Although I had dabbled a bit before—I remember showing some things I had written to Lionel Dakers on an RSCM singing course once (I must have been about eleven), and I wrote a couple of psalm chants in my late teens—my composing only really got going in 2006, when I was in my early thirties and we were expecting our first child. I can’t remember where now, but I came across Rowan Williams’ poem ‘Advent Calendar’ and I just felt I wanted to set it to music. It moved me. I suppose that’s what inspiration is. Anyway, the notes came and the choir I sing with, the Damon Singers (then under Will Dawes), performed it in December that year at their Christmas concert. In 2007, Andrew Nethsingha became Director of Music at St John’s College, Cambridge, and I wrote to him about the piece, although I was probably being a little premature as he’d only just moved there. However, I followed up with Andrew in April 2008 and he kindly replied, saying: ‘I like the piece very much and certainly think you should try to get it published. I will certainly consider it for performance here.’ Sure enough, on Advent Sunday 2008, St John’s broadcast the piece on BBC Radio 3. After the broadcast, I got in touch with John McCabe (he had had a piece of his premiered in the same service) to get his thoughts and advice on where I might go from there. He replied:
‘My wife and I both thoroughly enjoyed your piece at St John’s, and found it both moving and very characteristic, i.e. possessed of real character of its own. As to the piece itself, I don’t have any constructive thoughts – I simply found it gripping and moving. I felt your grasp of harmony and harmonic progression was particularly impressive. And the response to the excellent poem was vivid … You certainly can write very well for voices … The best advice I can give, though, is to see if friends can programme pieces, and write for them … I’m not sure what stage you’re at, though, and you might already have gone through that process (which would certainly help to account at least partly for your expertise).’
I think I had only written about three pieces at that stage, but it encouraged me to write more, and I produced a Christmas piece for a local girls’ school choir, and three part-songs for the Damon Singers (both 2009). I also tried finding a publisher, but I don’t think I had written enough at that stage for anyone to be interested in taking me on.
In January 2010, I left my job in London with Bernard Quaritch Ltd to set up as an independent antiquarian bookseller and so the composing took a back seat while I worked on establishing the business, but I think music is always somewhere in my mind and I came back to it in 2017. In the interim, I had turned forty. The business was going well, but I felt I wanted to do some more creative things, too. One thing was translating. I have always been interested in the idea of literary translation. In fact, when I was about to graduate, in the summer of 1997, I remember writing to various publishers to see if they might consider my working for them. Then, of course, bookselling came along instead. But I’d always wanted to go through the process of translating a book (as well as, perhaps, there being the draw of becoming a published writer). So I chose a book I knew, Am Rande der Nacht, a modernist novel by a disabled gay writer called Friedo Lampe which was banned by the Nazis in 1933. I enjoy rediscovering forgotten voices, and nothing by Lampe had appeared in English before. Working for myself allowed me to spend the summer of 2015 focusing on my translation before, in 2016, writing to various potential publishers. I soon had a very positive response from Hesperus Press and the book was duly published in 2019 as At the Edge of the Night. NB Magazine called it a ‘brilliant new translation … which captures the beguiling beauty and intelligence of the novel.’ My next book project has been for Pushkin Press: Clouds over Paris, the wartime memoirs of Felix Hartlaub (another forgotten voice), which is due to be published in September.
To return to composing. In 2017, I wrote two new pieces, A Remembrance (setting a poem I had written for a local poetry competition in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of the First World War; it won!) and The World to me (setting Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘World’, to which she kindly agreed); another new piece, Remember me (setting Christina Rossetti), followed in 2018. I felt I now needed, and had enough material, to make some recordings to help promote my work, so I contacted an old university friend, Stuart Young, a bass with St Paul’s Cathedral Choir and The Sixteen, for help and he got together a small group of professional singers to record a number of pieces in January 2019. You can listen to the results on my SoundCloud page. Once the recordings were online, I set about contacting choirs, conductors, composers, promoters, publishers: anyone in the music world I could think of to try to raise awareness of my work. I had a number of positive responses:
‘I’ve just had a listen to lots of your tracks and it’s gorgeous stuff. I remember Advent Calendar very well and it must be several years since I heard it last. It really moves me. I think you have an important and interesting writing voice, so please keep at it’ (Ruth Massey, a professional singer who used to work at Faber Music)
‘There are some lovely moments and some really nice sonorities’ (Harry Christophers)
‘I think he writes really interestingly – a distinctive voice. “Advent Calendar” is a real gem: I love the structure with the gradual addition of voices. The harmonic language is also very appealing. I’ve dipped into a number of his recordings on the SoundCloud and those I have tried all have something about them. A good find! I will certainly bear him in mind when planning in the future’ (Jeremy Backhouse, Vasari Singers)
‘I like the pieces you sent and think they are really very good … It certainly shows that you have been a choral singer yourself. Given their quality, I am going to make an exception to a rule I have had: while I have in the past provided advice to composers who have approached me with queries, I have never taken it upon myself (even if asked) to endorse or advocate for the music of other composers. In this case, however, I have no reservations about recommending this music’ (Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi)
Performances followed at Guildford, Portsmouth, and Chelmsford Cathedrals, Trinity and Exeter Colleges, Oxford, and St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. In December 2019, the Choir of Magdalene College, Cambridge performed Advent Calendar (‘A real peach; really special’, Richard Allain) at their Christmas concert. Rowan Williams, then Master of Magdalene, was there and I got to meet him afterwards. He called it ‘a wonderful setting’ and, of all the settings out there, the closest in feeling to his original poem. Graham Walker, their conductor, commented: ‘I greatly admire your compositions (I get a lot through the post, and yours are often so much more finely-wrought, it seems to me).’
