The popular choral composer and conductor Bob Chilcott turns 60 this April. We catch up with him for a look back at his career so far…
How did you get into composing?
I was a chorister at King's College, Cambridge and I remember we sang in Britten’s Spring Symphony with Britten himself conducting. I was about 10 and I had a kind of epiphany – I realised that music was something that you can’t ignore. I started composing soon after that. When I went to Cambridge in 1973, Judith Weir and Robert Saxton were my direct contemporaries and they had very different musical languages to me, so I found it hard to find a voice and didn’t compose much in my twenties. I did a lot of arranging though and continued when I left Cambridge, arranging for BBC Radio 2 and for radio orchestras. It was the kind of work that was tailor-made for me to work out what I wanted to do next and learn the skills needed for writing music.
Which composers and conductors have been major influences on your career?
There have been a few people that have really encouraged me. Years ago I got to know György Ligeti through working with the King’s Singers and he was incredibly kind to me. He was very encouraging about my work, which may seem strange because I’m clearly on a different end of the compositional spectrum to him. Another person who has encouraged me hugely is John Rutter. He’s been a wonderful mentor – he has such an active and practical view of what it takes to make a career in music and I think you need those kind of people to help you work out how to find your voice. In terms of musical influences, I’ve always favoured an immediacy of melody so I always look back to composers like Chopin and Mendelssohn. I was a singer so I like tunes.
How has your own musical style developed over the years?
When I started writing prolifically about 20 years ago I think my perception of what people were capable of doing as singers was different to what it is now. I’ve gained a lot of practical experience of what people are able to do and how to transport that feeling into writing something that will motivate them to sing. That’s what I really love doing.
Looking back over your career, what’s your proudest moment so far?
I felt pretty proud when The Bach Choir and National Youth Choir performed my work The Angry Planet at the Proms in 2012. And being asked to write a carol for the Choir of King's College, Cambridge was very special. I remember going to the carol service and thinking ‘They’re not going to do my piece because they will think it's rubbish’. I had no confidence, but they did perform it and they’ve actually performed it a lot since, which is great.
The world premiere recording of your setting of your St John Passion is coming out soon. How would you describe the piece?
I wrote the piece for Matthew Owens and it’s fundamentally a liturgical work. Matthew wanted there to be newly written hymns so the congregation could join in and that presented a real challenge. I’d never written a hymn before and needed to find a purpose for them within the unfolding of the drama. I decided to also have moments that are kinds of meditations for the choir; basically Medieval and early English poems about the Crucifixion. What I love about these particular poems is that they come from a very human point of view: this human response to the gospel is very dramatic and powerful. It’s become a very important piece for me and I found the process to be very uplifting.
How does it feel to hear a work performed in full for the first time?
It’s amazing. I still marvel at the fact that people want to perform music I have written and I’m always overwhelmed by how it turns out. The first performance of the St John Passion in Wells was an absolutely stunning experience.
Whats the most important thing you’ve learned in your musical career?
Probably for me the most important thing has been learning how to have a really strong community feel about singing. It’s important to be very encouraging to others and really enable people to do things. I write music I think people will be able to sing and that they might enjoy. Another thing I’ve learned is how important it is to give people access to music without putting it on an unreachable pedestal. A young girl once said to me, ‘we recently sang a piece by a guy called Vivaldi. Do you know him?’ She must have thought Vivaldi was a living composer and I found that incredibly refreshing – she had been able to value the music without getting caught up on the extramusical stuff or how difficult it may be.
Matthew Owens and Wells Cathedral Choir’s recording of Bob Chilcott’s St John Passion is out on 9 March on Signum. Preorder a copy here or via the iTunes link below
• Review: Bob Chilcott Requiem (Wells Cathedral Choir/Owens)
• Artist interview: Bob Chilcott on Angry Planet's 2012 Proms premiere