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Composer and conductor Bob Chilcott (born 1955) has been steeped in the British choral tradition since he was a boy chorister. A former member of The King’s Singers, he is now one of the UK’s most prolific and creative choral composers, writing appealingly direct and accessible music with memorable melodies reminiscent of John Rutter at his best. Of his most recent large-scale work, his Requiem (2010), Chilcott says he was initially ‘terrified by the idea’ of writing a work with such a weight of history behind it, but he has certainly risen to the challenge: his Requiem is characterized by a gentle, forgiving atmosphere clearly modelled on Fauré’s Requiem, with a crystalline, reflective Pie Jesu for solo soprano at the emotional heart of the work. This and the other works performed here, all first recordings, are beautifully performed by Wells Cathedral Choir and Matthew Owens, The Nash Ensemble and two superb young soloists.
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.
Chilcott’s Requiem came hot on the heels of another, larger-scale work: the Salisbury Vespers, which was first performed in 2009 in Salisbury Cathedral by a choir of more than 500 singers from seven different city-based choirs. ‘They realized they had a huge number of choirs who never had the chance to come together’, says Chilcott. ‘At the premiere, the choirs were situated at separate points in the Cathedral—it was a difficult concept to make work, but it was very successful. The main thrust of the work was a number of large-scale psalm settings, and I interspersed these with the four motets heard on this disc.’
Chilcott set Marian texts suitable for different times of the year, reflecting the dedication of the Cathedral to St Mary the Virgin; each is dedicated to a different Salisbury choir. I sing of a mayden is a reflective meditation on a medieval Christmas text that shows Chilcott’s talent for the deceptively simple melody, as does the third motet, Lovely tear of lovely eye, a beautifully transparent setting of an anonymous medieval poem.
When to the temple Mary went offers another example of memories and tradition making their presence felt in Chilcott’s work: the words are the translation by the Victorian priest John Troutbeck of Johannes Eccard’s Maria wallt zum Heiligtum, a metrical setting of the presentation of Christ in the temple—the English translation still far more popular in Anglican churches than the German. The comparison with Eccard ends there, however; with its unsettling harmonies and restless temperament, this setting looks to troubled times ahead.
The final motet, Hail, star of the sea most radiant, written for Salisbury Cathedral Choir, brings to the fore another of Chilcott’s talents: a knowledge of the voice that results in an immensely joyous, natural and, above all, intensely singable outpouring of celebration that is both infectious and memorable.
And so to another centrepiece of a great Anglican tradition. Chilcott’s setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, the ‘Downing Service’, was written for the organ scholar of Downing College, Cambridge, Camilla Godlee. Unsurprisingly, it is another text that has many memories for Chilcott. ‘At King’s’, he says, ‘as a chorister and choral scholar, there were all these new settings all the time, by composers like Robert Saxton, Gordon Crosse, Kenneth Leighton, the last of the Howells settings. Then in the 1980s and ’90s there seemed to be a tailing off—apart from the odd exception: Giles Swayne and John Tavener, for instance. Now there seems to be a real renaissance of settings, which is very encouraging.’ The Magnificat is—on the surface—relatively simple, comprising just two melodic ideas, ‘but it’s actually quite tricky, as the parts are constantly changing’, says Chilcott; while the Nunc dimittis is a slow-moving, epic crescendo to the radiant words ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel’.
As quickly becomes apparent when one talks to Chilcott, or studies his music, the text of a piece is supremely important to him as a composer—both for its own, individual characteristics and for all the associations it holds. Sourcing them is a constant job—though there are moments when inspiration falls into one’s lap. This happened to Chilcott when he was commissioned to write a carol by Philip Brunelle, choirmaster-organist of Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. ‘Philip Brunelle supplied a poem by Kevin Crossley-Holland, which immediately inspired me. I asked for a book of his poems, and found them to be quite brilliant. In the three carols—Pilgrim Jesus, The Nine Gifts, and Jesus, springing—he has found a way of saying something that is completely fresh about a subject that is so well trodden. It doesn’t bring you back to thinking what a brilliant poet he is, it brings you back purely to the reality of the message, and I think that’s absolutely wonderful.’
One of the most admirable sides to the Anglican choral tradition in which Bob Chilcott’s compositions are so deeply and lovingly steeped is an openness from congregations to new settings of Christmas carols such as these. Chilcott’s remarkable settings of these poems—indeed of all the works on this disc—contribute to a reassuringly healthy state of affairs in church music. Inspiring texts, yes; glorious music, definitely; and a combination that manages to be much more than the sum of its parts.
Jonathan Wikeley © 2012