The pandemic made things difficult, of course, in terms of getting performances, though the Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge premiered The Angel and the Unicorn (for which I had translated a poem by Rilke) in 2020. You can watch the performance here:
Master of the Queen’s Music Judith Weir thought it was ‘gorgeous’. The composer Howard Skempton said: ‘I agree with Judith’s reaction. It seems fresh and natural, and memorable in many ways: there are subtle harmonic surprises that I particularly enjoyed.’ Another Rilke setting, At Cana, was selected, out of almost 250 submissions, for the 2020 London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, only to be postponed. Andrew Nethsingha called it ‘very beautiful’ when I sent it to him and has pledged to perform it at St John’s at some point.
Last year, I received my first commission, from Matthew Owens, for Belfast Cathedral Choir, and the BBC Singers have expressed an interest in performing a piece of mine sometime this year, as have VOCES8, for their Scholars programme 2022–23. I am hoping more performances will follow.
Val Withams (promoter for leading composers such as Cecilia McDowall, Bob Chilcott, etc) commented on my ‘well-formed and lovely music, a singer’s perspective on vocal line, [and] great texts’ and certainly the texts I choose are very important to me. I watched an interview with a composer once who he said that, for him, the words were the servant of the music. For me it is the exact opposite. The text comes first and stays in the forefront of my mind as I respond to it. Much in the same way when I choose a poem to translate, there has to be something in the original text to draw me in, something to elicit a response, creatively. I believe this, in turn, gets a reaction from audiences. There seem to be so many modern settings of Latin texts out there at the moment. Some may be very attractive, musically, but it often feels the words are just a vehicle for the notes; the composer really could be setting anything. In selecting more interesting literary texts, I take my lead from various composers who inspire me: Finzi, Britten, Howells, Tavener and, among living composers, Eric Whitacre.
As a composer, I may be unusual in that I am entirely self-taught and have never studied composition. In fact, I never studied music beyond GCSE. But I think that is a strength in my work, as I feel entirely unencumbered by the ‘rules’ of composition and what one is ‘allowed’ to do, harmonically, in Western music. Not that my work is avant-garde. I would call it warm rather than saccharine, modern without being unlistenable. I regularly receive nice comments from singers and audiences alike.
But the hardest thing is getting performances. As Judith Weir, who has been very supportive, once wrote to me: ‘the new choral field is quite crowded.’ A lot of the new music currently being performed is (naturally enough) often by established composers, or by people still in their twenties who have followed the more conventional path of a music degree and then a post-graduate course in composition. What about everybody else? I am often told to keep at it, and I do, but most choirs or conductors I write to simply don’t reply. And that’s not just the professional musicians (who I’m sure are inundated with submissions): the same goes for amateur choirs. People don’t get back to you. Or I get an initial positive response, and then nothing when I follow up. It can be quite discouraging. Social media only amplifies the feeling, when one sees choirs announcing their various performances and premieres. I’m sure aspiring writers feel much the same thing. Twitter is awash with new books being announced.
A recent project of mine has been translating the whole of Rilke’s wonderful cycle Das Marien-Leben (1912), and setting some of the poems to music, so it seems appropriate to end this post with him. In another of Rilke’s poems, from the first part of Das Stunden-Buch (1899), he writes:
Laß dir Alles geschehn: Schönheit und Schrecken.
Man muss nur gehn: Kein Gefühl ist das fernste.
It is oft translated (at least online) something along the lines of:
Let everything happen to you: beauty and horror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.