Heavenly Choirs

One of the ironies (and slightly mixed blessings) of my career as a composer has been the fact that my name has become closely associated with choral music. My early background had no choral connections: my parents were Catholics, and the boarding-school to which they sent me when I was nine offered little in the way of choral culture. Before the Second Vatican Council, Catholic congregations were even more passive and zombie-like than they are today; the nearest we got to regular choral singing was the droning plainchant of the monks in church – very beautiful, no doubt, but rather less appealing to those of us who endured it throughout our boyhood and adolescence, along with unremitting religious indoctrination. We did have a choir of sorts, and there were occasional choral concerts; but there was no regular and ingrained choral tradition, and the music-master was a warm-hearted but irascible and disorganised alcoholic who was tolerated but despised by the school authorities; so choral activity was intermittent, to say the least.

I had done some singing as a treble at my prep-school, where there was an excellent music-master who conducted the choir. I was kept busy – not because I had a good voice, but because I could sight-sing whatever they put in front of me. When my voice started to break, nobody noticed, and I was still expected to sing; as a result, my adult voice was cracked and weak, and never recovered. So when I went to Cambridge in 1964 there was no question of my singing in the college choir: I had neither the voice nor the choral experience. Nor, it has to be said, did it even occur to me: these were the Swinging Sixties, and after eight years captivity in a Yorkshire monastery – most of it spent on my knees in church or on my face in the mud at the bottom of a rugby scrum – I had no desire to spend any more time in church: it represented everything I had at last escaped.

Apart from a couple of juvenilia which are best forgotten, my first choral piece was Three Shakespeare songs – a setting of Hark!Hark! The lark, Where the bee sucks, and Full fathom five which I wrote in 1969 when I was a postgraduate student at the Royal Academy of Music in London. They were first performed in London by the Ambrosian Singers under Andrew Davis in February 1971. Although quite conventional, and heavily influenced by Britten and my teacher at the time, Nicholas Maw, they work well enough in a politely English sort of way; and it gives me great pleasure when they are performed or recorded, as they occasionally are. A few months ago I heard them sung by the BBC Singers under David Hill, and it was a bizarre thought that I wrote them more than forty years ago; the music sounded as if it had been written by someone else entirely – which I suppose it was. When I took a bow, I think the audience were mildly surprised that I was still alive. Come to that, so am I.

I apologise if the reader finds the previous paragraphs self-indulgent because they witter on about my early life. This little essay is not a piece of autobiographical nostalgia: its purpose is to examine the relationship between choral music and the Christian tradition. To do that properly I need to go step by step, and explain how I came to be associated with choral music in the first place, how I approach the writing of it, and what I believe the musical, religious and philosophical implications of writing choral music are – especially choral music for church performance or liturgical use.

I am often asked why I write “religious music” when I myself am an atheist. The question irritates me, because my personal convictions are nobody’s business but my own, and are in any case (as any halfway decent composer will confirm) irrelevant to the process of creating something which enshrines meaning, feelings, and a shared sense of humanity in satisfying musical form – not a bad definition of a good piece of music, come to think of it. But since the question is asked, it needs to be nailed once and for all; and in the process of nailing, I would like to examine some broader and more important questions about the choral masterpieces of previous centuries, the nature of religious belief in the twenty-first century, and the position and function of music in twenty-first century Britain.

Although my music is variously described as difficult and not difficult enough (both of which comments drive me mad with annoyance) I have never consciously been an adventurous or revolutionary composer, because my aim has always been to communicate with the audience. My musical voice and attitudes were formed on the basis of the general concert repertoire – a repertoire which, to the shame of those responsible for music funding since 1979, was far broader and bolder in 1960 than it is in 2010. I was fortunate to have spent my teens in Liverpool, and from the age of about fourteen I haunted the concerts and the rehearsals of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra which, under its conductor John Pritchard, presented both a broad spectrum of the traditional repertoire and a good deal of twentieth-century music. The high moments of my teens were not (sadly, some might say) going to hear the Beatles play at the Cavern, but my first hearing of such wonders as Bartok’s string quartets, Music for strings, percussion and celesta and Concerto for orchestra, Debussy’s La mer, Stravinsky’s Rite of spring and Les Noces, and (an unforgettable moment) Schonberg’s Erwartung.

In 1979, after a period of intense thought and introspection, I wrote a very big piece called CRY for 28 amplified and electronically treated solo voices, in which I asked myself some big technical and musical questions.