Image above: Cecilia McDowall
One of Britain’s leading choral composers, Cecilia McDowall talks to The Chiswick Calendar about the themes she chooses and the process she follows when she is composing
West London Chorus will be performing A Time for All Seasons by Chiswick based composer Cecilia McDowall as one of three pieces for their Spring concert on Saturday 1 April at St Michael & All Angels Church.
Cecilia is considered one of the leading choral and vocal composers of her generation, having been short-listed eight times for the British Composer Awards. In 2014 she won the Choral category for Night Flight, a haunting piece which celebrates the pioneering flight of the American aviatrix, Harriet Quimby, across the English Channel.
She has won many awards for her work and her music has been commissioned and performed by leading choirs and artists, including the BBC Singers, The Sixteen, Oxford and Cambridge choirs, ensembles, and at festivals worldwide.
In December 2020 she was presented with the prestigious Ivor Novello Award for ‘outstanding works collection’ for a ‘consistently excellent body of work’. She has received two honorary doctorates and an honorary fellowship award from the Royal School of Church Music for her outstanding contribution to church music.
Image above: BBC Singers
“It is essential that the BBC Singers survive”
Cecilia spoke to The Chiswick Calendar on the day the BBC Singers heard they had a reprieve – that the BBC had ‘paused’ its decision to close them down to save money, after a number of organisations came forward to offer alternative funding.
They are the UK’s only full-time professional chamber choir and it is so important that they survive, Cecilia told The Chiswick Calendar, because of their musical excellence and because of their mission to promote diversity.
“They are excellent in what they do in every way… This is what musicians aspire to.”
They are committed to making all their commissions and performances 50-50 male and female, giving rare opportunities to women. Cecilia has received commissions from them several times, including a commission for Seven Ages of Women, for International Women’s Day in 2020.
BBC Singers asked a different composer to write a piece for each decade and Cecilia, then in her sixties, represented the sixth decade.
“What has made people very angry is that the BBC has not understood their value…
“Classical music is having such a bad time and it’s because the BBC does not support classical music.”
She does not just mean financially, she means fundamentally. Cecilia is passionate that music should be taught in schools, children should be given the opportunity to play musical instruments and it should be available to everyone; it should not be allowed to become elitist.
The Government is failing by not providing better musical education in state schools, she said, and the BBC is failing by buying in to the idea that classical music is elitist.
Images above: BBC Radio 3’s Seven Ages of Women, featureing the work of Helena Paish (b.2002); Electra Perivolaris (b. 1996); Samantha Fernando (b.1984); Emily Hall (b. 1978); Deirdre Gribbin (b.1967); Cecilia McDowall (b. 1961); Rhian Samuel (b. 1944)
Featuring women’s stories in her music
It is noticeable that Cecilia features the stories of remarkable women in her work: Clara Barton, who nursed soldiers on the battlefield during the American Civil War and went on to found the American Red Cross; aviatrix Harriet Quimby; Dr Rosalind Franklin, who discovered the double helix, paving the way for James Watson and Francis Crick’s work on DNA; Edith Cavell, the British nurse who helped some 200 Allied soldiers escape German-occupied Belgium during the First World War.
A contemporary story of Cecilia’s: Everyday Wonders: The Girl from Aleppo tells the extraordinary tale of how Nujeen Mustafa, a Kurdish teenager with cerebral palsy, was forced by war to flee her home and make the arduous journey to Europe in her wheelchair, with her sister, to settle finally in Germany.
“I’ve never really set out to do this but I do seem to come across stories about extraordinary women which just seem to get lost. They don’t seem to get the recognition they should have.
“James Watson and Francis Crick won Nobel prizes but Rosalind Franklin didn’t”, yet she had taken an X-ray photograph showing unmistakable evidence of a helical structure, which they had seen before they built their model of a double helix.
She died before the Nobel prize was awarded to them.
Images above: Clara Barton, photograph American Battlefield Trust; Harriet Quimby; Dr Rosalind Franklin; Edith Cavell; and Cecilia’s five-movement cantata featuring Nujeen’s story ‘The Girl from Aleppo’
Concept … words … setting
I asked how she even began to make a story like that into a piece of music. “I always start with the words”, she told me.
Edith Cavell was executed by a German firing squad. The night before, she told a priest “Patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”. These words, which are to be found on her statue opposite the National Portrait Gallery in London, Cecilia gave to poet Sean Street to put into a poetic setting.
