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James MacMillan (1959 -) – “Britannia”

Rarely does the opportunity arise to mention Elgar and Ives in almost the same breath. Intrigued? I hope so. In the late 1980s, the Scottish composer James MacMillan detached himself from the Serialist movement that has largely monopolised “serious” music since the 1950s. Whatever his personal motivations, this proved a smart career-move, because he started writing music which appealed to a wider audience, including many who share Beecham’s opinion of the “Squeaky Gate School” (asked if he’d ever performed any Stockhausen, Sir Thomas famously retorted, “No, but I trod in some once”). 

However, MacMillan didn’t defect to the opposite camp, typified by the anodyne outpourings of Minimalism and Post-Minimalism (whatever that might be). Instead, he inclined towards good, old-fashioned diatonic melody and harmony, propulsive rhythm and dynamism. Nevertheless, his music remained uncompromisingly “modern”, regressing Haydn-wards only inasmuch as it possessed direction and purpose and the courtesy to make these crystal-clear to its audience. 

At the same time, MacMillan developed a liking for large-scale forms, becoming best-known for works like The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (1990) and Veni, Veni, Emmanuel (1992). Nevertheless, like his mentor, Maxwell Davies, MacMillan seems to recognise the value of shorter pieces, more immediately accessible but not necessarily any less challenging. In 1994 he elaborated a sketch, Mémoire Impériale, based on a march melody by General Reid, the 18th. Century founder of Edinburgh University’s Music Department. The result was the orchestral fantasy Britannia, a “celebration of the British orchestra”. 

This is where Elgar and Ives come in! On the one hand, as Elgar had drawn inspiration from the Scottish composer Alexander MacKenzie so, in Britannia, did MacMillan draw inspiration from Elgar, whose Cockaigne Overture furnishes the most prominent of the quoted materials. On the other hand, in the boisterous exposition, MacMillan gleefully dragoons other materials – hot on the heels of a Celtic reel come rather ribald references to Knees Up, Mother Brown and God Save the Queen. Although MacMillan’s presentation is linear rather than chaotic, his effect is often strikingly similar to Ives “on the razzle”! 

All this “joyful noise” sounds suspiciously like an expansion onto a national scale of the spirit of Cockaigne.  However, once an impassioned string phrase, borrowed from Gowdie, has been rudely ruptured by a squawking car horn, the mood changes. A lucently shimmering Celtic idyll is bullied by unruly “imperialist” factions. The strings, initially wringing their hands over such nastiness, gradually relax. Warmth suffuses the orchestra ? only to be met by more abrupt muggings. Brutality takes the ascendent. The returning reel falters, and is overtaken by the racket from “quacker”, car horn and whistle. Britannia ends, not as it began, but in fear-filled stillness. 

The composer himself suggests that the work was, at least partly, politically motivated, alluding to “a time when petty chauvinism threatens to rear up once again throughout Europe”. This is one of those rare works where Evil wins the day. Whilst Cockaigne’s two-faced rôle leaves us wondering who our friends really are, Britannia, like Dickens’s “Ghost of Christmas yet to Come”, shows us what the future might hold if we don’t mend our ways. 

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© Paul Serotsky
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