In March Bradford Cathedral is running its second annual singing day. Following the sold-out event with John Rutter in 2019 this year’s day will be led by Professor Paul Mealor. We caught up with Paul to find out more about his background, what to expect from the day and what it’s like to hold a Christmas number one.
Could you give us a bit of background to yourself as a composer?
I come from one of the smallest, and most recent, cities in Wales, Saint Asaph. I started off as a chorister there aged nine, having lessons with William Mathias, the distinguished composer who was also a Professor at Bangor University. He took me on as a private student, but alongside that I also played in brass bands and school orchestras.
I started with the real practical side of things; starting as a chorister in a cathedral is one of the most important things for any creative artist, and I learnt lots doing that.
I also had a religious experience around that same time that got me into composing. I was in Anglesey, where my grandparents had a place, and where I spend most of my summers now. I fell into a river and I was drowning, and at that point I surrendered myself to death. It was then that a huge warmth came over me and I realized there was something else in the world. Luckily I was dragged out and I sought out what that warmth was, which led me to the cathedral in Saint Asaph.
When I walked in to see the Dean, at age nine, the cathedral choir were singing, and that’s what drew me to choral music.
That must have been quite a turning point for you in your life?
Yes, it was, as at that point I had in my head that I was going to be a Minister but as soon as I heard the choir singing – they were singing See, See, the Word Is Incarnate by Orlando Gibbons, and What Sweeter Music by John Rutter – I realised that is what I wanted to do.
You held the role of Professor of Composition; What does that role entail?
I’ve just semi-retired from that, but I did it for eighteen years, and what it required was the teaching of composition to students, from undergraduate up to Masters, and to Doctor-level. I have eighteen PHD students at the moment that I’m working with. The class teaching of composition to the undergraduates covers technique and harmony, but as they got older and specialising at masters level or at PHD, it’s then helping them with their own language: how do they get their ideas down on the page, and how do I help them write their music. It becomes a kind of music therapy! The problem that most composers have is patience. We all have ideas, but how do we get them clearly down on the page? Most of my teaching is to do with the technique of getting ideas down. You can’t teach ideas; people have to have them. You can inspire them, but in the end people have to have the initial idea.
You can help them with the structure of those ideas, and so that’s what most of my teaching has been about. Of course, students are able to try out ideas on me and I can help them before they get anywhere near a choir or an orchestra, by showing them things that might not necessarily work.
Do you find it rewarding that you’re nurturing those ideas and talent?
I really enjoy it. The thing that I’ve found over my eighteen years, and people say this a lot as teachers, is that I learn more than I teach, in a strange kind of way. By helping people with their problems you can solve problems in your work as well. It’s a two-way process, teaching, if you’re doing it right. One of the great joys for me is when I see a student who has worked hard on something and they hear the performance and it’s exactly how they imagined it. That’s a real high for me when I see that.
Can you give us a flavour of what is involved with the singing day?
What I’m planning to do is offer a selection of pieces that I’ve written, some sacred, some secular, and spend some time learning about the music, the work behind it, but also having fun! Fun is very important: singing is about enjoyment. We’re finding out now in medicine that singing is one of the great medical jewels. It’s all about the technique of singing, the fun of singing, and the joy of singing!
It’s not going to be a stressed-out affair. It will be fun, enjoyable and a laugh, but along the way those taking part will be learning about the musical pieces.
Do people who want to come along need any experience, like being able to read music?
Not really. I think there will be plenty of people coming along who can do that, but they can help the people who can’t, so if you can’t, come along anyway!
Next week I’m conducting the ‘Science Sings’ choir who are a group of scientists from all over Scotland that I’ve put together. They are working on ocean biodiversity, and are looking at how we can save the oceans from the terrible mess we’ve got them into. They wanted me to write a piece, so the world can see and hear what it’s all about. They have all come together, and none of them have sung before. Over the course of the weekend I’m going to teach them to sing and sing for HRH the Duchess of Cornwall on Tuesday!
If they can do that with only two rehearsals, then people coming to this singing day can do anything!
Are you excited about that performance?
I’m a little nervous because I’ve met all the scientists and there’s a Nobel Prize winner amongst them, so I know how intelligent they are! But none of them have sung before, so I’m nervous that the first and only gig that we have is a big one with a royal presence, so I’m hoping they can rally together in the rehearsal and we can put on a good show! But I’m sure they can. So after I’ve done that I’ll be more than ready for March.
