The Kennedy Center

Í (A Meditation on Iona)

About the Work

James MacMillan Composer: James MacMillan
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Scottish composer James MacMillan, born in Kilwinning, Ayshire on July 16, 1959, was educated at the University of Edinburgh (B.Mus., 1981) and the University of Durham (Ph.D., 1987), where his principal teacher was John Casken. After working as a lecturer at Manchester University from 1986 to 1988, MacMillan returned to Scotland, where he has since fulfilled numerous important commissions and taught at the University of Edinburgh and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. He has also served as Artistic Director of the Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust, Affiliate Composer of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Composer/Conductor with the BBC Philharmonic, and Visiting Composer of the Philharmonia Orchestra and Artistic Director of its contemporary music series, Music Today; he becomes Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic in 2010. In 1993, MacMillan won both the Gramophone Contemporary Music Record of the Year Award and the Classic CD Award for Contemporary Music; he was made a CBE in 2004, given the 2008 British Composer Award for Liturgical Music, and named an Honorary Patron of the London Chamber Orchestra in 2008.

Macmillan's compositions, many of which incorporate traditional Scottish elements and bear some stamp of either his religion (Catholicism) or his politics (socialism), include two operas, a St. John Passion, concerted works for piano (The Berserking), percussion (Veni, Veni, Emmanuel), cello, clarinet, organ and trumpet, orchestral scores, chamber works, and pieces for solo voices and chorus. Of his creative personality, MacMillan wrote, "There are strong Scottish traits in my works, but also an aggressive and forthright tendency with a strong rhythmic physicality, showing the influence of Stravinsky, Messiaen and some minimalist composers.... My philosophy of composition looks beyond the introversion of the New Music 'ghetto' and seeks a wider communication while in no way promoting a compromising populism.... The 'modernist' zeal of the post-World War II generation of composers who attempted to eschew any continuation of tradition is anathema to me. I respect tradition in many forms, whether cultural, political or historical, and in keeping up a continuous, delicate scrutiny of old forms, ancient traditions, enduring beliefs and lasting values one is strengthened in one's constant, restless search for new avenues of expression. The existence of the influence of the old alongside the experiments of the new should not appear incongruous. Therefore, in ideological terms, my works express the timeless truths of Roman Catholicism alongside a fierce social commitment. And musically one can hopefully sense the depths of times past integrating with attempts at innovation."

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Iona lies off the west coast of Scotland, among the rugged Inner Hebrides, about seven miles south of Staffa, the remote island populated only by puffins that is best known for the eerie geological feature which inspired Felix Mendelssohn's moody Fingal's Cave Overture. Iona, just four miles by two, has been occupied since the Iron Age, but it came to figure prominently in Scottish history when St. Columba, exiled from his native Ireland over a religious dispute that escalated into bloodshed, landed on the island with twelve followers in 563 AD. The monastery that Columba established there became a center of learning and a base for the spread of Christianity across Scotland. Columba was known in Scottish Gaelic as Chaluim Chille--"Dove of the Church"--and the spot of land where he settled as Í [island] Chaluim Chille. Iona (its modern name seems to be an 18th-century misreading of another by which it was known in earlier times: Ivova--"island of yews") became a pilgrimage destination following Columba's death in 597, and its monastery was the burial site of the country's early royalty, most famously Mac Bethad mac Findlaích--Macbeth--the King of the Scots who was killed in battle against the invading English in 1057.

In 1996, MacMillan composed Í (A Meditation on Iona) on a collaborative commission from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with sculptor Sue Jane Taylor, known for her representations of workers and sites in the North Sea oil fields. Gerald Larner, writing for The Times of London, described Taylor's work, which was seen in the hall when Macmillan's piece was premiered in Glasgow on February 21, 1997, as "sand-blasted glass panels mounted against a black background and so illuminated as to offer an eerie negative image of Iona seen from across the sea. The composer and sculptor are clearly both impressed not only by the beauty but also by the religious associations of the island." MacMillan wrote of his music, "Í (A Meditation on Iona), a pensive and reflective work for strings and percussion lasting about fifteen minutes, is mostly slow and static. It is built around a few recurrent melodic motives which revolve in a cyclic and episodic structure. Sometimes the material is very simple, like a single tolling metallic sound accompanied by slowly shifting chords, or a fragmented and hesitant solo violin or viola accompanied by patiently evolving clusters and chords. Sometimes, the material is more assertive, involving trills, tremolandi, glissandi and low, heavy chords with primally simple percussive ideas. The whole is intended to give an impression of the island of Iona, where St. Columba lived and died. It is a place of stark and desolate beauty, a focus of deep spiritual resonance and historical significance."