‘A contemporary hero of British Choral Music’: Bob Chilcott in conversation with John Quinn
Bob Chilcott is one of the leading and most popular choral composers of his generation, dubbed ‘a contemporary hero of British Choral Music’ by The Observer newspaper.
Born in 1955, he was a member of the world famous Choir of King’s College, Cambridge not once but twice. He first joined the choir as a chorister and Robert Chilcott is listed as as the treble soloist in the choir’s famous 1967 recording of the Fauré Requiem, conducted by Sir David Willcocks (review). A few years later, his voice broken, Bob Chilcott returned to King’s, this time as a Choral Scholar, and sang as a tenor in the choir (1973-76). His time as a Choral Scholar coincided with the end of the Willcocks era - Sir David moved to the Royal College of Music at the end of Bob’s first term - and the beginning of the tenure of the late Sir Philip Ledger. In 1985 Bob joined The King’s Singers, staying with the group until 1997.
Since 1997 Chilcott has pursued a full-time career as a composer and conductor. Between 1997 and 2004 he was conductor of the chorus of The Royal College of Music and since 2002 he has been Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Singers. I read on his website that he has conducted choirs - many of them youth choirs - all over the world: he has now conducted in 32 different countries - and counting, presumably!
His music is published by OUP, who list over 120 works by him; in addition some earlier pieces were published by other firms. As well as writing and arranging his own pieces Bob has found time to be the co-editor, with David Blackwell, of the latest volume in OUP’s indispensable Carols for Choirs series. Carols for Choirs5 was published in 2011 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the original volume in the series - known by singers everywhere as ‘The Green Book’ - which was edited by David Willcocks and Reginald Jacques.
The number of recordings of his music continues to grow. Individual pieces frequently crop up in programmes of miscellaneous choral works but also there have been several discs devoted entirely to his music. There’s a disc by the BBC Singers, conducted by the composer, which includes his piece The Making of the Drum (review) and the same label, Signum Classics, has released another disc, The Seeds of Stars, on which Bob conducts the NFM Wrocļaw Philharmonic Choir (review). An earlier Signum disc was Making Waves (review).There’s also the very fine Requiem, recorded by the Choir of Wells Cathedral for Hyperion (review). The Wellensian Consort has recently released a disc of his music (review) and newly out is a disc of his Christmas music, sung by Commotio. In 2014 Wells Cathedral Choir will be recording his St. John Passion.
In October I took part, along with over 200 other amateur singers, in a day-long choral workshop in Worcester. Under Bob’s rigorous but very friendly and motivating direction we spent the day working on his Requiem and it was very noticeable how all the singers really ‘bought into’ the music, taking to it in a big way. It’s very rewarding to sing - though there are a few tricky moments - and although the music was obviously new to most people, by the end of the afternoon we were able to give an informal performance which seemed to pass muster with the composer!
Recently, I caught up with Bob Chilcott at his home in Oxfordshire to discuss his career to date and his music in a lively conversation that was punctuated by a good deal of laughter ... (image © John Bellars )
JQ Bob, the earliest work of yours that I’ve encountered so far is Oculi Omnium which I believe you wrote for The King’s Singers while you were still with the group (review). What started you off as a composer and fired your desire to follow that path?
BC I started composing at school, so that was probably when I was about fourteen and I wrote a couple of concertos, which were played by good players at school with a not-so-good orchestra but I really enjoyed it. But I think that like a lot of other people my sort of age - I went to university in 1973 - not a lot of people were writing common chords at that time and it kind of dampened my creativity and enthusiasm. My direct contemporaries - and wonderful people and wonderful composers - were Judith Weir and Robert Saxton and Robert was going down to London every weekend because Susan Bradshaw was playing his latest piano sonata in the Purcell Room - and I thought this is a complete waste of time, me composing! So I didn’t compose much but I had a very good friendship with Gordon Crosse, the composer, and he helped me, encouraged me. And I also had lessons with a very distinguished man called Ian Kemp, who eventually became Professor of Music at Manchester University; he was Tippett’s nephew as well and he was very, very encouraging. So I kept going and after university I was quite keen on the commercial music path so I worked for [BBC] Radio 2 as an arranger, and I was doing arrangements at that time for all the various groups, including the one I sang in, so that was really how I kept it going.
