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Giving Voice to my Music
Choral Composers in Conversation with David Wordsworth
315 pages, including appendices.
With colour illustrations
ISBN: 978-0-9957574-5-5
First published 2021
Kahn & Averill

This book is a collection of conversations between the choral conductor David Wordsworth and a roster of 24 of the most highly-regarded contemporary composers of choral music. Since I’m greatly interested in choral music, I was drawn to the prospect of reading the thoughts of many of the leading practitioners of the demanding discipline of choral composition. Furthermore, the featured composers include many whose work I’ve come particularly to admire over the years.

The genesis of the book is interesting in itself. When the Covid pandemic caused an unprecedented and complete shutdown of singing activities in the UK in March 2020 David Wordsworth and his choir, the Addison Singers were confronted with the question that faced all UK choirs: ‘What do we do now?’ Initially, Wordsworth put on a number of Zoom rehearsals for his singers but he found that the charms of online rehearsing soon wore off. (When my choir started Zoom practices, I found that the novelty wore off after about five minutes!) Next, he gave a short series of online talks for his choir about some of the great choral works. After a while, however, he hit on a much more novel idea: he held a series of online interviews with composers with whose music the Addison Singers had particularly associated with over the years. Cecilia McDowall was the first interviewee. It wasn’t long before these interviews had morphed into a more ambitious project and Giving Voice to My Music was born.

There’s a basic structure to the interviews, which are here reproduced as transcripts. Each composer is asked about his or her early life and how they took their first steps towards becoming a composer. In a few cases, such as Bob Chilcott, I knew about the early background but in many cases the details were new to me. For instance, Jonathan Dove seems to be the only member of his family who did not become an architect. Towards the end of each conversation Wordsworth has one or two more stock questions for his interlocutors. These include asking them to name one of their works which they regard as their best to date – they respond in quite a variety of ways - and seeking their thoughts on the teaching of composition and what advice they would give to young, aspiring composers. That last topic tends to produce fairly similar responses, such as ‘be yourself’. The one composer who ‘breaks ranks’ is Tarik O’Regan. His refreshingly practical answer is that young composers need to think not just about the creative side of composing but also about the mundane but vital issues around how they actually earn a living.

Unsurprisingly, all the composers stress the importance of the text(s) they set in a piece of choral music. Overwhelmingly, they express a preference for selecting their own texts and it’s most interesting to read about how they actually go about choosing texts. One interesting point of divergence comes from Judith Weir, who is the current Master of the Queen’s Music. Like her colleagues, she likes to choose her own texts but her official post calls for pieces to mark specific occasions. In these instances, she admits it can be helpful to her if a text is specified. She also adds a most interesting general point about texts, pointing out that composers are so often asked to set the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis or Christmas carols: that, she says “limits the field”. She goes on to caution, rightly, I’m sure, against too narrow a range of texts: “I think that one of the most interesting things for choral music to do, which will help ensure its future, is to be much more adventurous with the words the choir are singing”.

Though David Wordsworth uses some stock questions to give a basic structure to the interviews, especially at the start and end of each one, he is by no means fettered by a script. These are genuine conversations and I learned a lot from them. The discussions of how composers got started are very interesting – and not the sort of things one normally reads in biographies in CD booklets or on composer websites. I was intrigued to learn, for example, that both Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre got started in their university studies because, in essence, an enlightened teacher took a bit of a gamble and admitted them to study even though they didn’t really meet the entry criteria. In the case of Lauridsen, Halsey Stevens took a risk admitting him to UCLA and it’s touching to read how Lauridsen repaid that debt much later when his old teacher was incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease. At Stevens’ request, Lauridsen finished some incomplete pieces in his mentor’s style and Stevens was able to hear the finished results before he died.

The interview with Pavel Łukaszewski reminded me that the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978 was a turning point for Polish music; thereafter much sacred choral music was written – and, indeed, more composers felt encouraged to write more accessible music in all classical genres. What I learned from that interview, rather to my surprise, was that until quite recently there was no great tradition of Polish choral music; composers had tended to write in other genres, such as orchestral music and chamber music.

