Skip to main content

James MacMillan

A musical mentor inspired Scotland's best-known composer to hit the high notes

A musical mentor inspired Scotland's best-known composer to hit the high notes

My best teacher was Herbert (Bert) Richardson, who was head of music at Cumnock Academy when I was there for the last four years of secondary school. He later went on to become music adviser for Highland Region. He's been a lifelong friend ever since.

He was an inspirational music teacher and got me very interested in choral music. He was an Ayrshire man and about 10 years older than me, so in his late twenties then. Because of his youth and infectious enthusiasm, he got the most unlikely characters involved in singing.

His main love was Renaissance choral music - the same as me. It's the period I still love - Palestrina, Victoria (whose 400th centenary it is this year), Lassus, as well as Bach and Handel, the Baroque composers.

Cumnock was a place where the children of miners and farmers went to school. I don't think any of us had been exposed to these composers before and we really took to it.

My parents were amateur musicians, and the principal inspiration in my family was my maternal grandfather, who was a miner. In his younger days, he played the euphonium in the colliery band. My main instruments were the cornet and trumpet. I knew I wanted to do music from the very first days of starting to play the piano at the age of nine.

I met Bert when I was 14. He was very untrendy. He used to wear a cardigan at school. He was always called Herbert C Richardson and we used to think the C stood for "cardigan". I suppose he was a young fogey - fresh-faced with floppy hair.

He did lots of extra-curricular stuff with us, although we didn't regard it as extra-curricular then. At half past three, I would go to choir or whatever was going on.

His own teacher had been George McPhee, who is still in charge of music at Paisley Abbey. He runs a fantastic choir there and has maintained an Anglican cathedral tradition in Paisley Abbey, although it's Church of Scotland. So we would come up and sing concerts at Paisley Abbey.

The school choir became a very good-quality choir very quickly and we got on to this circuit of travelling and doing concerts outside school.

It was more of a band school than an orchestra school because of its mining traditions, although I did both because I would play in the County Schools Orchestra which met in Ayr.

It's a mystery what the magic is that's passed on by a teacher to the next generation. I think in his case it was a love of the subject, a love of music that took over his life - and that's still the case.

He runs the music at the Episcopal Cathedral in Inverness and the choir as well - it's something that will live with him forever.

I think he also regarded me as a bit of a collaborator. I was on his wavelength anyway, and therefore maybe I was the one who was able to cajole some of the more unlikely characters in the school to get involved in the choir.

After our age group left school, we maintained contact with Bert through a former pupils' choir, called Manus Cantorem (a handful of singers). We would go back during the university holidays and keep it going and became very good.

I had a little teaching job at Manchester University up until the end of the 1980s. When I finished that, Bert was in the process of setting up a youth orchestra in Highland Region. It was the only region which didn't have an orchestra, because the population was so far-flung, but he managed to do it. He brought me in to participate and lead the residential course for the Highland Regional Youth Orchestra. There were a lot of marvellous young musicians who came from that. One of them was Stuart MacRae, now a leading composer in Scotland.

James MacMillan was talking to Elizabeth Buie. The Scottish premiere of his latest work, St John Passion, will be performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the City Halls in Glasgow on 29 September


Born: Kilwinning, North Ayrshire, 1959

Education: St John's Primary, St Conval's Secondary and Cumnock Academy, all in Cumnock; Edinburgh University and Durham University

Career: Taught music at Manchester University 1986-88; from 1989, freelance composer and conductor.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you