JQ After you’d been a Choral Scholar at King’s you joined the King’s Singers and you were with them for something like 12 years, weren’t you?
BC Yes, twelve years.
JQ And when you left the King’s Singers in 1997 you became conductor of the chorus of The Royal College of Music. Now, how much conducting had you done prior to that and how did you get into wielding the baton?
BC I’d done absolutely none [he laughs] and that’s the honest truth! I remember there were two things that started my conducting off. One was being asked to do the College choir and I knew I was a pretty reasonable musician and I knew how to make things come to life so I just thought: ‘Well, I’ll learn on the job.’
JQ So you didn’t have formal conducting lessons?
BC No, except I went to Australia with a guy called Robert Sund, a Swedish conductor, a very distinguished chap, and he helped me a lot. And also I was involved with the Boys’ and Mens’ Choir Festival in America and there was a wonderful teacher there called Axel Theimer. He’s Austrian but he lives in America and he runs a thing called the VoiceCare Network and he’s a very fine conductor and teacher and he helped me a good deal. So I watched a lot of people and I went and tried to work out what they did….you know, I didn’t have a clue!
JQ It is alchemy, isn’t it? How do you get a group of people all to do what you want? Of course, you work on it in rehearsal but when you actually get to the performance all you can do is gestures and facial expressions.
BC Yes, absolutely.
JQ And yet it somehow seems to work.
BC Yes, it’s weird. And I was starting to work a lot with young singers and I found that good because, basically, they don’t sing with copies: they learn with copies but they always sing from memory, so they’re looking at you. I began to understand a lot about gesture and a lot about body language and how people respond to things unconsciously and all that sort of stuff. I found that quite interesting, to be honest.
JQ And I suppose having been a choral singer yourself you also had a good idea of what you didn’t want from a conductor.
BC That’s absolutely right! You see, when I think of when I was a young singer and when I was singing professionally a lot of choral conductors were tyrants; there was a much more kind of controlling style. And I think that’s changed because there are a lot of conductors now who were singers. I think of someone like Harry Christophers; Harry and I were direct contemporaries and he was a singer. Like me, he wasn’t the most distinguished singer that ever walked the planet but he was a fantastic musician who had a clear idea of where he was trying to go. And I think that’s helped; it’s changed the dynamic. There’s Nigel Short [of Tenebrae], also a singer. There’s something about understanding the breath which makes a difference and that’s been very important for me, actually.
JQ Did you do any solo work? I seem to recall reading in your programme notes for the première of the St John Passion (review) that you indicated you’d sung as the Evangelist in the Bach Passions.
BC Yes, I did quite a lot of solo work, actually.
JQ This was when you were at King’s?
BC It was after King’s. I kind of had the idea that I wanted to be a singer but, to be honest, I loved singing but I wasn’t a singer in the heart. I think there’s something about singers. I see it now, colleagues who’ve had good careers and they’re still doing it; there’s an interior drive. And I thought: ‘Because I can do it, well, I must be able to make my way’. I did do quite a lot of solo work but it took me a long time to understand what it was that drove me. It took me to my forties, till I started doing what I’m doing now. I suddenly thought: ‘This is marvellous. I wish I’d done this at twenty-five.’
JQ Now you’re making up for lost time.
JQ Now, you’re greatly in demand to conduct your own music but which other composers’ music do you particularly like to conduct?
