It’s a tribute to music’s power and diversity that this title could mean so many things. On this occasion, I’m looking at contemporary classical music from Scotland. No way can one single post do it justice, but hopefully I might entice you to try something new. 

Don’t forget, if you’re interested in exploring further, we have scores, books, and CDs which can be requested for collection from the Library of Birmingham when we’re open. Just check our online catalogue .  

Scottish Romantics

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Jacob More’s ‘The Falls of Clyde: Corra Linn’, c. 1771 (National Gallery via Wikipedia)

First, I thought I’d pause briefly in the late nineteenth-century. Scottish romantic composers are well worth exploring. Alexander Mackenzie and Hamish MacCunn are just a couple of  notable examples. As in much of the musical romanticism happening in other European countries, nationalism was a significant component. 

Scottish composers sought to make their music sound as if it had ‘Made in Scotland’ stamped on it. Some pieces describe the geography or people, others, folklore. Songs or stage works use local ballads. or texts by distinctively Scottish poets.  Listen to these two examples and see if you agree.

Mackenzie: Pibroch for violin and orchestra

Hamish MacCunn:  Highland Memories, Harvest Dance

Peter Maxwell Davies

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Stromness, Orkney

Do you need to be born in Scotland for your music to sound Scottish? Does it really matter either way? Why should music composed in a particular country have to sound as though it comes from there? These are questions I’ve borne in mind while writing this post.

For many people who know the music of Peter Maxwell Davies , I imagine they associate it closely with Scotland and the Orkney Isles. Yet the composer was born in Lancashire and studied in Manchester and the USA. In the period before he moved to Orkney in the late 1960s, his music was avant-garde and sometimes challenging. Have a listen to the music theatre piece Eight Songs for a Mad King

Once settled on Orkney, Maxwell Davies identified strongly with the island. Environmental issues were a topic that concerned him. When there was a proposal to extract uranium ore, he wrote The Yellow Cake Revue in protest. One piece in particular from this suite, Farewell to Stromness, is well known. It is simple, plangent, and hypnotic.

The composer was one of the first to offer downloads from his own website, MaxOpus. Although the site no longer exists, you can explore various iterations through the Internet Archive here.

James MacMillan

James MacMillan

By all accounts a proud Scotsman, MacMillan’s music is as likely to be influenced by politics or religion, although elements of Scottish traditional music do surface. In the 1990s, many people’s first encounter with the composer’s music came through his (first) percussion concerto Veni, veni, Emmanuel. Here is one section performed by Evelyn Glennie:

MacMillan has written many pieces employing religious texts. Some are pitched for performances by professional musicians; others are designed to include congregations in the act of singing as worship. His Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman was composed and first performed for a Papal visit in 2010. The work was then repeated at Cofton Park in Birmingham for the mass and beatification of John Henry Newman. Here’s the Gloria:

The music is unadorned. Maybe this is for the congregation and partly to let the words of the Mass shine through.

Here’s one of the composer’s Strathclyde Motets: ‘Factus est repente’. To me, this is a more interesting, pleasurable listen.

And is there a hint of Scottishness there?

Anna Meredith

Anna Meredith

When I did a search for ‘Scottish composers’, Anna Meredith’s name appeared. You may have already come across her music as one of her pieces, Fibs, has been nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize. In fact, you might wonder what’s she’s doing in this post. The composer herself describes her music like this:

[My] sound is frequently described as ‘uncategorisable’ and ‘genre-defying’ (the Guardian went with “majestic bangers”…) and straddles the different worlds of contemporary classical, art pop, techno, large-scale installations and experimental rock.

And of interest from this post’s point of view, there’s no mention in her bio of any geographic allegiance.  

How about this for a ‘large-scale installation’? Five telegrams – sender and receiver was commissioned for the BBC Proms to commemorate the end of WW1 a hundred years on.

Listening to my final choice made me smile. How often do you see a tuba with a mic? This is a joyous jam session. Even if the music’s not your thing, the players’ enthusiasm is infectious. The session is only one of many recorded by NPR in the US. Their Tiny Desk concerts invite all manner of musicians to take part.

The host, Bob Bolen, described Meredith’s session like this:

Music for the head, the heart, the ass, and the feet.

Great music, in other words, whether or not it was written in Scotland.