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A Musical Life: Ascott composer, Bob Chilcott, hits the high notes

Photo by John Bellars

Photo by John Bellars

If I had thought, while stumbling through Beethoven’s Für Elise on our seriously out of tune piano at the age of six, that some fifty-five years later, from our beautiful home in the Wychwoods, I would be reflecting on my life working in music, I would have probably thought I was living in some work of fiction. We lived in extremely ordinary circumstances, on a post-war housing estate on the edge of London.

At the age of eight I was suddenly transported to Cambridge, to boarding school, where I got a choristership at King’s College, Cambridge. My mum wept into her apron, my sister breathed a sigh of relief, and my dad burst with pride at seeing his son being a part of a privileged world that no one had dreamed of experiencing in our family. I was, luckily, a musically gifted child. A gift in music, like perhaps in sport, can be encouraged to flourish and grow with the help of supportive family and friends.

A life of song
I was lucky to return to Cambridge as a student in the seventies and I sang in the King’s Choir for another three years after which I studied composition and singing at the Royal College of Music. Real work followed – I worked as a jobbing singer in London and also as an orchestral arranger for BBC Radio 2, which meant I wrote orchestral accompaniments for solo singers in all styles for programmes such as Round Midnight and Friday Night is Music Night.

I can remember late one night in the mid-eighties watching (not without a little envy) the group The King’s Singers, as opposed to the King’s Choir, guest on the iconic American TV show The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Little did I know at that point that about a year later, I would be sitting in the back of a clapped-out white stretch limo in Los Angeles to appear on that same programme as a member of The King’s Singers myself. I could not believe my luck. On that show the other guest was the comedian Bob Newhart, a lovely and very funny man who I had idolised as a student.

A life of stardom
When I joined The King’s Singers in 1985, the group’s star was very much on the rise in the US. I can remember how chuffed we felt when we got a bigger crowd at The Hollywood Bowl than Tony Bennett, who had appeared there the previous night. When we went to New York City, our record company used to regale us with champagne, which always made us wish that they would sell our records with equal enthusiasm. Life then was fairly itinerant. Each year we would sing about 45 concerts in the US, about the same number in Germany, along with a handful more in Europe, perhaps do a Japanese tour, and then sing only about three concerts in the UK.

A life of composing
I sang with that group for twelve years and in 1997 I left to become a full-time composer. I was lucky that two years before I had become contracted to Oxford University Press as a composer and encouraged by the fact that people seemed to want to buy my music, I took the plunge. I could not have done this without the mentorship and encouragement of the composer John Rutter who helped me (and still does) in so many ways in structuring my career as a composer.

A life of conducting
I also began to conduct. In 1998 I was invited to a festival in Newfoundland to conduct a large choir of young singers, after which I began to get invited elsewhere to do the same. I was conductor of the choir at the Royal College of Music for seven years and in 2002 became Principal Guest Conductor of The BBC Singers, a post I still hold. My conducting work has taken me now to more than thirty countries. It is really humbling and moving to go to a country such as Japan and see a choir holding a copy of the music you have written, with your name on it, in which the singers have invested their energies and emotions; music that you have written in your little room in the Wychwoods that perhaps a hundred years or so ago, used to be a Post Office.

I write almost exclusively for choirs. But the variety of work is a great stimulus for me. I have written a lot of music for young singers, music for church choirs and also serious concert music. My work has been performed in primary schools, at the BBC Proms, and by great cathedral choirs, such as the choir of Wells Cathedral, for whom in 2013 I wrote a large-scale setting of The St John Passion.

More variety came recently when I worked on an album with the singer Katie Melua, which she made with The Gori Women’s Choir from Georgia, her home country, and this album was released to great acclaim last autumn. Over the next few years I will write a work to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of the great war poet Wilfred Owen, followed by a Christmas Oratorio for the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester in 2019, and then a children’s opera.

A life of celebration
In 2013 I wrote a piece for the service in Westminster Abbey in celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty The Queen, and my mum, aged 93, though frail, was able to watch it on the television, which she did with enormous pride. Later that year she died, and the fact that she had been alive to watch that service was a reminder to me of the unconditional support that she, as well as the rest of my family, have given me in my often itinerant and solitary life as a musician for which I am so very grateful.

April – May 2017