BC That’s a good question because the few things that enabled me to do that - so it meant I didn’t just conduct my own music - were my work with the BBC Singers and also working at Dartington. I did a lot of Brahms with the BBC Singers. I love Brahms and to have that opportunity, I thought: ‘This is great!’ I did the Requiem with piano duet with them and I did a lot of the part songs - they’re wonderful - and there are quartets with piano, the Liebeslieder Waltzes. I love that German repertoire, so I did quite a bit of that: I did Schubert. And I’ve done a lot of contemporary music with them, particularly Scandinavian music - Rautavaara, Jan Sandström and a number of Scandinavian composers, which I really enjoyed. I’ve done quite a lot of [music by] Veljo Tormis, the Estonian composer. I knew him through The King’s Singers and we kept in touch and I’ve seen him quite a lot. He’s a wonderful man; he’s been very nice to me and I did quite a lot of his music. And one of the most thrilling things I did was to conduct Belshazzar’s Feast at Dartington. I did three things at Dartington: I did Schubert’s E flat Mass, which I absolutely loved; I did a Monteverdi programme; but doing Belshazzar’s Feast was like training for the 100 metres! As David Hill said, it’s like doing 100 laps of Brands Hatch.
JQ It’s a good job it’s only 35 minutes long.
BC Well, quite. I was exhausted! It was thrilling and I learned so much. Apart from anything else, someone like Walton - what an incredible craftsman! And so I really enjoy conducting for that reason, working out how people do things: that fascinates me.
JQ Yes, you’ll bring a composer’s eye to that and look at how the piece is built up.
BC Yes, I find that - how they structured it - really interesting and what’s great for me is you also see a lot of peoples’ insecurities and you realise you’re glad that they have them too. Walton is someone who I’ve been really interested in recently because I wrote this piece for The Queen’s 60th anniversary service at Westminster Abbey [The King shall rejoice] and Walton, for me, he was the template. I looked at a lot of his music and just realised what a brilliant composer he was.
JQ That Coronation Te Deum is just fabulous, isn’t it?
BC It’s phenomenal! I couldn’t stop listening to it, and it’s brilliantly written and it’s got everything. But I think he was a composer who struggled. He worked very slowly. I take great heart from that when you see someone who struggles with the craft because he’s obviously very demanding of himself. But it’s a fantastic piece - and to sing!
JQ I’ve never had an opportunity to sing it.
BC It’s not easy.
JQ I bet not.
BC And yet people want to do it.
JQ Well, it’s a kind of mini-Belshazzar.
BC Yeah. And it goes at 100 miles per hour.
JQ Let’s talk a bit about your music now. You’ve written and arranged a large amount of Christmas music; is that a type of choral music that’s particularly dear to your heart?
BC I think it is and I think that when you’ve sung in a choir for so long in a building like King’s College Chapel you can’t get the sound of that building out of your head, like everyone who’s sung in that sort of environment. I think back to a programme I did with the BBC Singers of Bruckner motets and, surprisingly enough, I’d not sung those works so I didn’t know a bunch of them. We did them for a programme called Discovering Music with Stephen Johnson, who’s great, and he traced all the influences of the pieces and I suddenly thought: ‘This is a guy who sang in a choir in St. Florian, in that building, in that resonance, with that incredible history of music.’ You can’t avoid it and, for me, I still think of Thursday afternoons singing Stanford and Howells and this incredibly generous music - and also Renaissance music which is another big thing for me. It’s just the sound of it and you can’t get it out of your mind.
JQ People tend to forget that the music goes on virtually all the year round at King’s but I suppose they associate King’s with Christmas above all things
JQ And after your time there Stephen Cleobury started this marvellous tradition, didn’t he, of commissioning a new carol every year. In fact I think you’ve done one, haven’t you?
BC I have, yes. [The Shepherd’s Carol (2000)]
JQ But even so there’s such a wide repertoire and it must be rather special to be there on Christmas Eve in the choir stalls.
BC It’s fantastic because I started as a chorister in 1964 and that was very soon after Carols for Choirs 1 was published - I think that was published in 1961 - and that kind of sound of Willcocks - I mean the dominant sound of that book - was the sort of sound that everyone emulated
JQ And the descants have never been bettered, have they?
BC No! Brilliant they were! I mean they’re like folklore.
JQ Yes, they are.
