He kept a royal secret for 11 years. Then 4 billion people heard it

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Few, if any, composers can claim to have had a simultaneous audience of up to 4 billion people for their music. It’s a boast Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan can make – if he was the boastful type.

The occasion was Queen Elizabeth’s funeral at Westminster Abbey last year, and the piece, written for eight-part a cappella choir, was entitled Who Shall Separate Us.

MacMillan had been commissioned to write Who Shall Separate Us 11 years prior and then sworn to strict secrecy by Buckingham Palace. In the intervening years he had all but forgotten about it.

Sir James MacMillan is remarkable for the depth and variety of his musical output.Credit: James Bellorini

“I was called into a meeting and told that this was one of the Queen’s favourite passages from scripture and asked to write it,” he recalls, speaking from his home near Glasgow.

“I wrote it very quickly, way back then, and it was sent to the abbey and it went straight into a drawer and stayed there until, I suppose, the day she died. I’d kind of forgotten about it, to be honest.”

When the choir of Westminster Abbey and the choir of the Chapel Royal performed Who Shall Separate Us, MacMillan instantly became one of the best-known contemporary composers in the world, given the estimated broadcast audience.

“It’s an incredible thought and it will never happen again,” he says. “I had to pinch myself when I was told that.”

Was it hard to keep a lid on that secret royal commission for more than a decade?

“I’m quite proud that I didn’t really tell many people,” he says. “I told my wife and my children, but I knew that my children wouldn’t tell anybody because anything I tell the children, even now, goes in one ear and out the other.”

Australian audiences will get the chance to experience MacMillan’s sublime writing for choir when Sydney Philharmonia Choirs stages the Australian premiere of another work, his Stabat Mater. Tackled by many composers from the 16th century onwards, it is a setting of a 13th-century text that tells of Mary’s anguish as she stands at the foot of the cross.

In 2018 it became the first work to be streamed live from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Meanwhile, reviewer Marc Rochester, writing in Gramophone magazine, concluded that “posterity might well judge this to be a 21st-century masterpiece”.

“The Stabat Mater is probably the most famous telling of this story in music,” says MacMillan. “It becomes a profoundly personal focus on the mother of God and a very human experience of a woman experiencing the torture and death of her son. And that there was a deeply human story to be told. It was focused on a mother’s grief.”

MacMillan’s lifelong fascination with the possibilities of music began when, as a youngster, he was handed a recorder, which felt like “a light going on”.

“I developed a facility and enjoyment with the instrument and I wanted to play more instruments,” he says.

He quickly moved on to the trumpet and cornet, encouraged by his grandfather, a former coal miner steeped in the brass-band tradition, something that has stayed with MacMillan.

‘I love writing music. I’m continually excited by and provoked by new challenges.’

“I use brass a lot in my orchestral music,” he says. “I’m always looking for ways to imagine the brass choir as an object of delicacy and sometimes serenity. There are ways of using brass that go beyond the archetypal – it’s not all hunting horns and fanfares.”

Much of MacMillan’s output is deeply spiritual, informed by his Catholicism. He is also remarkable for the sheer depth of his compositional styles. Included in his prodigious catalogue are symphonies, chamber works, works for choirs small and large, operas and even two percussion concertos.

“One of the most exciting things about being a composer is the limitless range of challenges,” he says. “There are some things I wouldn’t do. I wouldn’t write an operetta, I suppose. I wouldn’t write a musical. But … I’m still pushing the boat out. I will continue to try many diverse things.”

And, at 64, MacMillan, who was knighted in 2015 for services to music, has no shortage of inspiration for new work.

“I do feel in quite a fluent phase just now at this time of my life, touch wood,” he says. “The ideas are coming quite freely. There have been times where there have been relative dry periods, I suppose, and they might come up again.

“I love writing music. I’m continually excited by and provoked by new challenges.”

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs performs MacMillan’s Stabat Mater, Saturday, October 14, 4.30pm, St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney.

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