Rhinegold A musician through and through: Bob Chilcott

Bob Chilcott

A musical epiphany: Bob Chilcott

8:00, 4th December 2017

Our guest editor – singer, conductor and composer Bob Chilcott – describes how an early encounter with music changed his life, releasing a talent that might have remained untapped were it not for a moment of truth when he sang as a boy treble. In the pages that follow, he invites friends and colleagues at the top of their careers to share the musical experiences that shaped their future

One of the wonderful things about choral music at this time is not only the variety of groups and choirs that we have in Britain, but also the variety of choral music that is being sung. When I was small, choir meant church, perhaps a folksong or two and a hymn at school, or if you were really posh, Handel’s Messiah.

Bob Chilcott as a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge
Bob Chilcott as a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge

I started learning the piano aged five with the organist of Watford Parish Church, whose assistant was (now Sir) Andrew Davis, still at school in Watford at the time. Even though I was quite good at playing Beethoven’s Für Elise, I think in my heart I really wanted to be Russ Conway. By the time I was eight, however, I suddenly found myself transported into the world of Byrd, Stanford and Howells when I became, much to the surprise of my teacher at my rather tough primary school, a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge. A couple of years later, I had a real musical epiphany. We sang the boys’ chorus part in The Spring Symphony by Benjamin Britten, conducted by the composer himself. In the final chorus I was so overwhelmed by emotion that I couldn’t sing; and I realised that whatever this music thing was, I could not live without it.

I returned to King’s College as an undergraduate, and like Gerald Finley (see page 44), I became a choral scholar in the famous college choir. When I left Cambridge, work followed and I sang in as many choirs as I could in London. I also worked for a few years as an arranger for Radio 2, writing orchestral scores for singers for programmes such as Round Midnight and occasionally Friday Night is Music Night. As both Harry Christophers and Sarah Connolly did a bit later, I became an ad hoc singer and then a staff singer for a short time with the BBC Singers, a group that I came back to many years later to a role that I still have with them: principal guest conductor. Then, by some dint of fate, I had the chance to sing with The King’s Singers, a vocal group that had started when I was still a chorister at King’s. Happily, when I joined the group, the days of frilly shirts had past, and their star in the United States was really beginning to shine brightly.

‘A wonderful, brilliant and engaging man’: György Ligeti © Marcel Antonisse/ANEFO
‘A wonderful, brilliant and engaging man’: György Ligeti
© Marcel Antonisse/ANEFO

I sang with the group for 12 very energetic and productive years. We premiered many new works in that time by composers such as Toru Takemitsu, Peter Maxwell Davies and György Ligeti. The pieces that Ligeti wrote for us, Nonsense Madrigals, were wonderful and we worked with him on these over a period of eight years, as he wanted to refine them before they were recorded and published. He was a wonderful, brilliant and engaging man, who wanted to know about all types of music, whether it was music by the jazz rock band Steely Dan or the medieval Machaut. He was very kind to me and when I left the group to become a full-time composer, he sent me facsimiles of his Piano Etudes and over several years he sent me copies of all the new CDs from his series with Sony and later with Teldec, as and when they were released.


In 1995, two years before I left The King’s Singers, two things that became very important to me happened in my musical life. Firstly, I wrote some pieces for the tenor Ben Heppner and the Toronto Children’s Chorus and I went to hear them sing in the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto. This concert was a revelation to me, as it introduced me to a world of music that to me felt open, energetic, well-organised, brilliantly mentored and enabled – the world of the youth choir. I also loved the sound of the upper-voice choir, something I had not come into contact with a great deal before. I very quickly became involved with this world, both as a composer and conductor and wrote a lot of music for, and conducted many choirs of young singers, both upper voice and mixed choirs.

 The King’s Singers in 1985: Anthony Holt, Colin Mason, Bob Chilcott, Jeremy Jackman, Alastair Hume and Simon Carrington
The King’s Singers in 1985

What became clear to me was that any young person could learn to love classical music and also that given the right mentorship, a young singer was capable of singing music of any style and difficulty with confidence. Earlier this year I was on the jury for a choir competition in Fukushima in Japan and I heard a middle school choir of girls and boys, aged between 11 and 14, sing the Cinq Rechants by Olivier Messiaen – and it was beautiful. It also made me realise that young people who sing in choirs are often very good at lots of other things as well. I think of a girl that I met in Oregon who sang in a children’s choir and was competing to get in the US Women’s Pentathlon team for the 2012 London Olympics. I think of Alastair Cook, the great cricketer, who was a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and who attributes his ability to concentrate while batting to the discipline of singing in a choir.

I think of the young girl whose poem I have just set to music, who has now just started as a student of English at Oxford University. Whether they are aware of it or not, the young singer learns empathy, tolerance and to be reactive. Other qualities a singer learns include concentration, problem-solving, time management and, perhaps most importantly, a concept of beauty. What is more, most young singers travel, sometimes to far-off places. Most young singers understand what unity means.


In 1995, the second thing that made such a difference to my life as a composer was the beginning of my relationship with my publisher, Oxford University Press.

This brought me into contact with a team of bright and energetic people whose focus was to collaborate with composers and educators on projects that aimed to encourage and engage musicians, both amateur and professional alike. It was also a great privilege for me to be associated with a publisher that has one of the strongest and most loved choral catalogues in the world. This quickly brought into focus for me a number of things that helped me find my voice as a composer. Here was a team of colleagues who could suggest, help with and see through ideas, support commissioning and publishing schedules, promote sales, something very important for a composer who wants to make a living, and most importantly support and enable contact with the end users of the music, the singers and choirs themselves. Composing can often be quite a solitary existence, so collaboration with other musicians and people involved in music has been so very important to me. And occasionally, rather special and lovely collaborations come out of the blue, like the project I worked on with Katie Melua and the Gori Women’s Choir for their album and tour that launched last year, In Winter.

A new world of music: youth choirs © Speedkingz/Shutterstock.com
A new world of music: youth choirs
© Speedkingz/Shutterstock.com

In the 1970s, I went with my family to the Bach Choir Christmas Concert at the Royal Albert Hall. After the choir had sung a few of John Rutter’s carols, John himself came up on to the stage, and we were in awe. He has mentored and supported so many young composers and musicians in this country throughout his long and distinguished career. He is generous with his time and with his gifts and he understands what motivates people who sing. To his fellow composers he is a person who has managed his work with supreme professionalism, energy and humanity and his enthusiasm and passion for music has never waned. He still maintains a punishing schedule of concerts and singing days and his beautifully rendered music is very firmly rooted in the hearts of millions of choral singers worldwide.

We are lucky to be living through a time when the choral world is very much to the fore in music. The great thing is that anyone can sing and this is something you can do all your life or can start doing at any time in your life. The strength of a good musical education for the young has been proved time and time again. The teaching of the arts in general ultimately makes us a better, more understanding and human people. And singing in a choir has a power that, in a very technological age, brings many of us together in a very simple, but often deeply visceral way. When we read people’s thoughts and stories it surely reminds us that music is a gift we need to cherish and uphold. Music needs to be valued, to be taught well, to be learned well, and ultimately to be loved and celebrated in the moment for the beautiful thing that it is.

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