BC And to grow up with that! I remember I sang on the very first stereo recording from King’s, which I think was in 1966 or 1965. The Cambridge University Press published a book called The Cambridge Hymnal and we did pieces like Jesus Christ the apple tree of Elizabeth Poston and a load of Peter Warlock songs. Do you know I was very, very affected by that recording and that music; it was as if it had all just come to life. And Willcocks’ arrangement of Tomorrow shall be my dancing day; I can remember the manuscript on old photocopies and it was so exciting. And you realise too that he had a huge amount of energy for that at the time because it was all emerging. Then, of course, when I was a student it was the era of John Rutter and it was, you know, waiting for the next carol he wrote.
JQ And, again, presumably they came along in manuscript.
BC Well, it would and, you know, his manuscript was immaculate, beautiful. And when I joined The King’s Singers we did a lot of Christmas concerts too and it was John Rutter and, again, all that we had of his was all in manuscript and, do you know, it was incredibly exciting. He had a manuscript like cut glass and I had the King’s Singers’ library at one time and if I wanted to know how to do something I’d get a score of John’s out and look to see how he did it because he did it - and still does - perfectly.
JQ You mentioned Carols for Choirs. You were actually the co-editor ofCarols for Choirs 5. How did it feel to compile a new selection of carols to celebrate fifty years of ‘The Green Book’ and to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Sir David Willcocks and John Rutter?
BC Well, it was a huge privilege. It was a tough one because we thought: ‘We’ve got to move on and get new people involved’. And it’s a nice thing to be able to say that a lot of the carols in that book have been very heavily embraced, which is great. There’s a wonderful carol by Will Todd [My Lord has come]; another wonderful one by Matthew Owens [The Holly and the Ivy]; one by my father-in-law, Philip [Ledger], The Bell Carol, which has done very, very well. I think people are quite good in England with Christmas music: they like the new alongside the old and I think that’s great.
JQ Yes, we’re not just stuck in a rut. And again, I think that things like the King’s commissions have helped immeasurably in that and there have been so many recordings, haven’t there, in recent years of good quality contemporary Christmas music? Not all of it is good; there’s always the odd dud - there’s bound to be - but so much of it is of really good quality.
BC Absolutely. And, you know, a lot of choirs invest a lot of their energy in Christmas because that’s the focus. [JQ It’s a money-spinner, for a start.] Exactly, and people come and so it’s a very important tine. Whether you’re a Christian or not both sides of the coin are served by the carols and I love it.
JQ You’re a Christmas softie at heart!
BC I absolutely love it
JQ I’m with you on that. I recall a charming story about one of your pieces, And Every Stone Shall Cry, a lovely piece, which was commissioned by an American lady as a surprise gift to her parents. She brought them all the way to London for a holiday and during their sightseeing she led her unsuspecting parents into a church where, by prior arrangement, the piece was performed specially for them by a waiting choir. I shouldn’t think that sort of thing happens too often but how much of your music these days is written to commissions?
BC All of it
JQ All of it?
BC Yes. In fact I’m extremely lucky but I don’t think I’ve written anything that hasn’t been commissioned since 1997. It’s fantastic.
JQ People must like you [BC laughs loudly]
BC Well, you know, the worry is - and I suspect with any other composer it’s the same - you worry that they want something [that’s] like something else. I remember when I went to an American publisher, when I was trying to get something published. It was probably about 1994 and they said: ‘We really like your music and we don’t mind what you write; we’ll publish anything you write so long as it’s like John Rutter’. The hard thing is when you write a piece - and it’s a big investment for people to commission a piece - and you wonder if they think: ‘I hope he’s going to write a piece like that.’ And that’s a tough one because you think: ‘I want to write a piece like that.’ So that’s a slightly difficult path to tread.
JQ Do people tend to give you a fairly tight brief as to what they want in a commissioned work? Or do they say something vague like: ‘I want a 15-minute unaccompanied choral piece’ and just leave you to get on with it?
BC They tend to.
JQ It tends to be the latter?
