worth a read too. Damn it all, to MacMillan’s disgust they even win English prizes – Booker, Turner, and are given CBEs.
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.” Some teachers are old school, without literary imagination? That’s news? I want to know more. 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 saying the greats of England’s yesteryear are being dismissed as second-rate. He is saying some teachers judge Scotland’s “artists” [He means artistes] second-rate set against an English equivalent. Oh dear. I can 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 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 were creating images easily as good if not better than their Parisian contemporaries. Some English art critics and historians have come round to that thinking.
As for Alasdair Gray, we Scots ignored him. It was English who elevated him, rightly, and who patronise us by suggesting we should look after him better as if we have the media to promote him.
What MacMillan omits in his defamation list is the machinery of England’s creative community. The British national media promote their own. They find Scottish culture not to their taste unless it can make them lots of money. But to get that largesse you must first declare yourself not a Scottish artiste, but an British one.
More Spurious Comparisons
Is David Hockney a great painter? He is not. He is a very fine graphic artist. How fine a graphic artist? As fine as Dürer? Hell no. Does it matter? Probably not, but over-praising him certainly does. Hockney commands oodles of annual press coverage if he as much as drops a splatter of acrylic on his jacket. No Scottish painter receives the same attention. So much for our “one nation pooling and sharing”.
The answer is simple. Raise standards, know what is best, better or just basic. Let us study Dürer in Scottish schools as well as Hockney, in addition to our own graphic artists.
I could go on. 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, in aesthetic education, in dance, and poetry, and architecture, particularly a culturally colonialized nation used to its history rewritten and 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
Many classical composers were inspired by Scotland and its people, Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra comes to mind. Beethoven set a few of Robert Burns’ poems to music. Chopin writes in his diaries of having a pleasant time visiting Scotland.
Peter Maxwell Davis did us proud. He loved living in Orkney. He denounced Blair and Brown’s part in the Iraq war, not Scotland’s culture. In Sibelius’ case the Finnish people looked to him for strength and example.
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.