Why I worship these local heroes

From choirs to colliery bands, the Cumnock Tryst festival celebrates the social aspect of music

James MacMillan

The British composer can seem an odd beast to our European counterparts. First of all they think we only write “pastoral” music, and they don’t just mean Vaughan Williams and Finzi. They even detect this musical and aesthetic “defect” in the likes of Harrison Birtwistle. I suppose I do too, but I don’t think it’s defective — there is a profound melancholic sigh in much British musical modernism that can indeed be traced back some generations.

But there is something else that we Brits do that the continentals can’t get their heads around — we write serious music for amateurs as well as professionals. From Vaughan Williams and Holst to Britten, Tippett and Maxwell Davies, we have valued the role of the non-specialist in the nation’s musical life. This has led many of our composers to write significant works for amateur choirs, local bands, workers’ collectives and children. Some of the continentals think this is beneath them (they’ve told me so!) and this may explain their dismissive attitude to us as musical dilettantes.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Amateur music-making is the jewel in the British crown and is a vital core of the musical ecology of these islands. This can be seen in the composer-led festivals that have sprung up here over the decades. Aldeburgh was established by Benjamin Britten in 1948, and community music-making, including new operas for local children to perform, was an essential ingredient in its blossoming success.

Peter Maxwell Davies created the St Magnus Festival in 1977 and a similar pattern emerged there too. I remember attending some of the early festivals as an undergraduate, trekking up to Orkney with a two-man tent and hardly any money. In church and village halls there would be performances by some of the world’s great musicians, but Max was keen from the start that the local people would have both ownership and input into the proceedings. A Festival Chorus was formed from the people on the islands, and performed alongside visiting orchestras. Max wrote new works all the time, and some of these were for local performers, including his children’s opera Cinderella, the première of which I attended in 1980.

As the years went by and my own creative life developed I sometimes asked myself if I would ever start a similar festival myself and where it might be. One of the most important lectures I ever heard as a student was from the ethnomusicologist Peter Cooke of Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies. He asked us that when we returned home for the holidays, we should make a note of all the places in our town or village where music was made. This was a revelation for me as I began to think of the various different functions music had in the lives of ordinary people, in ordinary places.

In my home town of Cumnock in Ayrshire the main industry was coal-mining, and the brass and silver band tradition was strong there. My grandfather was a coal miner, and loved music, playing the euphonium in colliery bands as a young man. He got me my first cornet and took me to my first band practices in Dalmellington. He was also a keen singer in his church choir and bought me a set of hymn books and organ music so that I could eventually contribute to parish liturgical life myself.

So there was a social and communitarian dimension to music-making and it was also closely tied to ritual. Some of those rituals were religious, but not all — music filled the dance halls and working men’s clubs where courtship rituals were played out and local folk and pop bands entertained. Singing societies worked hard all year round, preparing amateur operatic works and standard oratorio performances (G&S, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Handel, Stainer, etc.) The ambitious local music club brought everyone from the Berlin Octet to James Galway to a grateful local audience, sufficiently distant from the big cities, geographically and economically to feel a wee bit left out.

All these early memories fed my decision to establish my own festival in my old home town. The Cumnock Tryst launched in 2014 with our first concert, given by The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers in the church where my grandfather and I had aided the liturgy, two generations apart. Local girl Nicola Benedetti is our Patron and brought her trio to the festival last year in performances of Brahms and Ravel Piano Trios which I have never heard surpassed. The Kings Singers have been, and this year we will be joined by the choir of Westminster Cathedral, Scottish Ensemble and star soloists Colin Currie, percussion, and Sean Shibe, guitar.

The brass theme continues year on year. At this year’s festival (September 28 to October 1) the Dalmellington Band will be conducted by Martyn Brabbins, who was a band trombonist before his stellar conducting career took him around the world and most recently to the directorship of ENO. Like St Magnus we have also established a Festival Chorus, who are conducted by Eamonn Dougan, covering Mozart, Fauré and Vaughan Williams so far. We are working with young choristers from the Genesis Foundation and Ayrshire schools, planning ahead to replenish our activities.

I work with local kids and students, getting them to create their own music for which we give a platform. Some of them have special needs, and work with Drake Music Scotland, proving that disability is no barrier to either a love for or involvement in music. It seems a mad thing to embark on in my middle age, but I love it. So far we have raised the right funds, but like all working in the arts we proceed with hopes and prayers. All the great musicians I speak to about Cumnock have said yes to me so far, which is monumentally exciting. The Festival Chorus love what we ask them to do and our audience of locals and visitors grows each year. It’s different from the day job and gets me out of the house.

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