A tale of two composers

We attended an art exhibition and musical sing-along at Glasgow’s St Mary’s Cathedral on Saturday night, which is celebrating All Saints’ Tide. The Cathedral serves as a perfect gallery, and the pictures which were by local artists were certainly eclectic.

However, we were there specifically to see two of Scotland’s most prominent composers who had been involved in the planning and execution of the evening which was called ‘Celebrating Three Loves’.

Neither John Bell, nor James MacMillan, can say that they enjoy universal appeal. In this they are no more fortunate than any other composer or writer. In many ways they are different……

  •  John (on the left of the above photo) is a Church of Scotland Minister, extrovert in nature, has a somewhat outrageous dress-sense, achieves an instant rapport with an audience, often writes both words and tunes in his hymns, draws on many traditional secular Scottish tunes, which he then adapts. His great association with Wild Goose Publications and the Iona Community shows the historical background of Scottish religion which he utilises. He also likes a lot of Third-world music and words, and much of this appeared in the programme.  We have a fair experience of his music at the Cathedral and the vast majority is easy to sing. It appears to grow out of nature and relates to contemporary problems of life.


  • James comes from a Catholic background (he and his wife are lay Dominicans), and like John Bell, his faith is very important to him in his personal and musical life. St Anne’s Mass and the Galloway Mass are relatively simple and are suitable for congregational singing. His Mass of 2000 was written for Westminster Cathedral much of it only suitable for liturgical use. He seems to be a much more reserved and introverted person, but perhaps that is not the experience of those who work with him. His music seem to me to be very inward-looking, and comes from deep within his own psyche.

Quite a bit of the evening’s music was written by one or the other. Of course you can’t compare chalk and cheese, and any comments must be made on the merits of any piece to which one is listening. I listened intently to each piece, and whilst not everything was to my particular liking, I had to admit that the whole evening gave us a rare insight into the talent which is about today within our small country. As long as we can all pick and choose the pieces we like, then all is well in our musical firmament……especially when it can be played and sung by the marvellour musicians of St Mary’s.

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