A Time for All Seasons, (2016) which the West London Chorus will be performing on 1 April, is taken from the famous passage in Ecclesiastes:
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up …”
For this she worked with poet Kevin Crossley-Holland to put it in a form which she could take on and set to music. Once she has the words she can produce a vocal score which a choir can take away and rehearse and she can continue orchestrating it.
‘The Ice is Listening’
She will not be at St Michael & All Angels to hear their recital unfortunately, she said, because the same night the Henley Choral Society is performing a new work of hers commissioned for their 50th anniversary.
“They wanted something on the theme of water and the river”. She has given them The Ice is Listening, a piece about climate change. The title comes from something one of the climate scientists, Josh Willis, working with the Oceans Melting Greenland Mission, said:
“When the ocean speaks, the Greenland Ice Sheet listens.”
For this piece she has been working with poet Kate Wakeling, who has linked in the themes of ice, water and humanity.
“She found a contemporaneous account of the frost fairs they used to have on the Thames and made it into a poetic libretto.”
Cecilia was multi-tasking while she was talking to me. It occurred to me that if you can score a piece of music with parts for 20 or so individual instruments, you would probably be quite good at multi-tasking.
“I think all women are, don’t you?” she said blithely.
Images above: New CDs about to be released – The Da Vinci Requiem and Coronation: Music for Royal Occasions
The Da Vinci Requiem
She is certainly very busy. As well as the choirs commissioning and performing her work, she has several recordings about to be released.
Wimbledon Choral commissioned her to write a piece for their centenary in 2019. She thought she would like to write a requiem and as it was coincidentally the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, she settled on the Renaissance artist as her subject.
“When my parents married, my mother gave to my father a copy of the Da Vinci notebooks, so I grew up knowing them and looking at the pictures. They were old friends.
“The philosophy tied in very closely with the formula of the requiem mass and I thought Da Vinci’s philosophical writings might be suitable for both religious and humanist services.”
The piece was performed in the choir’s centenary year. Some 2,000 people went to hear it at the Festival Hall, but the recording of it with a large orchestra was disrupted by Covid and only now is it about to be released. The CD will be released by Signum on 7 April. She has since reshaped it for a chamber orchestra, which premiered in Britain last week.
Coronation: Music for Royal Occasions
She is not directly involved in the music for the coronation of King Charles III, but she was commissioned to write something for the Queen’s Jubilee, which turned into a tribute for Her Majesty, performed at the Tower of London in October, after her death.
That piece commemorating the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II has been recorded by The Sixteen, in an album presenting 500 years of royal music, to commemorate the coronation of King Charles III. The CD comes out on 2 April. Pre-order here: Coronation: Music for Royal Occasions
Image aboev: Cecilia McDowall
What makes a composer?
Cecilia has been making up music since she was around five years old. “My trajectory has been unusual” she says, though it will resonate with many working mothers.
She acquired her first degree in music, and taught at all sorts of schools from a comprehensive to the most expensive and elite schools before studying for her Masters, which she did only after bringing up her children.
I asked at what point is someone who makes up music entitled to describe themselves as a ‘composer’.
“If you want to be a composer, you just do it” she said.
You hope for someone to commission you to write something, for them to like it and for word of mouth to get around so someone else commissions you. A significant step was being signed by the Oxford University Press as a ‘house composer’ in 2010.
‘McDowall’s distinctive style fuses fluent melodic lines with occasional dissonant harmonies and rhythmic exuberance.’ OUP
High praise from the music press
Cecilia’s work is consistently very well reviewed in the music press.
‘McDowall’s work has qualities that include a communicative gift that is very rare in modern music, a composer well worth seeking out’ – Gramophone
‘The life-affirming, restorative strength of her direct and unaffected speech is fully communicated in these carefully prepared, joyous performances’ – Tempo
‘There is much sparkling and shimmering in McDowall’s writing. Cadences quiver and shiver unresolved, then vaporise as though overcome by their mysteriousness’ – The Times
Tickets to West London Chorus’s Spring Concert – Psalms, Songs and Seasons are available through their website.
Chichester Psalms – Leonard Bernstein
Five Hebrew Love Songs – Eric Whitacre
A Time for All Seasons – Cecilia McDowall
Read more about Cecilia’s work on her website: ceciliamcdowall.co.uk
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