BC Yes. On the new Naxos disc there’s a piece I wrote last year, Before the ice, for a very fine American choir, the St. Louis Chamber Choir - they have an English conductor,,,
JQ Yes, they do
BC…a chap called Philip Barnes, a very good musician. And Francis Pott had written a piece for them and they’re a good choir and Philip said: ‘I’m doing a programme with settings of O magnum mysterium and I would like you to combine this with this poem by Emily Dickinson.’ And I suddenly thought: ‘This is the last poem I’d have thought of setting’; and setting it with the Latin responsory was unusual but actually I really enjoyed it. It drew me; it was a great idea.
JQ It took you off in a direction you wouldn’t otherwise have gone
BC It did. I wouldn’t have done it. At the time I was very interested in John Sheppard, the English Renaissance composer, and I was looking at what he did in his big pieces and that was important for me for in writing that St Louis piece.
JQ Pieces like Media vita?
BC That’s a fantastic piece. I suddenly thought: ‘I want to try and think through that world and bring it into my piece.’ So in many ways that [commission] gave me an opportunity to go down a route which perhaps I wouldn’t have done.
JQ And this is on the new Commotio disc?
BC It is. It’s the last piece. It’s quite a big piece, about seven minutes, so it’s quite a substantial piece.
JQ Well, in talking about that piece you’ve led me on very nicely to a question I’ve been dying to ask you, which is about words. In the pieces of yours that I’ve listened to over the years I’ve formed the distinct impression that the words that you set are very important to you and that this applies whether you’re writing a lighter piece or something much more serious and thoughtful, such as the movement ‘Thou knowest, Lord’ from your Requiem. Does the text always precede the music in the composition process and how do you go about selecting your texts if you’re not directed towards one as you were with the St Louis piece?
BC They do precede [the music] for me. In certain cases I have a very clear idea about the type of text I want. So then I have to go and look for it and that’s not always easy because you think: ‘I know what type of piece I want to write but I don’t know where I’m going to find this.’ A few things have directed me over the last few years. The first was an American conductor, a very distinguished man, Philip Brunelle. He commissioned a piece from me and he directed me to these Christmas poems, a set of four of which he wanted me to do one, by Kevin Crossley-Holland. The one that I set was The Heart-in-Waiting, which is on this new album, - actually, it’s been recorded a few times - a fantastic poem. And then Kevin got wind of this and he sent me a book of his poems and then I realised there were three others. Now, Stephen Paulus, the American composer, had already set one for King’s College, Cambridge, Pilgrim Jesus, which I also set for Wells [Cathedral]. And another American composer - I can’t remember his name - had set another of them and Giles Swayne had also just set one of them, Jesus,Springing. I found them some of the most amazing Christmas poems I’d ever come across and they really drew me in. I felt that they kind of gave me a part of my voice that I hadn’t discovered before and they made demands on me which I really had to address, technically and also: ‘What am I trying to do here?’ And then through Kevin I met the poet Charles Bennett, who I’ve done a lot of work with
JQ Oh, that’s the connection
BC Yes, it was through Kevin. Out of the blue Charles sent me a book of poems and I loved them. You know how it is: people send you things and you don’t necessarily look at them straightaway, or you put them down. It’s one of the hazards of the job because it’s like having a CD and you think you’ll listen to it later and then you listen to it two months later and you think: ‘Why didn’t I listen to this before?’ It’s exactly like that. But with Charles, I read his book straightaway and I thought: ‘I really like this!’ And at the time I’d been asked by The King’s Singers to write a piece for an album they did [Swimming over London (SIGCD192)]. And I wrote a piece called Swimming over London. Charles had written a little poem and I asked him to extend it and he said: ‘I’d love to do that’. So he reworked the poem and I just really liked working with him. Since then we’ve done this big piece for the Proms [The Angry Planet] and we’ve written a lot of carols. We’re about the same age and he’s a very good person to work with. And I’ve discovered that, in reality, I work better when I’m working with other people: I get really energised.
JQ It’s very interesting talking about these recently-written texts because one of the things that I wanted to ask was whether you ever felt daunted setting a text that has previously been set by other composers. I mean, the obvious example is the text of the Requiem Mass but I was also thinking of something like, say, The Shepherds Sing, which RVW set so memorably in Hodie
BC Yes, that’s true.