Have you done singing days at cathedrals before?
I have, but they’ve all been different. I’m doing one soon in Lancaster, but they’ve chosen just one piece to sing.
What are you working on musically at the moment?
I’ve just finished an anthem commissioned to mark the centenary of the birth of St John Paul II, which will be part of the national Polish celebrations of his birth, and that will happen in April in Warsaw, by the John Paul II singers. It’ll all be broadcast and recorded.
I’m working on a piano concerto which gets premiered in July, and I need to finish that by the end of February.
You also hold what a lot of people would dream of having: a Christmas Number One. Was that fun to be involved in?
It was fantastic! The interesting thing about that was that it was all completely by accident. When Gareth Malone, who’s a good friend of mine, asked me to write that piece, none of us had an idea of that it would become the biggest selling charity record ever beating Candle in the Wind! It became number one in both the classical and pop chart.
It became quite a thing, and the funny thing I find now is that I go into a Christmas party and it’s on the jukebox, and so people sing it at me!
You were also voted the nation’s favourite living composer in 2012. What was it like to receive that honour?
That was another surprise, as I didn’t know that happened! Back then ‘Classic FM’ contacted me to tell me I’d won that accolade and it was great, as there are so many fine composers writing today, so it was amazing to be amongst so many of those.
What are your plans for 2020?
I’m doing less now at the university so I can spend more time composing and travelling, so I’ll be spending most of my time this year in America. I wrote a requiem in 2018 – The Souls of the Righteous – and there are around twenty performances of that this year, so I’m trying to attend as many of those as possible. The first Canadian performance is happening in Alberta and then I’m heading to Minneapolis, and to New York then to Connecticut. There are two CDs of mine coming out this year: Serenity and Blessing, and have been featured on ‘Classic FM’.
Do you find audiences in America and Canada different to a British audience?
Actually I think they’re very similar. The only real difference is the American audiences are more keen to come and speak to you, whereas the British audiences tend to want to go home and have a cup of tea! Both are fine, though, I don’t mind either.
I’ve had some great experiences over in the US. There was a sold-out performance of my requiem at Carnegie Hall and have had some wonderful chats with people. Because composing tends to be such a solitary thing, spending most of your time in a room writing music, it’s so lovely to meet people who might have sung a piece. That is lovely.
One of the things that I’ve found most moving over the last ten years has been hearing from people who have chosen my music for when someone they know has died or is ill. I had a wonderful letter from a lady just before Christmas who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and she plays my music for comfort, which is a beautiful thing to hear, that it can bring comfort and light to someone during a dark time in their life.
What do you hope people will learn from the day and take away from it?
I think that the first thing will be that they will have a good time! We’re going to enjoy ourselves, with plenty of stories about things I’ve been involved in. The second thing will be the performance. I’m going to teach them pieces that they may never have sung before and I can hopefully open their eyes to some new repertoire.
There will also be some old stuff which some of them might know. I think those taking part will get a lot of things out of it. The most important thing, though, will be the choir camaraderie, in that we’ll be all together as one.
After the day will those taking part have a chance to follow-up what they learnt?
It’ll be one of the things I’ll definitely be talking about. Some people who come along to these singing days may have never done anything like this, and so where do they go from there? There are plenty of choirs they can get involved with and join, including at the cathedral itself. But there will also be other singing days with other composers, who may offer different ideas on the same pieces, which I always find fascinating. There are be a whole host of things people can do to build on the day.
Finally, if you could sum up what people can expect from the day what would it be?
Each person will have a certain set of criteria of what they’re after. I think if you’re going there as a singer, what you’ll get out of it is the composer’s take on the music which you can’t get from anybody else. You’ll get the ideas I had about writing these pieces: how they were constructed and how, as a singer, you can change the way you sing to bring the best out of the music. For people who aren’t singers you get a chance to work with a living composer, who has actually written this music, which is actually quite special, as if you go to sing the repertoire of Bach or Mozart, of course they aren’t there! For some people they want to hear what the composer’s say, from the horse’s mouth. It’s a special thing, and gives a different slant to how the music will be sung and performed.
The Bradford Cathedral singing day with Professor Paul Mealor takes place on Saturday 14th March from 10am – 6pm. Tickets are just £15+bf with an optional lunch available for £3+bf. Tickets can be booked online at singing-day-paul-mealor.eventbrite.co.uk or by visiting the cathedral office.