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Sir James MacMillan Lecture – ‘Catholicism and Music’

Monday 14 December 2020

Sir James MacMillan’s lecture ‘Catholicism and Music,’ given as part of the Ushaw Lecture Series in partnership with The Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University and ITIA at St Andrews, is now available online.

Lecture Description

Speaking to a theme of ‘Catholicism and music,’ Sir James starts by posing the question whether he was a Catholic composer or a composer who happens to be Catholic.

Taking aim at a popular prejudice that religion cannot produce anything cutting-edge in modern art and that it is old hat, Sir James says that Catholicism creates its best works when it recognises itself as a counter cultural force. As such, he says that modern scholarship needs to appreciate the spiritual influence behind great works of music, which underlines the potency of Christian-inspired culture for music-making. In short, he maintains, it is incomplete to study music without considering the religious ideas of the composer.

Sir James argues that religion has played a huge role in musical modernity, highlighting J. S. Bach and Olivier Messiaen as composers who could be described as theologians. He says that it is the search for the sacred that defines great works and that resacralising a desacralised world has always been central to serious artists.

As an example, Sir James points to Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites as the most successful opera of the last seventy years, yet highlights the fact that it is centred on proclaiming Catholic truths against a vicious secularism. As such, Sir James says that composers and modernity can open up that window of God’s love affair with humanity in a seamless way, and that Catholic artists should feel no shame in doing just that.

Responses are offered by

– Prof. Bennett Zon (Professor of Music at Durham University, and co-founder and Director of the International Network for Music Theology)
– Dr George Corbett (Senior Lecturer in Theology and the Arts at the University of St Andrews)

About Sir James MacMillan

Sir James MacMillan is one of today’s most successful composers; his musical language is flooded with influences from his Scottish heritage, Catholic faith, social conscience and close connection with Celtic folk music, blended with influences from Far Eastern, Scandinavian and Eastern European music.

Sir James first became internationally recognised after the extraordinary success of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at the BBC Proms in 1990. His prolific output has since been performed and broadcast around the world. His major works include percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, which has received close to 500 performances, a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich and five symphonies.

Sir James completed his PhD at Durham University in the 1980s and is Professor of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St Andrews.

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