When James MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie premiered at the 1990 BBC Proms, it received an unprecedented ovation.
The composer described the work as a requiem for one of the 4,500 Scottish women burnt as witches in post-Reformation Scotland. A typically canny mix of religion and political commentary, the music is raw, sometimes brutal, and ultimately cathartic. To listeners, it announced the arrival of a fresh and original voice – an angry young man, even – with something important to say.
These days, the 64-year-old – now Sir James MacMillan – is fast approaching ‘national treasure’ status. As his Catholic faith has deepened with age, his music has become more thoughtful, less angsty, but new works can still bring an audience to its feet.
Commissioned by the Genesis Foundation for Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, the 2016 world premiere prompted a standing ovation. The...