JQ Does that present a different challenge?
BC It does. Now I can tell you a nice story about a carol of mine. It’s been the most successful carol I’ve ever written; it’s called Midwinter and it’s on this new recording. It’s a setting of the poem In the Bleak Midwinter. In 1992 I’d written some pieces for a choir in the United States and I sent them to various people - choral conductors. I think I sent one set to John Alldis, who I knew quite well, and a few others. I sent one to John Rutter. And John is incredibly good: he writes letters and he acknowledges things. I didn’t hear anything from John, which I thought was strange. Anyway, shortly after I got a letter from an editor at Oxford University Press who said: ‘John Rutter sent us your pieces and we enjoyed them but I’m afraid we don’t think we can publish this type of piece at this time.’ And I was absolutely amazed and I picked the phone up and I rang John. He asked me who had written to me and when I told him he said: ‘Well, he’s an ambitious guy; ring him up, take him out to lunch’. So I did and we met in Oxford. It was a Friday and he asked me what I was writing at the moment and I told him I was writing three Christmas pieces for Ben Heppner and the Toronto Children’s Chorus - Ben Heppner was their patron. So the man from OUP asked had I written anything yet and I said no, but I was working on them. So he said: ‘Can you bring me something on Monday?’ So I said: ‘Sure!’ - but I hadn’t done anything!And that weekend I scrabbled about and I found an old tune that I’d written and, honestly, it was written on a napkin in turquoise felt tip - I’ve still got it somewhere. I thought it was quite a nice tune so I worked on it a bit and I looked round desperately to find some words that would fit it and it was In the Bleak Midwinter. So I wrote the piece and I took it to him on Monday and he said: ‘We’ll publish this.’ And as a result I got my first piece published by OUP and then that relationship grew. And then I went to the Christmas concert of the Toronto Children’s Chorus the following year and they sang these three pieces and that was the thing that got me into children’s choir music because I heard that choir and I thought: ‘This isn’t what I thought children’s choir music was like. This is fantastic!’
Bob Chilcott conducting at the Worcester International Festival for Young Singers, July 2012. Image © Mike Henley
JQ Well, you’ve brought me very nicely to something I wanted to explore with you, namely the work that you do with young singers - both writing music for them and conducting them. You’ve alluded to your partnership with Charles Bennett and I’d like us to talk more about that in a minute, but music for young people seems to have been a pretty constant thread through your composing and conducting career. What particularly attracts you to working with youthful singers?
BC From a musical point of view I love it that there’s no huge heritage of children’s choir music
JQ No baggage.
BC Yes. So you say: ‘I think I’d like to do this’. Surprisingly, you know, I grew up in the church music world and writing music for the church is really hard because there are lots of defaults and lots of expectations. But with kids….When I started writing for children the children’s choir world was really becoming energised with new music and still, then, people were talking about Friday Afternoons of Britten and that was the piece that everyone said was a great learning tool for children. But I think the children’s choir word has grown exponentially over the last ten years. I think my time of writing music for kids has coincided to a certain extent, for various reasons. I love the fact that young people, if you write something, they respond very immediately. So you have to be on your mettle. They have to be able to see very clearly what you’re trying to do, what you’re trying to achieve; and they ask much more searching questions than adults do. I like that and I found, in reality, it was one of the biggest musical challenges that I had and I found it very stimulating, actually.
JQ You certainly don’t dumb down with children’s choirs, do you? You’ve had a couple of important commissions involving young singers in recent years. There was The Angry Planet, commissioned by The Bach Choir and first performed at The Proms in August 2012, which had a large involvement for children. And more recently you wrote Five Days that Changed the World which was premièred, with you conducting, in Worcester Cathedral last July as the climax to the Worcester International Festival for Young Singers (review). In both those pieces you and Charles Bennett addressed some pretty big issues - for example, the Environment in The Angry Planet. Is that something that’s important to you, especially when writing for younger musicians?
