James MacMillan

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James MacMillan
Born (1959-07-16) 16 July 1959 (age 64)
Kilwinning, Scotland
EducationUniversity of Edinburgh
  • Conductor
  • Composer
OrganizationsBBC Philharmonic

Sir James Loy MacMillan, CBE TOSD (born 16 July 1959) is a Scottish classical composer and conductor.

Early life[edit]

MacMillan was born at Kilwinning, in North Ayrshire, but lived in the East Ayrshire town of Cumnock until 1977. His father is James MacMillan, a carpenter,[1] and his mother is Ellen MacMillan (née Loy).[2]

He studied composition at the University of Edinburgh with Rita McAllister and Kenneth Leighton,[3] and at Durham University with John Casken, where he gained an undergraduate degree and then a PhD degree in 1987. At Durham he was a member of the College of St Hild and St Bede as an undergraduate student[4] and the Graduate Society while studying for his PhD.[5] He was a lecturer in music at the Victoria University of Manchester from 1986 to 1988. After his studies, MacMillan returned to Scotland, composing prolifically, and becoming Associate Composer with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, often working on education projects. As a young man he was briefly a member of the Young Communist League.[1]

Rising success[edit]

He came to the attention of the classical establishment with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's premiere of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at the BBC Proms in 1990. Isobel Gowdie was one of many women executed for witchcraft in 17th-century Scotland. According to the composer, "On behalf of the Scottish people the work craves absolution and offers Isobel Gowdie the mercy and humanity that was denied her in the last days of her life."[6]

The work's international acclaim spurred more high-profile commissions, including a percussion concerto for fellow Scot Evelyn Glennie: Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. It was premiered in 1992 and has become MacMillan's most performed work. He was also asked by Mstislav Rostropovich to compose his Cello Concerto, which was premiered by Rostropovich in 1997.

Further successes have included his second opera The Sacrifice, commissioned by Welsh National Opera, Autumn 2007, which won a Royal Philharmonic Society Award, and the St John Passion jointly commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and Boston Symphony Orchestra[7] and conducted by Sir Colin Davis at its world premiere in April 2008. He was awarded the British Composer Award for Liturgical Music, for his Strathclyde Motets, in December 2008.

In 2019, The Guardian ranked MacMillan's Stabat Mater the 23rd greatest work of art music since 2000.[8]

In 2024, he was became a Fellow of The Ivors Academy, the 26th person to be so honoured.[9]


MacMillan's music is infused with the spiritual and the political. His Catholic faith has inspired many of his sacred works; for example, a Magnificat (1999), and several masses. This central strand of his life and compositions was marked by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in early 2005, with a survey of his music entitled From Darkness into Light. MacMillan and his wife are lay Dominicans, and he has collaborated with Michael Symmons Roberts, a Catholic poet, and also Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.[citation needed] Perhaps his most political work is Cantos Sagrados (1990), a setting of Latin American poetry by Ariel Dorfman and Ana Maria Mendoza, combining elements of liberation theology with more conventional religious texts. MacMillan has explicitly stated that his aim in writing this work was to emphasise 'a deeper solidarity with the poor of that subcontinent' in the context of political repression.[10]

Scottish traditional music has also had a profound musical influence, and is frequently discernible in his works. When the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999 after 292 years, a fanfare composed by MacMillan accompanied Elizabeth II into the parliamentary chamber. Weeks after the opening ceremony, MacMillan launched a vigorous attack on sectarianism in Scotland, particularly anti-Catholicism, in a speech entitled "Scotland's Shame".[11]

His Mass of 2000 was commissioned by Westminster Cathedral and contains sections which the congregation may join in singing.[12] Similarly, the St Anne's Mass and Galloway Mass do not require advanced musicianship, being designed to be taught to a congregation.

One of his most important commissions (by the Bishops' Conferences of England & Wales and of Scotland) was to write a new mass setting for choir and congregation to be sung at two of the three masses celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI during his apostolic and state visit to Great Britain in 2010. First sung at mass at Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, on 16 September, it was sung again at the mass and beatification of John Henry Newman at Cofton Park, Birmingham, on 19 September). He was also commissioned to write a setting of the text Tu es Petrus (Matthew 16:18) for the Pope's entry at mass at Westminster Cathedral on 18 September.

