Come and Sing! Interview with Bob Chilcott

This year’s commissioned composer Bob Chilcott discusses his life and music with Phoebe Walsh

PW: You started singing as a chorister when you were eight – do you think your life would have been different if you hadn’t had that experience?

BC: Yes definitely. I was lucky, I went to King’s College Cambridge, and it’s completely informed my whole musical life. The training as a chorister completely grounded my feeling of what choral music was, so yes, completely. Still now, quite a lot of our very high-quality music-making comes from the cathedral and chapel tradition, because it’s a professional set up in effect. They have to ‘do the work’ and it’s something that’s very important to the churches, so it’s professional in that sense, and I think we’re lucky in our country to have it that way.

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You’ve said that your musical ‘epiphany’ moment came when you sang Britten’s Spring Symphony with the composer conducting?

I think a lot of people do have musical epiphanies because actually, music is so emotive. It affects you very much in the moment, so I think probably like me, people do have these moments which makes them realise that music is a very important thing in their life. I think you can have that at any age – I’ve found that a lot of people come to singing later and find that they wish they’d done it earlier, or it’s a new experience that they’ve had later in life. To be honest I don’t think it would have made any difference for me – it just happened to be with Britten who was an amazing musician and it was a wonderful experience, but I think it can happen in any sort of situation.

Do you think anyone has had that experience under your baton?

I’ve no idea! I hope if they have it’s been a good one. I love being involved with singers, so you hope that people get a good energy from it. That’s why it’s so wonderful working with young people, I love that because you don’t have any idea how that will have an impact on their musical experience and I’m sure that for anyone who has conducted young people – the conductors of the Three Choirs I’m sure – there are kids who have come out of that experience and that’s been the most important thing in their lives. So you hope that you can offer that, and that it happens.

I suppose the advantage of being able to work with singers is that you can work with anyone of any age and any ability, and the fact is that all they have to do is turn up, they don’t need instruments. It’s something that everyone can do! In my experience, choral music is something that has not always been seen as being, in modern day parlance, ‘cool’. But actually when you do it, I’ve found that it’s a wonderful social activity, and so it’s a lovely thing to promote because it’s a social thing too.

You’ve said that composers need to do more to raise awareness for causes such as the environment. Don’t you think music education is enough of a cause in itself?

I think music education is, for me, the key to making people think about lots of things. Through music, through singing texts of all different types, you actually learn to get in touch with lots of things in one’s life that you don’t necessarily think about on a daily basis, so I think music has a huge role to play in that. If it’s the environment, all well and good, but if it makes you think about anything, that’s got to be a good thing as far as I’m concerned.

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Can you give us a sneak peek of what your Christmas Oratorio is going to sound like?

A few years ago, I wrote a setting of the St John Passion for Wells Cathedral, and one thing I did do in that was to include hymn settings. So I’ve done that, as well, in this piece. The idea is that the audience or the congregation or whatever you want to call the people who come to this – it would be great if they were encouraged to join in with the performers in singing the hymns. I’ve found that when you’re including the audience in some way, it gives a different atmosphere to the performance, and I’ve written new tunes to quite well-known sets of words – and that always makes people have opinions as well which is no bad thing! So that’s something that happens in the piece. It has an evangelist as well – someone telling the story. It’s from Matthew’s gospel and I’ve designed specific sounds to go with the parts of the story. The evangelist is accompanied by harp – I did that to give it a kind of intimacy. And I’ve used the flute in it as well, which I associate with anything to do with angels. The story is from when the Angel Gabriel comes to tell the news to the Virgin Mary – the piece stretches from that visitation up to the presentation of Jesus to Simeon in the temple. And the idea there was that I’d include a setting of the Magnificat where the mezzo-soprano solo sings with the choir, and also a setting of the Nunc Dimittis at the end for the bass soloist with the choir. Because the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis are so much a part of the Anglican service liturgy, I thought it would be a nice context to have that in, in terms of the performance being in the cathedral. So there are settings of those two things, the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. So that’s the span of the piece, it tells the story right up to the presentation to Simeon in the temple.

It sounds like you’ve been thinking about how it’s going to be performed before you even started writing it. Would you say that’s true?

Yes, definitely. From my point of view, a piece like this, I always wanted it to have a function as a performing piece, but what’s important to me too is to not make a piece too difficult, so that any choir will be able to perform it. I’ve always wanted to write music that people can use. So if you can use it as part of a performance, or in some cases as part of the liturgy, that’s great – I want my music to be sung, because that’s the most important thing for me. Oh - not because I want people to know my music but because I want the music to have a function, I really feel that quite strongly so I hope it does!

How long have you been working on the piece?

Well, I finished it last year, and I suppose I worked on it for about six months. It was quite a long time – I thought about it for a long time, because again, it’s about feeling that you’re writing within the right sort of context. So I thought about it quite a lot, and also just things like how to involve the choir and what function the choir has, because obviously it’s a story, so it has to have point at which the choir can comment. So I’ve written kind of motets for the choir, and settings of Christmas texts at certain points in the piece. I thought a lot about how I wanted the piece to function, and specifically I thought a lot about the place too, the cathedral, which is so wonderful, and I wanted it to feel right in that building and I think it does. And I think it’s great, actually, that it’s being performed in August!

Did you realise that it was going to be premiered in August when you started writing it?

I thought it probably would – and I was quite pleased to hear that Vaughan Williams’ Hodie, which was written for the Three Choirs Festival, was premiered in the summer so I think that’s fine. And Adrian Partington was great – he said, yes, let’s do it, and we’ll do Britten’s Ceremony of Carols – as they had the harp there already, so I think it’s wonderful really. I’m really excited about it!
You may be interested to know, too, this is just a little conceit but I had to name the hymn tunes (in the tradition in our country of naming hymn tunes) so there’s one which comes near the end which I’ve called Partington, one called Bowen, and also one named Paterson after your Chief Executive. You know, if the piece has a life, and someone picks up a copy in 50 years’ time and says I wonder where that name came from? It’s quite a nice connection, for me, I was quite pleased to do that.

I think you’re going to show us the hymns for the first time at our Come & Sing in May?

Yeah, I think we’re going to sing the hymns! I think that’s the idea, which will be great.

Do you have any advice for how people should prepare for a come and sing?

For me, I think the best thing to do is just to turn up and enjoy the day, because the thing is, you get a bunch of people who come along, and you don’t know how it’s going to sound so you’ve just got to respond to what happens on the day. From my point of view, the most important thing is that everyone has a good singing experience, so I’ll do my best to do that!

And finally, what are you listening to at the moment?

I’ve been listening to a very nice song from Wicked, the musical – it’s great! – because I heard a children’s choir singing a song called For Good, which I really enjoyed. And I’m listening to the Verdi Requiem because I’m conducting that with the Really Big Chorus in March. That’s the two things that I’ve been listening to most recently, so that’s not bad!

Bob Chilcott leads a Come & Sing in Gloucester Cathedral on Saturday 25 May, click here for more information and tickets.

His new Christmas Oratorio will be performed by the Three Cathedral Choirs on Thursday 1 August. Click here for more information and tickets.