The Bridge Interviews
Our first interview for several months, since an unavoidable interruption, is with a man who has been described as “a contemporary hero of British choral music”. He has had three careers as a singer, composer and conductor and has made a huge contribution to choirs in many parts of the world, not least in our own patch with the Burford Singers.
Bob Chilcott was born in Plymouth in 1955. His family moved to a new home near Watford while he was still a small boy. There was no musical tradition in the family but he joined the choir of a local church where the assistant organist was Andrew Davies, then still a schoolboy but on his way to becoming Sir Andrew and a distinguished conductor. One of the benefits of this was being paid sixpence (2.5p) for singing at weddings. The vicar thought Bob had a good voice and suggested to his parents that he could apply to join the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. He succeeded and in 1964 became a boarder at the choir school, combining normal study with singing in what is perhaps the most famous church choir in the world. It goes back to the fifteenth century and its annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is heard by millions around the world. The adult voices in the choir were provided by choral scholars, undergraduate members of the college. One of these was a certain Brian Kay, now of this parish. Whilst at the school Bob sang the treble solo Pie Jesu section in the Fauré Requiem in a recording of the whole work conducted by Sir David Willcocks, the then director of music at King’s. Bob received a letter of congratulations from Brian, which he still treasures. The recording is still available on the Warner Classics label in a series called “Great Recordings of the Century”.
After this auspicious start Bob progressed to the Merchant Taylors’ School near London and then back to King’s College to read music and to sing as a choral scholar, the first member of his family to go to university. Singing in the choir took up most of his time. “I loved it and got absorbed in it straight away. They have an incredibly long line of tradition. They still do everything in exactly the same way as when I was there and when I was there it would have been the same as 50 years before that”. After graduating he went to the Royal College of Music in London for two years to study singing and composition. He started to find work as a singer while still at the Royal College and sang with the London cathedral choirs and other choirs.
Bob’s composing career started at this early period when he was given work as an arranger for BBC Radio 2, preparing music for the then Radio Orchestra to perform on programmes such as Friday Night is Music Night and Around Midnight. In 1984 he was asked to arrange a couple of pieces for the King’s Singers. The group had been founded in 1969 by six former choral scholars from King’s including Brian Kay, but he had left by this point. “Then the tenor [Bill Ives] was unwell and I subbed for him for three months. I already knew and admired the work of the King’s Singers and to be inside that sound was really something. At the end of the three months [Bill] decided to leave and I stayed on for 12 years”.
During this time Bob began arranging and composing work for the Singers. “There was a surge of work, especially in the United States. I also began composing for other choirs. I suddenly realised how big the choral world is. When the Singers performed, more than half the audience would be choir singers. I found that very invigorating. I always wanted to be a useful musician. I am a people person - I think I am a good communicator - and I wanted a way to articulate this.” The first two compositions he had published were arrangements for church choir of two American songs. In 1995 he obtained a publishing contract with the Oxford University Press, and he still has that. He wrote for the Toronto Children’s Choir, which actually was made up of teenagers (“an amazing choir - very exciting”) and wrote more music for young singers. Somehow he managed to combine his burgeoning career as a composer with touring for seven months of the year with the King’s Singers. Then at 42 he decided to become a full-time composer and particularly to work with young people. He found that, alongside the tradition of choirs and choral societies, there was a big growth area among people who had not grown up with classical music, especially the young. He particularly enjoys the sound of the upper voice and has written a lot of music for women’s choirs.
At the same time his career as a conductor progressed with an invitation to conduct the Royal College of Music Choir. Although he felt he had a good understanding of how to make music work, he had lessons from several teachers on the physical side of conducting (in other words it’s not just a question of waving your arms about). He says that it helped that he was usually conducting his own music. “It’s about being a good advocate for the music and communicating what the music represents to me, the ability to unite a very diverse group of people.” He is evangelical in his zeal for the benefits of singing for mental and physical health. “Singing together is a great levelling process - it is not concerned with your social status or background.
Research shows that 93% of communication is non- verbal. Singing together gives a great feeling of well- being and energy. “Words like ‘harmony’, ‘unison’, ‘resolution’ and ‘development’ are musical terms which express a desire to join together. ‘Discord’, another musical term, is something that we seek to resolve”.
Bob has conducted choirs all over the world, including the Burford Singers. He is their president and has performed his own music with them as well as the Brahms German Requiem. “They are a lovely choir and I love working with them. Once between rehearsals with the Burford Singers I conducted the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. There are 360 of them and they have a strict rule that members have to leave at the age of 60 or after 20 years in the choir. I told the Burford Singers that at the next rehearsal and someone said ‘If you had that rule here this would be a very small choir’. The older singers are full of energy, very committed and have time to attend rehearsals.” He is confident that new recruits will come forward as they in turn reach an age when they have fewer commitments and more time to devote to singing.
Much of his music has been written for church choirs. As a Christian he has found that church music has always been a big part of his life. His work includes large-scale pieces such as a setting of the St John Passion written for Wells Cathedral and a Christmas Oratorio which had is premiere at the Three Choirs Festival. Much of his work has been recorded. If you would like to hear some, a great deal can be found on YouTube. At the moment he is working on a piece for the Birmingham University Singers, another choir he conducts. He has also just written a piece which will be premiered in Durham Cathedral this coming October for the Royal School of Church Music, an organisation of which Bob is a Fellow. “It’s called The Song of Harvest and it interprets that theme broadly to include issues like sustainability”. Bob included five new settings of well-known hymns in his St John Passion, interspersed among the rest of the composition, and these hymns are sung by the entire congregation. He is using the same approach in the new piece.
Public performance of music has, of course, suffered over the last 15 months but that has given Bob more time for composing. He keeps to office hours, sitting down from 9.00am to 6.00pm. He composes in his head and then tries it out on the piano. He uses paper and pencil rather than a computer. “It probably takes a bit longer but with a screen I lose a sense of dimension.” He has also spent two days a week teaching at Downe House, an independent school for girls near Newbury. He has enjoyed that, despite the 100 mile round trip, especially teaching the jazz module for A level music. He loves jazz and says that teaching it has helped him to analyse how it works and how difficult it can be. His main musical listening is to Radio 3 while driving his daughter to school in Oxford, and he also tries to keep up to date with the work of other composers. He listens to contemporary music. “I find the language of much modern music is not what I want to articulate in my own work but I admire it”.
Bob and his wife Kate have been married since 2005. Kate is the daughter of the late Sir Philip Ledger, another former director of music at King’s as well as a composer. He has four adult children from a previous marriage and he and Kate have a daughter aged 12. So far none of his children have followed him into musical careers. He has lived in the Oxford area since 1985. He and Kate lived at Charlbury from 2004 to 2010 when they moved to their lovely cottage at Ascott-under-Wychwood. “It is gorgeous here. We have made a lot of friends. It is a great community here and people care about it. We love the village and the way people support each other”.
Does he find time for any extra- musical activities? “I love sport.” Then a surprise. “I skip every morning to keep fit. I do 2000 skips every morning on the path in front of the house. Passing motorists are often somewhat bemused”. At the end of our interview we told Bob that, of all the people we have interviewed for the magazine, he was perhaps the one who came across as the happiest. He loves his family, home, village and work, and is the most enthusiastic advocate for the benefits and delights of choral singing. Keep on singing, Bob.