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Lines of communication

What a joy it must be to compose for the BBC Singers! To know that this world-class professional ensemble, who can perform with equal finesse music from Byrd to Boulez, will be able to sing pretty much anything you write for them with supreme polish. With amateur choirs it is of course a different matter, as they vary greatly in size and both musical and technical ability; and it would be a foolhardy composer who ignored that fact. There are too many tales of disastrous, or at best lacklustre, premieres in the annals of choral history – who hasn’t heard of the catastrophic first performance in 1900 of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, which was too difficult for the Birmingham Music Festival chorus, and cast the composer into a fit of depression? This isn’t to recommend that composers ‘dumb down’ their music when they are commissioned by an amateur choir; but it is important to know just how far the singers can be stretched in the time available for rehearsing the piece before the premiere. So, to misquote Mrs Beeton, ‘First, know your choir.’ This issue offers an insight into how a number of amateur choirs have set about the commissioning process and how composers have responded (p.32). For Thomas Hewitt-Jones, when writing his work for Rochester Choral Society’s 150th anniversary, as a newcomer to the area he felt it was first important to immerse himself in the local landscape and history so that he could reflect this meaningfully in his composition. Then being on the spot meant he was able to confer with the choir’s conductor, John Mountford, and specifically ask whether something he’d written might be too hard for the choir.

Similarly, Ivor Award winner Liz Dilnot Johnson attended rehearsals of Malvern Male Voice Choir before starting to write On Malvern Hill for them. Then the pandemic struck; but undeterred, she held some workshops with them over Zoom, trialling different styles of music and notation to discover what would work for them, and what would leave them too uncomfortable. Wimbledon Choral went a stage further in the process. Conductor Neil Ferris had drawn up a longlist of possible composers, and the choir elected a subcommittee to listen to works by each of them before finally settling on Cecilia McDowall to write the Da Vinci Requiem (see review p.61, and Readers’ offers p.41). This meant that right from the start the choir members had a sense of investment in the commission. And for her part, McDowall supplied audio tracks from her own sound files to familiarise the choir with what they were aiming for. As Ferris remarked, McDowall succeeded in accessing ‘all the drama and colours she could possibly want, yet every line is singable.’ The days of composers writing music in isolation in ivory turrets are over (if they ever existed). Instead, good communication and close collaboration pays dividends in the creation of a diverse body of new works to enrich the choral repertoire.

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