The interviews are sprinkled with fascinating observations. For instance, Pavel Łukaszewski deliberately doesn’t listen to a lot of music in order to keep his head clear – some of his peers take a very different view. Morten Lauridsen observes that some composers simply write too much – I’m sure he’s right – though he goes on to say that he understands that they have to make a living, whereas he was fortunate in having a university salary behind him for some 50 years. Discussing his very popular Eternal Light. A Requiem, Howard Goodall observes that had he realised how popular the work would become he would have made at least the second and eighth movements rather easier to sing. As someone who has sung the work, I wish he had! But, like most of the composers interviewed in these pages, Goodall doesn’t generally revise his works when they are finished.

A theme that emerges from these interviews is that most of the composers concerned adopt a disciplined approach to composition, usually involving what I might call ‘office hours’. That leads me to what may be an obvious point but one that is worth making. We are perhaps in danger of taking for granted the music to which we have such ready access through CDs, streaming and live performances; but just because the music flows when we hear it, we shouldn’t forget that it has required jolly hard, disciplined work on the part of the composer to bring it to being.

It's also in many ways a solitary existence, at least while the writing process is going on – it’s very interesting to read what the composers think about the subsequent rehearsals and premieres of their works. It’s inevitable that Wordsworth should have asked each composer how they have been affected by the pandemic. It’s perhaps no surprise to learn that the solitary act of composition hasn’t been greatly hindered; indeed, several composers indicate that they’ve found it beneficial to be able to write without external distractions. However, the lack of performance opportunities is a very different matter and there’s widespread alarm expressed at the damage done to musical performance. John Rutter has been very active in the field of online virtual choirs and he expresses the view that these will be here to stay and will have a role to play, especially for people who are physically unable to attend a choir practice for whatever reason. Personally, I found Zoom rehearsals a soulless and very unsatisfactory format but I do acknowledge the point he makes about those who would otherwise be isolated from choral activities. The pandemic will – or should – have made all musicians, professional and amateur, take stock.

Throughout these conversations David Wordsworth proves himself to be a very good interviewer. He asks excellent questions which are relevant and which encourage his subjects to open up. All the discussions are very interesting, though I found that the one with Sir James MacMillan was the deepest.

Throughout the interviews you’ll find many proper names and titles of pieces marked with an asterisk; you can follow these through to an appendix of References. Many of these are references which may be unfamiliar to most. For instance, Ēriks Ešenvalds mentions Selga Mence, his teacher at the State Music Academy in Latvia – adding that Mence ‘is now my boss!’ However, these references also include many very familiar musical figures such as Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler or works such as the St Matthew Passion. Given that most people who will pick up this book will have some musical knowledge I think the References could have been pruned to exclude the obvious.

At the end of each interview Wordsworth asks his interlocutor to name their five favourite choral works; these are also gathered together in a list at the end of the book. The selections are eclectic and interesting – in some cases revealing. Also, several composers throw in a fascinating wild card. The resultant list is a long one with most works selected by one, or at best two composers. The winner, you may be unsurprised to learn is Bach’s B minor Mass, nominated by six composers, though Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms runs it close.

I know from personal experience how big a task it can be to transcribe a conversation – and to render it into a form which flows on the printed page. It’s a tribute to David Wordsworth and to his editor, Leslie East that the conversations read so easily and fluently. I spotted only a few minor typographical slips. The text is laid out beautifully; it’s a pleasure to read a book in which the font is so clear. Each interview is accompanied by colour photographs of the composer concerned. There are appreciative forewords from Sir Andrew Davis and David Hill.

As a reviewer, I’ve read the book from cover to cover. Other readers may well prefer to approach it as a book into which to dip. The format readily lends itself to reading in that way. However, if you do dip in, remember to go back and read the remaining conversations at some stage because all are worthwhile. I’m sure I shall consult it in future as a work of reference when I want to refresh my memory – and understanding – of a particular composer.

This is a book which offers a wealth of fascinating insights into the art and craft of choral composition. As such, it’s a very valuable resource from which I’ve learned much. To add to the attractions of the book, royalties will be donated to the Royal Philharmonic Society for their support of composers and the commissioning of new works.

John Quinn

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