BBC Radio 4 broadcast in 2020–2021 Faith in Music, Macmillan's examination of religious faith in the work of seven composers from Thomas Tallis to Leonard Bernstein.[13]

Appointments and collaborations[edit]

MacMillan was composer and conductor with the BBC Philharmonic from 2000 to 2009, following which he took up a position as principal guest conductor with the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic.[citation needed] His collaboration with Michael Symmons Roberts continued with his second opera, The Sacrifice (based on the ancient Welsh tales of the Mabinogion), being premiered by Welsh National Opera in Autumn 2007. Sundogs, a large-scale work for a cappella choir, also using text by Symmons Roberts, was premiered by the Indiana University Contemporary Vocal Ensemble in August 2006.

He is an honorary fellow of Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, and Professor of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Mary's College, St Andrews. He is one of the patrons of St Mary's Music School in Edinburgh, the London Oratory School Schola, The British Art Music Series,[14] and of the Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School.

He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2004, and a Knight Bachelor in 2015.[15]

In 2008, he became honorary patron of London Chamber Orchestra's LCO New: Explore project, which explores links between music and other art forms and fosters emerging creative talent in composition.[16]

Personal life[edit]

MacMillan married Lynne Frew in 1983; they have two daughters and a son.[2][17] He also had a granddaughter, Sara Maria, who had Dandy–Walker syndrome.[18]

Key works[edit]



  • MacMillan, James (11 October 2008). "In harmony with heaven". The Tablet. pp. 12–13.


Critical studies and reviews[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Desert Island Discs, Sir James MacMillan". BBC Radio 4. 8 October 2017. Retrieved 12 April 2023.
  2. ^ a b "Macmillan, Sir James (Loy), (born 16 July 1959), composer and conductor; Professor of Theology, Imagination and the Arts, University of St Andrews, since 2015; Professor, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, since 2014". Who's Who & Who Was Who. 2007. doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.U26119. ISBN 978-0-19-954088-4. Retrieved 16 July 2021.
  3. ^ MacMillan 2019.
  4. ^ "Newswire: New York Fundraising Gala Dinner". Dunelm – Durham University Alumni Community. November 2017. Retrieved 21 October 2023.[failed verification]
  5. ^ "The Queen's Birthday Honours 2015". Dunelm Magazine (2): 33. 2016. Retrieved 8 November 2018.
  6. ^ "The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (1990)", work details and composer's notes, Boosey & Hawkes. Retrieved 2023-10-21.
  7. ^ "MacMillan". Boston Symphony Orchestra program notes. Archived from the original on 25 September 2010. Retrieved 12 January 2010.
  8. ^ Clements, Andrew; Maddocks, Fiona; Lewis, John; Molleson, Kate; Service, Tom; Jeal, Erica; Ashley, Tim (12 September 2019). "The best classical music works of the 21st century". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  9. ^ "Sir James MacMillan becomes a Fellow of The Ivors Academy, recognising his legacy in contemporary composition". The Ivors Academy. 14 March 2024. Retrieved 17 March 2024.
  10. ^ Sam Laughton, notes to Signum Records CD SIGCD507 (2004).
  11. ^ "Scotland's shame". BBC News. 9 August 1999. Retrieved 12 January 2010.
  12. ^ "James MacMillan – Mass". Boosey & Hawkes. Retrieved 12 January 2010.
  13. ^ "Faith in Music programme listing, BBC Radio 4
  14. ^ "People". The British Art Music Series. Retrieved 21 October 2023.
  15. ^ "Queen’s birthday honours: Here’s the full list" by Amy Willis, Metro, 13 June 2015. Retrieved 21 October 2023
  16. ^ "James MacMillan – Classical Music Composers". Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Retrieved 11 December 2015.
  17. ^ "Composer James MacMillan on the failings of the Catholic church, writing music for open-air papal gatherings and voting Tory". The Herald. Glasgow. 9 August 2010. Retrieved 16 July 2014.
  18. ^ Sir James MacMillan (21 January 2016). "Blessed by a little angel". Catholic Herald. Retrieved 21 October 2023.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Reviews of world première of the Violin Concerto[edit]

Review of Seven Last Words from the Cross[edit]

Personal life[edit]