Writer, musician, educationist
Writer, musician, educationist
MERCHANT TAYLORS' COMPANY 700
Proposal for a music celebration
from Bernard Trafford, Liveryman, retired headteacher, member of MT Education Committee, musician.
Collaborative performance(s) by the Company’s Family of Schools of a specially commissioned choral work (cantata/oratorio) comprising 8 short (3-5 minute) movements, one for each century of Company history, for mixed-voice (senior) and children’s (junior) school choirs combined. Instrumentation to be agreed, but possibly organ and professional-standard brass and percussion group: thus compact but able to drive large choral forces. The musical style conventionally choral yet purposely approachable, catchy, memorable and exciting/fun to perform. Text/libretto linked to the Company’s 700 celebrations yet sufficiently universal to stand alone without that connection. Hopefully the piece would take on an after-life, eg published and performed by choirs/choral societies and played in single stand-alone segments on, e.g., Classic FM. If it became a commercial success (miracles do happen), it might create a legacy in two ways: (a) linking the name of the Company to a piece that enters the choral repertoire and (b) bringing in royalties to the Company’s charitable funds. My offer is that I would write text and music for the Company as my contribution to the celebration, and be centrally involved in seeing it performed.
Why a specially commissioned choral work?
Singing is a great way of bringing people together (see recent research on the links between choral singing and wellbeing): the beauty of singing in schools is that any child can learn to sing and participate in the school choir, without needing to have learned an instrument for several years to achieve performance standard.
Accessibility is important in the vision of this project. In a work constructed in eight short movements, it is possible to write some sections for children’s choir, younger (and unbroken) voices only: others could be supported by the senior school choirs. Great opportunities for partnership, inclusion and outreach.
Musical style and legacy
City institutions have commissioned many commemorative pieces over the years. The Corporation commissioned one from Sir William Walton, In Honour of the City of London, in 1937. Despite its undoubted quality, you won’t hear it very often, because it’s for large forces, but only 14 minutes long. Moreover, Walton’s style is pretty spiky, and not immediately accessible to many “ordinary” listeners. But, then, most special commissions for events or anniversaries go the same way. They may make a big impact on the day, and then gather dust on a shelf on the commissioner’s offices. My proposal would hope not only to provide a few memorable performances and happy events in 2027, but also to live on, creating a legacy both by becoming part of the repertoire for choirs/choral societies and through broadcast on classical music radio. The music will be carefully planned and constructed to achieve these dual ends.
I would furnish the text for the eight movements myself. Naturally my first port of call for material would be the archivist at Merchant Taylors’ Hall: it’s essential to get the history right.
However, I would not seek to tie the texts set to music exclusively (or even largely) to the Company’s history and documents: the piece should seek to be more universal (and thus have a wider appeal). Early thoughts, for example, suggest that the 17th Century movement might be dramatic in character, based on a text drawn largely from dire parts of the Book of Revelation: pestilence and fiery destruction, which must have been how the Plague and Fire of London struck the Company and all of the City. The final movement would link back to the first, to the Company’s humble early beginnings, but also look to the future: history, mission and vision.
A legacy and “after-life”?
Classic FM is the UK’s most immediately accessible source of (lighter) classical (=“serious”) music. It plays a huge amount of choral music, which is naturally popular, and frequently plays movements extracted from cantatas/oratorios, i.e. bigger pieces for chorus and orchestra. Curiously, though, despite a big repertoire in that genre, they draw on relatively few pieces. Apart from Beethoven’s Choral Symphony (finale only, but it’s 20 minutes long), The Lacrimosafrom Mozart’s Requiem and Pie Jesu from Fauré’s Requiem, they don’t seem to find many appropriate short bites. Those commonly heard are: O Fortuna (the very brief opening of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana); Pie Jesu (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem); Sanctus (Sir Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man: a Mass for Peace – actually, another Requiem); the occasional movement from John Rutter’s Requiem, and a recent (2009?) Pie Jesu from yet another Requiem, by Classic FM presenter, John Brunning.
All these can easily be found on YouTube. If you listen to the more modern examples (those by living composers), you’ll find a fair degree of consistency, not to say sameness: of style (generally somewhat sentimental) and of text (nearly all are Requiems!). Only Orff’s O Fortunapacks a rhythmic punch, which is why it’s so often played.
My proposed commemorative cantata would aim to provide both soulful moments and rhythmic drive and excitement. The short movements would be easy to rehearse in different schools. If/once the piece were recorded, one or two sections might stand out from the eight as filling what appears to be, if not a gap, at least a paucity of material available to satisfy a popular genre among listeners and singers alike.
There is an entirely virtuous circle where radio exposure attracts choir directors and choir members to perform the music they hear (I benefitted from that effect when my entry won the 2017 BBC Radio 3 Carol Competition). Moreover, for average-sized choirs there are arguably too few mid-scale pieces that aren’t Requiems, or at least entirely sacred. If my proposed work, or even a section or two of it, became popular in performance and/or on air, modest royalties would roll into the Company’s charitable funds.
I am a Liveryman of the Company. A trained musician, I’ve been an active composer in my spare time for over 40 years. I was a music teacher for 12 years, and a head for 28, so I know how schools work, who to persuade, and how to support music departments in getting projects off the ground and onto the stage. I’m also retired, so have the time to do it: and will only be 70 in 2026/7, so expect still to have plenty of energy.
I offer myself both as a choral specialist/composer and as a writer (blogger, columnist, novelist) who can build a suitable text/libretto: that dual ability makes me unusual. I would not seek any fee for writing the work: I would expect to share with the Company any royalties flowing from publication/broadcast, a simple enough agreement to negotiate.
I am aware that the Court boasts a full-time professional composer in Simon Bass. He is clearly better qualified than I, writing for a living commercially and in a variety of genres. He knows nothing of this proposal. I suspect he is too busy to wish to do something like this himself. However, if the Company felt that the piece, once performed, should be professionally recorded and marketed in order to build a legacy as described above, Simon’s experience and contacts would be invaluable.
How do you know I can do it?
I can only cite my work to date. I have tended to write most music for specific events: lots of wedding anthems over the years, for example, for my large family and many friends. I wrote one for my daughter, Rachel, in 2019. She and her husband said they wanted “not too much God”, but lots of mention of their favourite places in NW Scotland (they provided a list). We couldn’t entirely banish the Deity, as it was a church wedding, so I created my own text, linking their beloved high places with the Gospel story of the temptation of Christ, and slipping in a bit of Julian of Norwich. I think it worked well, and is an example of my ability to weave a text that’s appropriate to the occasion works with attractive and memorable music (most people only hear a wedding anthem once). The choir of family and friends loved doing it: so did the rather good organist. You can hear the result, titled Love and Creation, and read the text on my website (direct link here).
My winning the 2017 Radio 3 Carol Competition was carefully calculated. The medieval text entrants had to set, Sir Christemas, is short and close to doggerel, allowing me a very free treatment. So I could concentrate on making it catchy and immediately attractive to a voting radio audience. You can hear it here.
I’ve written numerous Christmas carols for school choirs (I had tolerant Directors of Music), and a number combine a junior choir with more expert senior choir singing in multiple parts.
Finally, in 2012 at the school I was running in Newcastle, I wrote an entire musical (book and music), which we got on stage in a week at the end of the school year. It was extraordinarily hard work, but they were very talented students, and the production was successful: details, again, on my website (here).