ONE of Scotland’s leading composers has said he believes true artistic radicalism stems from a deep connection to religion.

Sir James MacMillan, who is a devout Catholic, says that “despite the retreat of faith in our society, composers over the last century or so have never given up on their search for the sacred”.

The composer, known for his faith and often religiously-inspired works, concludes that in a secular society “the search for the sacred seems as strong today in music as it ever was.”

He adds: “Perhaps that search now, as it is for any artist who stands out against transient fashions of the cultural bien pensant, is the bravest, most radical and counter-cultural vision a creative person can have, in the attempt to re-sacralise the world around us.”

Sir James will speak at St Mungo’s Museum in Glasgow on May 19 in a speech called A Sober Composer Looks at Some Thistles – its title a reference to Hugh MacDiarmid’s 1926 poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.

The lecture, part of the Saltire Society’s 80th anniversary celebrations, muses on the relationships between religion, spirituality and art.

In the composer’s wide-ranging speech, he does not refer to the
politics of Scotland, but instead ponders the inspirations of composers such as Edward Elgar, the innovative French composer Olivier Messiaen, and Russian composer Igor Stravinsky – whilst also reserving criticism for the poet and artist William Blake.

He says: “From Elgar to Messiaen, from Stravinsky to Schnittke, from Schoenberg to Jonathan Harvey one constantly hears talk of transcendence, mystery and vision.”

Sir James, however, takes a view of modern spirituality to task.

He says: “In an age of crystals, vapours and fashionable New Age chic, the word spirituality can be used by many, covering everything from yoga and meditation to dabbling in religious exotica. 

“For example, William Blake’s visionary mysticism has become popular in our own time. 

“Its private mythology, its narcissistic religion and its gesture politics chime with the mish-mash of sexual libertarianism and virtue-signalling at the heart of contemporary liberal culture. It presaged our New Age, and his work is greatly admired and has genuine popular appeal.”

He says: “Many sociologists now claim that it is secularism that is in retreat, and a recent report placed the number of atheists worldwide at 3 per cent, and falling – a powerful and well-heeled 3 per cent though – almost completely based in the rich West, wielding great clout over matters political, economic and cultural.

“In his book of essays, Post-Secular Philosophy, Philip Blond suggests that ‘secular minds are only now beginning to perceive that all is not as it should be, that what was promised to them – self-liberation through the
limitation of the world to human faculties – might after all be a form of self-mutilation.’”

Sir James concludes: “The search for the sacred seems as strong today in music as it ever was. 

“Perhaps that search now, as it was with the Dream of Gerontius and as it was with the theological rootedness of Messiaen’s masterworks is the bravest, most radical and counter-cultural vision a creative person can have, in their attempt to re-sacralise the world around us.”