BC I think so. And the thing that probably encouraged me in that was the fact that in the United States, outside of the church there’s a big pressure not to sing things that are religious. And in schools they have a very definite idea that you have to be careful about addressing anything that adheres to any sort of religious thought. But it meant that you had to find ways to get people to address ideas without alluding, often, to something specific. And I found it was important to address the spiritual, whatever that was - I set a lot of Native American poetry and that was one way round it - but things that made young people think about Ideas, because they like that. So I was very careful about the kind of poetry that I chose. A little while ago I wrote a Shakespeare setting and, you know, the language is not easy but I think for young people that’s very important because they very often have a keener perception of it than adults do.
JQ That’s very interesting. There’s something else that I particularly wanted to talk to you about. In the notes that you wrote for the recent CD of your music by the Wellensian Consort you wrote something that really grabbed my attention. You said that much of your music has been composed for amateur choirs and this ‘has presented me with the challenge of writing music that encourages people to sing, and this has always been one of the most important and motivating aspects of why I write choral music.’ As an amateur choral singer myself, I was struck by your very deliberate use of the word “encourage”: it’s a passion for you, isn’t it?
BC Yes, it is, actually. It is, because I didn’t want to be involved with anything that wasn’t directly involved with the people who are doing it. I like people and I like when you can energise people. I didn’t realise I could do that until I started doing this. And I think to a certain extent it’s a part of how I work. I love it, because it’s got to live; it’s got to have the energy to say something to people - the singers - but it’s also got to say something to the people who listen. And I think that’s been a motivating aspect of music throughout history.
JQ. And, of course, you get two bites of the cherry because you write the music and you conduct it
BC Yes. I’ve always felt I had to do that; it’s been part of the remit for me because I had to be in touch with the people.
JQ It was very noticeable to me when I was at that workshop you did a couple of weeks ago in Worcester. I guess there were well over 200 people there, probably most of them had never sung the Requiem before - perhaps a lot of them had never even heard it - and they really bought into that music, didn’t they, almost on the spot.
BC They did, actually. And in a sense you have to be an advocate for your own music because it helps if they like to sing it, but you also have to be an advocate for what people are there for. They’re there to give their own view and to commit to something which they believe in, which is singing, and, you know, it’s so easy to break that. You can destroy that in a moment and I think a lot of choral singers have been destroyed: it’s as easy to destroy it as ‘that’. And so I think always you have to keep positive and you have to give the kind of energy that makes people say: ‘I want to carry on doing this; I want to. Now I understand why I do this I can get better at this. I like this music.’ What really made me laugh once was a young girl came up to me and said: ‘I really like your music. A little while ago we sang a piece by a guy called Vivaldi: it was really cool. Do you know him?’ There was no concept for her that music was nothing but contemporary. The fact that it was written 400 years ago didn’t mean a thing.
JQ No, she wasn’t hung up on all the tradition and all the progress from Baroque through Romantic to Contemporary.
BC Exactly: that meant nothing.
JQ Fascinating. In the last few years you’ve written a Requiem (review review) and the St John Passion (review). So I suppose that’s two of the great - I hate the word but it’ll do - ‘iconic’ texts that you’ve set. Is there any other work that you’re burning to write if someone comes along and gives you the right stimulus?
BC Well, one thing I’d love to do is a setting of the Gloria. That would really excite me because I’ve conducted John Rutter’s Gloria.
JQ A fabulous piece - but fiendishly difficult!
BC It is! It’s really hard. It’s difficult to sing, it’s difficult to conduct, but people love doing it. He really hit on something and it’s something I think about a lot. Very little of his music is easy to sing
JQ People think it is when they hear it.
BC Exactly: but, actually, people are challenged to do it. And the Gloria is a hard piece: it’s a hard play for the brass.
JQ Our choir sang it once and it was demanding: it really was.
