Masterworks 2019 | The Music

MacMillan's compositional journey

Sir James MacMillan (1959 - ) was born in Kilwinning and brought up in Cumnock in Ayrshire. Like many children he started off playing the recorder but then moved onto the trumpet and cornet and played with his grandfather in colliery bands. He studied music at the University of Edinburgh under Kenneth Leighton and went on to specialise in composition at Durham University. One of MacMillan’s first jobs was as Affiliate Composer of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He then shot to fame in 1990 when his orchestral piece The Confession of Isobel Gowdie was premiered at the BBC Proms to great acclaim. Since then he has produced a substantial body of work including symphonies, operas, concertos and choral music and established a parallel career as a conductor. His percussion concerto Veni, veni Emmanuel, was premiered by Evelyn Glennie in 1992 and has since been performed around the world more than 500 times. In 2014, he established a music festival in his home town called the Cumnock Tryst which brings some of the world’s greatest musicians to the area. MacMillan has always been keen to write for young musicians and amateur performers as well as creating works for soloists and orchestras all round the world and he has always been a vocal champion of music education and instrumental tuition for children. He is a keen football fan and once described the high point of his career as writing a piece for the unveiling of a statue of the founder of Celtic FC. He’s never shied away from politics - he was once a member of Scotland’s Junior Marxist League - and believes composers have a duty to be part of society and everyday life. He was awarded a Knighthood in 2015. His works are often described as a mix of sacred, religious music and traditional Scottish sounds. Both of these are evident within today’s piece. Sir James will be conducting Masterworks this year and talking about his life and works from the stage.

James MacMillan

James MacMillan (Photo © Marc Marnie)

Tryst (1989)

Tryst is a one-movement piece for orchestra. It was written for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in and was given its premiere in Kirkwall, Orkney in 1989.

Over 25 minutes it moves seamlessly through many different moods and emotions as MacMillan draws on a love poem by Scottish poet William Soutar as his inspiration. The work breaks down into five sections, and whilst each section is very different to the last, all have a common idea at their core – contrasting ideas interrupting each other and ‘battling’ to take centre stage. The fast sections are exciting, challenging and complex. The slow sections are beautiful, peaceful and contemplative. The piece will be played in full and uninterrupted during our concert – it promises to be a thrilling ride!


Tryst is scored for the following instruments:

2 flutes, both doubling on the piccolo
2 oboes, both doubling on the cor anglais
2 clarinets, both doubling on the bass clarinet
2 bassoons, both doubling on the contrabassoon
2 horns
2 trumpets
Timpani, also playing wind chimes and bell tree
Strings (violins, violas, cellos and double basses)

A chamber orchestra like the SCO features many of the same instruments as a symphony orchestra but has fewer players and therefore fits into smaller spaces and makes less noise! Composers sometimes write pieces specifically for a chamber orchestra as, with fewer players, individual lines within the music can stand out more clearly. Singers and instrumental soloists are more easily heard when playing with a chamber orchestra as the sound balance is better. Orchestras only got really big in the 19th century so it’s historically more accurate to play music written before then with a smaller group of musicians.

MacMillan’s own notes on Tryst

A few years ago I came across a love poem by William Soutar written in broad Scots, called The Tryst which I set to a very simple melody. This melody has persistently appeared, in various guises, in many works composed since – a congregational mass setting, a tiny fragment for violin and piano (After the Tryst) and more recently in my music theatre piece Búsqueda. Not only has it cropped up again in this piece, but it has provided both the title and the emotional core of the music.

Its melodic characteristics, matching the original words, seem to imply many very strong associations – commitment, sanctity, intimacy, faith (it is used specifically in the Credo section of Búsqueda), love, but it is also saturated with a sadness as if all these things are about to expire.

The music is in one continuous movement, but divided into five clearly defined sections, the slow middle section being the point where the melodic potential of the original tune is again explored. It is here elongated and ornamented on the strings, behind which one hears pulsating, throbbing colour chords. The opening section of the work is fast, energetic and rhythmic. The second section begins with slow, homophonic wind chords which are interrupted by fast, violent interjections on the strings. These interjections gradually become more pervasive and expansive while the wind music transforms itself into shorter more brutal intrusions (i.e. the two music’s influence each other so that one eventually becomes the other and vice versa).

After the slow third section, the melodic material from the opening is now presented in a quick, rhythmically brittle, but simple structured verse and refrain form. The final section combines fast music with solemn chordal ideas from the middle section. Tryst is dedicated to Susan Loy, my Grandmother, who died in 1989.

the Tryst - the poem

The Tryst

The Tryst from 1932 describes a romantic encounter between two lovers during one, stolen night. Soutar is clearly escaping the pain in his own life by imagining something that would probably never happen to him again.

O luely, luely cam she in
And luely she lay doun:
I kent her be her caller lips
And her breists sae sma' and roun’.

A' thru the nicht we spak nae word
Nor sinder'd bane frae bane:
A' thru the nicht I heard her hert
Gang soundin' wi' my ain.

It was about the waukrife hour
Whan cocks begin to craw:
That she smool'd saftly thru the mirk
Afore the day wud daw.

Sae luely, luely cam she in
Sae luely was she gaen:
And wi' her a' my simmer days
Like they had never been.


luely - softly
kent - knew
caller - cool
breists - breasts
sinder'd - parted
bane - bone
gang - go
waukrife - wakeful
smool'd - slipped away
mirk - dark;
afore - before
wud - would
daw - dawn
gaen - gone
simmer - summer.

MacMillan set this poem to music in 1984 as A Scots Song in a traditional folk style and he used to perform it himself in the folk group Broadstone. We will hear it in this version during the concert played by string quintet. The tune haunted him in the following years and kept winding its way into other works. He used the tune in the Sanctus of his St Anne’s Mass in 1985 and in 1988 developed the same material into After the Tryst, a miniature for violin and piano. He describes that piece as ‘the original sketch for Tryst’ which was written in 1989. Heavily developed and disguised, during the middle section in particular you can hear the original melody begin to emerge from within a beautiful texture – this is also the most tonal, traditional part of the piece.

William Soutar

Soulter(Photo courtesy of Perth and Kinross Libraries)

William Soutar (1898-1943) was born in Perth and served in the Navy during the First World War, before taking a degree in English at Edinburgh University in 1923. He suffered from a progressive spinal disease which kept him at home and from 1930 he was confined to bed. He kept diaries, journals and dream books throughout his long illness and wrote poetry in both English and in Scots.