Sir James MacMillan is one of today’s most successful composers and performs internationally as a conductor. His musical language is flooded with influences from his Scottish heritage, Catholic faith, social conscience and close connection with Celtic folk music, blended with influences from Far Eastern, Scandinavian and Eastern European music.
My relationship with the music of William Byrd goes back to my teenage years in the 1970s when our visionary music teacher at school in Ayrshire Bert Richardson introduced the school choir to the Four Part Mass. This was music that was unusual for us all, sons and daughters of Scottish miners and farmers, but we seemed to embrace it. Its high seriousness and complexity appealed. We could really get our teeth into it and the hard work paid off. And the resulting numinous depth to the music felt powerful.
Looking back on it our school choir was pretty good – there is a video on YouTube of us singing Holst’s Awake, Awake on a Scottish Television programme in 1976 which sounds quite polished. We all look ridiculous though, in our prim and proper school uniforms and clashing heavy metal hair styles. On the video I’m standing next to my then new girlfriend Lynne with whom I celebrate our fortieth wedding anniversary next year.
Anyway, as well as Byrd and Holst we were singing Palestrina, Monteverdi, Lassus and Telemann during these years and I count the experiences as seminal to my own work as a composer. My fascination with Byrd continued at Edinburgh University where I ended up conducting some of the Four Part Mass and bits of the Three Part Mass at the ordinations of some young Dominican Friars during the following years. I was amazed at the political and theological turbulence which marked the time when these pieces (and the Five Part Mass) were written. I was astonished to learn that if the composer had been found with the published scores on his person he could have been arrested, such was the repression of Catholic ways at the time in Elizabethan England.
I pictured the scenario of how these Masses would have been first used – in secret, one singer to a part, musicians and a small band of terrified worshippers hiding and praying in a secluded back room somewhere. The priest, if caught could have lost his life.
I’ve always had a profound admiration for William Byrd for remaining true to his faith in these desperate days. So when I was asked to write something to mark the four hundredth year since his death the conversation I had with Pat Dunachie from The Kings’ Singers proved to be crucial. Byrd himself had composed a devastatingly sad lament, Ye Sacred Muses on the death of his friend Thomas Tallis, culminating in the words Tallis is dead, and Music dies.
I have set the same text for the King’s Singers and Fretwork and changed only one word. Instead of Tallis, my piece ends Will is dead, and Music dies.
MacMillan's new work for the King's Singers and Fretwork, Ye Sacred Muses, can be previewed and pre-ordered at Presto Music. Album released on 13 January.