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This summer Sir James MacMillan turns 60. One of the UK’s most successful contemporary composers, this prolific figure is closely identified with his Scottish nationality, his Roman Catholic faith and his social conscience – aspects of what makes MacMillan tick that are reflected fully in his output. And what a wide- ranging and consistent output it is! Accomplished in virtually every available genre, MacMillan has notably enriched the orchestral, choral and operatic fields. As the Guardian said of him, he is ‘a composer so confident of his own musical language that he makes it instantly communicative to his listeners.’

As Phillip A. Cooke admits, it can be difficult writing about a living composer, who could quite easily have another quarter of a century of musical creativity ahead of him. And being first in the field comes with its own issues. Yet there are advantages too: Cooke has benefited from access to the composer, though one suspects MacMillan has preserved a respectable distance from influencing Cooke’s text.

Cooke is shrewd in being selective in what he discusses from MacMillan’s vast output (over 250 individual items). He focuses on what are generally regarded as the composer’s most significant pieces. For example, he pays close attention to The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (the work that first brought MacMillan to wider attention), Veni, Veni Emmanuel (effectively a percussion concerto for Evelyn Glennie) and the Seven Last Words from the Cross, to name but three. More recent works, such as the Symphony no.4 and Stabat Mater – the latter had a powerful effect on its first audiences – are mentioned but do not receive discussion from Cooke; perhaps they came too late for his text and will surely feature 10 or 15 years hence in a revised, updated edition. But the reader can be confident that Cooke has focused on all the significant works that reveal the development of MacMillan’s art.

Cooke is an authoritative companion as the reader makes his chronological route through MacMillan’s development as a composer. The author is in full command of his material and has a clear and precise prose style. His musical analysis is aided by the judicious inclusion of music examples, which will satisfy the specialist reader but won’t leave the non-specialist yet musically literate enthusiast floundering. He relates most of his musical discussion of MacMillan’s œuvre to the composer’s life, beliefs and aesthetics, an approach that seems ideal for a composer who reflects so much of the contemporary world and the human condition. Indeed, in this admirable volume, Cooke uncovers much of what it means to be a classical composer in the 21st century.

PHILIP REED Read the full review on Agora Classica

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