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His time as a chorister at the Choir of King’s College under Sir David Willcocks produced some of his most treasured memories. ‘We used to sing the Duruflé and Fauré Requiems in alternate years’, he says. ‘In 1967 we recorded the Fauré, and I sang the solo in the Pie Jesu (the recording is one of the best-selling Fauré Requiems of all time). We recorded it at Christmas and it was released very quickly, only three months later. Just before it was released, we travelled down to London to sing Holst’s Hymn of Jesus at the Royal Festival Hall, and the producer presented my mother and father with a copy of the newly pressed disc. They were so proud, and my father died only a few weeks later, so the piece has incredible resonance for me and for my family. When I came to writing my own Requiem, and the Pie Jesu in particular, it just had to be sung by a soprano solo.’
For Chilcott, personal history and memories such as this are intensely important in the creation of his compositions, as are the traditions of the Anglican church within which he sang. ‘I find that the culture you come from is extremely influential. A lot of the pieces you sing in church develop more meaning than the text alone—they come surrounded by cultural attachment. Take something like singing the psalms of the day: often the moment that you realize what a particular psalm is saying will coincide with an important part of your life elsewhere. This human angle of one’s belief is something I find incredibly motivating.’
This interest in the human side of religion played a large part in one of the movements in Chilcott’s Requiem, the only movement in English: ‘Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts’. ‘I just love that text’, he says; ‘it’s so unbelievably English. It has none of that idea of revenge, it’s just about one human saying: “Here I am, Lord, with all my faults: be decent to me.” I find that very compelling. I could never give up everything I own in the world—I freely admit that—but this text takes into account the fact that you are in the real world, with all that that means. It’s a concept that is central to my belief.’
Writing a Requiem is a daunting task for any composer, particularly with so many different and evocative settings already written, and with a tantalizing yet dangerously free choice of text; comparisons—sometimes distracting, often irritating—are nevertheless inevitable. ‘I was terrified by the idea of it, but I decided that I wanted to write one’, he says. A joint commission for a large choral work from the Oxford Bach Choir, from the Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church in Dallas, and from Music at Oxford provided the catalyst, and Chilcott set about choosing his texts. ‘I wanted the piece to work liturgically and as a concert piece, and this was an influence in structuring the work.’
Another influence was from that most famous of Requiems: ‘Having sung the Fauré Requiem every other year at King’s’, he says, ‘one of the things that struck me about the work was that Fauré deliberately underplayed any of the words that define God as vengeful—the Dies irae passage lasts only sixteen bars, for example. I found that vengeful language hard to deal with. I wanted to write a contemplative setting.’
Chilcott’s Requiem, which is dedicated to his niece, Samantha Verschueren, who died at the age of just twenty-three while he was writing the piece, is indeed beautifully reflective. At the same time it is given focus and direction by the composer’s keen sense of melody and innate feeling for rhythm, be it the lyrical, rolling tenor solo in the Agnus Dei, or the crystal simplicity of the Pie Jesu; the gently pulsing first few bars of the Introit, or the driving, irregular beats of the Sanctus. The work’s different components develop at different paces—it is hard to put a finger on one particular moment of arrival. So the Sanctus, with its dance-like patterns, provides the dynamic peak of the Requiem; the Pie Jesu perhaps offers the emotional centre of the work; and ‘Thou knowest, Lord’, from the Book of Common Prayer, presents a central point for the text. This combination of differently paced pulses ultimately carries the listener gently through the Requiem; at once continuously moving forward while maintaining a comforting sense of reflection and stillness.
from notes by Jonathan Wikeley © 2012