BC It’s a great piece, though. I thought if I could write a work that got anywhere near that I’d be happy, because I think that’s a cracking piece. And, you know, the text is great. So I’m going to do that. I’ve got a lot of things in the pipeline. To be honest, I wouldn’t have done my Requiem but it just coincided with a lot of things at the time. I thought: ‘I’m never going to do a Requiem. I couldn’t possibly do that. There are too many great examples of it.’ And I thought the same about the Passion. I would have never done that but Matthew Owens said he wanted me to write a Passion. And then you suddenly realise the demands of the text and the demands of what it stands for. And that was huge and it was just at the right time for me.
JQ I think that one of the many things that impressed me when I went to the first performance of the Passion was how you’d used the old tradition of the chorales or congregational hymns. But unlike, say, Stainer in Crucifixion - and this isn’t an implied criticism of Stainer - you hadn’t used traditional hymn tunes but you’d written your own and, by Jove, were they easy to sing on the day, though they weren’t trite tunes; you could pick them up easily
BC Oh, well, that’s great. I did the American première of that piece just recently - a few weeks ago
JQ That was in Texas, wasn’t it?
BC Yes, it was. And we had a big crowd and they loved singing the hymns. I think the involvement of everyone brings another dimension to what we’re all there for.
JQ Not just sitting there as an audience.
BC It united everyone. And, do you know, the text’s incredible and you can’t help but be affected by it. I found that very important, writing that piece, for lots of reasons and it came at just the right time for me.
JQ And Matthew Owens is going to record it next year, isn’t he - next Spring?
BC He is, yes.
JQ Are there other new recordings in the offing? I know there’s the Commotio disc coming out imminently
BC Yes. I’m doing a CD with a wonderful choir, a girls’ choir from Norway. Trondheim has a cathedral, the oldest cathedral in northern Europe, and they have a wonderful girls’ choir, which I’ve conducted, and we’re doing a CD of my music.
JQ So plenty to look forward to in the shops next year.
BC Well there’s lots, actually. What I’m pleased about is that people still like CDs and actually it’s the small labels: they’re the ones.
JQ They certainly are.
BC Yes, and it’s these small companies; that’s where the energy is.
JQ Well, Norman Lebrecht famously predicted the death of the classical recording industry years ago, didn’t he? And in a sense he was probably right about the big companies but all these smaller labels - you’ve mentioned Signum. There’s Hyperion, Chandos and the Naxos phenomenon and also own-label recordings by orchestras and artists. It seems to me to be thriving.
BC Yes, and the great thing is that they’re in it for the long term. So what’s great about a company like Hyperion, Signum or Naxos is that they’re making recordings which are selling all the time and they’re aiming it at the person who loves classical music. I think they’re brilliant.
JQ Let me finish by asking you the invidious Desert Island Discs questions. First of all, is there a piece by another composer - not necessarily a choral work - that you wish you’d written? Secondly, have you a favourite among your own works to date?
BC If I’m honest the composer whose music I absolutely love - it might not surprise you because his heart’s on his sleeve, like I am - is Rachmaninov. I love Rachmaninov and his Third Symphony. That piece, for me, is magical. I came across it when I was travelling. He wrote that when he was in America and it was all about homesickness. I think that’s been very important for me and I so admire the way he orchestrates, the colour and so on.
My own pieces? I really don’t know. There’s a piece I wrote recently for a choir in York called Marriage to My Lady Poverty. It’s a wonderful text by Charles Bennett. It’s only a little piece but I quite like that one. But I look at some of the things I’ve written and think: ‘I couldn’t do that now’. I look and think that I really like what I did there but, you know, the whole thing is a journey; you find yourself changing and getting better at certain things, losing certain things and finding your way. So I kind of think of it as constantly a work in progress. So you think you like the last piece you wrote until you’re fed up with it. But, honestly, I am quite proud of my Passion because I think I felt in my mind I achieved something in that piece. I did manage to reflect a little bit the magnitude of that story and that was important to me. And I think in my own way I did manage that in certain aspects.
JQ Well, we’ll look forward very much to that coming to a wider audience through Matthew Owens’ recording next year. Bob Chilcott, thank you very much indeed.
BC A pleasure.