This is an assembly of snippets about our composers gathered from various places on the web, so I take no responsibility for them!
Born 1955 in Plymouth and thanfully still with us, Bob Chilcott was described by the Observer newspaper as ‘a contemporary hero of British choral music’. He grew up immersed in the choral tradition of the country, starting as a chorister and choral scholar at King’s College. He sang professionally in London and as a member of the vocal group the King’s Singers. As a composer he has created some large-scale projects including The Angry Planet, which was performed by The Bach Choir at the 2012 BBC Proms.
In June 2014 he began an 18-month term as composer-in-residence for the Washington DC-based choir Choralis, as part of their 15th anniversary season celebrations. Over the past 18 years Bob has worked with many thousands of singers in Britain, in a continuing series of Singing Days throughout the country. Between 1997 and 2004 he was conductor of the choir of The Royal College of Music in London, and since 2002 has been Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Singers.
1942 to 2015
Born in 1942 to parents who ran Crouch Cleaners and had a street-preaching, hospital and prison ministry. His father encouraged him to play the piano during church services, then when 14 progressed to writing songs and in 1960 formed the Church of God in Christ Singers. Since known as ‘A Living Gospel Legend’ he had a brush with the law after being arrested for possession of cocaine, and suffered four cancer scares, diabetes and in 2015 a heart attack and pneumonia, from which he died.
Gerald Finzi was born in London on July 14, 1901. His father was of Italian origin and his mother, German. His father died when he was just seven and following the outbreak of the First World War he moved to Harrogate with his mother. Rural and musical isolation soon became oppressive and in 1926 he moved back to London.
He became acquainted with Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose influence he always acknowledged and who conducted his Violin Concerto in 1928. Other acquaintances in London included Holst, Bliss, Rubbra and Ferguson.
His burgeoning career was thwarted by the outbreak of the Second World War, and in 1939 the Finzis moved to Hampshire. During the war years Finzi was drafted into the Ministry of War Transport and opened his house to a number of German and Czech refugees.
With the return of peace Finzi began to receive a series of important commissions, but learned that he was suffering from Hodgkin’s Disease, a form of leukaemia, and was told he had between five and ten years to live. The discovery in no way lessened his activities, and he worked on the music of Hubert Parry and edited the overtures of William Boyce.
He finally lost his fight against his illness and died on September 27, 1956. His Cello Concerto was first broadcast the night before he died. His music embraces a rich variety of moods, from lyricism, to spiritual reflection, to radiant joy.
1901 – 1956
1944 to today
Karl Jenkins was born and raised in Penclawdd, Gower, Wales, just across the bay from where I was brought up in Burry Port. Who knows, I might have played rugby against him. I digress.
His mother was Swedish and his father was Welsh, who started his initial musical instruction, being a local schoolteacher, chapel organist and choirmaster. Jenkins studied music at Cardiff University, and then commenced postgraduate studies in London at the Royal Academy of Music.
For the bulk of his early career Jenkins was known as a jazz and jazz-rock musician, playing baritone and soprano saxophones, keyboards and oboe, an unusual instrument in a jazz context. In 1972 he joined the Canterbury progressive rock band Soft Machine. The group played venues including The Proms, Carnegie Hall, and the Newport Jazz Festival.
As a composer, his breakthrough came with the crossover project Adiemus, which he has conducted in Japan, Germany, Spain, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, and in London’s Royal Albert Hall and Battersea Power Station. In 2008 his composition The Armed Man was listed as No. 1 in Classic FM’s Top 10 by living composers.
He was awarded an honorary doctorate in music from the University of Leicester, and was appointed OBE in the 2005 New Year Honours and CBE in the 2010 Birthday Honours. In 2015 he was made a Knight Bachelor and received the BASCA Gold Badge Award for his unique contribution to music.
Thomas Morley, 1557 to 1602
Thomas Morley was born in Norwich, the son of a brewer. He moved from Norwich Cathedral sometime before 1574 to be a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral and later studied with William Byrd.
It was in madrigals that he made his principal contribution to music history, being light, quick-moving and easily singable, like his well-known ‘Now is the Month of Maying’.
He lived for a time in the same parish as Shakespeare, and a connection between the two has been long speculated but never proven. His famous setting of ‘It was a lover and his lass’ from As You Like It was thought to have been used in a performance of Shakespeare’s play.
He died after a long illness at the ripe old age of 45 to 50 and was buried in the graveyard of the church of St Botolph Billingsgate, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of London of 1666. It wasn’t rebuilt so his grave was lost for all time.
Ralph Vaughan Williams
(1872 to 1958)
Ralph Vaughan Williams was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1892 to 1894. In 1906 he and his wife Adeline came to Meldreth for a summer holiday and returned for visits in 1907 and 1908. In 1906 they leased a large house called The Warren at the North end of Meldreth, now owned by one of my fellow golfers and bike riders.
RVW cycled a great deal and as Meldreth had its own station it was easy to make day trips through the surrounding areas. He collected songs in Orwell, Bassingbourn, Fowlmere, Little Shelford and Royston, and rode out to pubs where the singers traditionally performed.
The singers were farm workers or in the labouring trades. Most of these people would have been illiterate so they sang their literature, as in the oral tradition. Vaughan Williams collected the tunes first and words later as he believed these folk melodies were dying out.a
One of the songs that originated from Meldreth, The Trees Do Grow Green, was later sung by Joan Baez. I still have a vinyl copy of it, and this is an extract.
Father, dear father, you have done me much wrong
You have married me to a boy who is too young
Daughter, dearest daughter, if you’ll stay along with me
A lady you will be while he’s growing.
At the age of sixteen he was a married man
At the age of 17 the father of a son
At the age of eighteen on his tomb the grass grows green
Cruel death had put an end to his growing.
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, 1852 to 1924
Irish composer, music teacher, and conductor. Born to a well-off and highly musical family in Dublin, Stanford was educated at the University of Cambridge before studying music in Leipzig and Berlin. He was instrumental in raising the status of the Cambridge University Musical Society, attracting international stars to perform with it.
While still an undergraduate, Stanford was appointed organist of Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1882, aged 29, he was one of the founding professors of the Royal College of Music, where he taught composition for the rest of his life. From 1887 he was also Professor of Music at Cambridge. As a teacher, Stanford was sceptical about modernism, and based his instruction chiefly on classical principles as exemplified in the music of Brahms. Among his pupils were rising composers whose fame went on to surpass his own, such as Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams.a
Franz Joseph Haydn, 1732 – 1809
Haydn was one of the greatest composers of the classical period, often known as the ‘father of the symphony’, sometimes known by the nickname ‘Papa’ Hadyn.
Unlike Mozart, he became very rich from composing music, and taught Beethoven for a short while. He often thought his operas were some of his best music, but nobody thinks that now.
He liked making practical jokes! The ‘surprise’ in the ‘Surprise’ Symphony was the biggest musical joke of its time! The joke is simply a loud note when the audience is expecting a quiet one. Maybe doesn’t seem much of a joke today.
He was quite ugly so could never understand why so many pretty women liked him! He has been re-buried many times – the latest in 1954.