This year is the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Chichester Society, a group that exists to protect the ancient form and character of the city.
They are holding a 40th birthday concert as part of the Festival of Chichester, to be given by a local string quartet called The Quillet Quartet, which was founded in 2010. I was asked if I would compose a piece for them to play at the concert.The brief was that the piece, which should last around 8 minutes, should explore themes linked to Chichester’s history and geography, perhaps including the cathedral, the South Downs and something about Chichester’s maritime past. In discussions with the quartet’s founder and viola player Joanna Emerson, we decided to drop the maritime bit, as it would overlap with one of the programme’s other pieces. I was told that the audience would be made up mainly of rank-and-file Chichester Society members, rather than the Avant-Garde Cutting-Edge Squeaky-Gate Well-Hard Contemporary Music Appreciation Society.
So, where to start? What does Chichester Cathedral sound like, or how could I use a string quartet to make sounds that are at least reminiscent of it? And the South Downs – what do they sound like?Luckily, the cathedral is a musical entity anyway, with 8 bells in its bell tower and a daily sung liturgy, and the sounds it has are packed with connotation. What could be more evocative than the sound of a church bell, right up close or much further away? And the choir would immediately sound religious, even if it were to sing something utterly profane, as Howard Goodall proved with his Mr Bean theme tune Ecce homo qui est faba – Behold the man who is a bean.
The noises of the South Downs are a bit less obvious, and to help myself get a handle on the kind of music that would suggest the South Downs to a listener, I came up with a short sequence of imaginary visual and audio imagery which runs like a film inside my head, and the piece’s programme note is a commentary of this film:
Almost all the music I write is for voices. The words I’m setting dictate the form of the music, and usually the very first spark of an idea of what to write comes from the words. When I was asked write a string quartet about Chichester and its surroundings, I knew there’d be no such springboard. So to take the place of the words I decided to conjure for myself a set of vivid mental images, both visual and aural, of Chichester Cathedral and the South Downs, and use those images as a starting point for the music.We’re in the cathedral as the clock chimes six. Evensong is on. We hear the Responses being sung, the Precentor’s intonations being answered by the unaccompanied choir. A sung Kyrie is followed by a Lord’s Prayer, both parts of the daily ritual of worship at the cathedral that is already many centuries old. As the service comes to an end, and the reverent hush of the congregation begins to give way, tentatively at first, to chatter, we leave the building, and travel out into the hills that surround Chichester, in the company of the cathedral’s nesting peregrine falcons, and explore the landscape from their aerial perspective. With them we witness the hills’ many moods; now boisterous, now eerie, now subdued, always pastoral.
But even this far off, the cathedral is always visible, like a tiny jewel on the vast landscape, and, at the very edge our hearing, we can still hear the bell.
The score and parts of Tolling Bells, Rolling Hills will be published after the premiere next week.
Quillet Quartet, Friday 28 June, St John’s Chapel, St John’s Street, Chichester. Tickets can be booked through the box office.