THE ever-youthful Ronald Corp is 60 this year. To the world at large, he is the versatile conductor of several CDs of light music and of neglected choral pieces by 19th- and 20th-century composers. He conducts children’s choirs, adult choirs, orchestras, “outreach” activities for children in Newham, east London, he composes — and he is a clergyman as well.
“It is a big portfolio in a way, isn’t it? And it’s rather lucky, because there was no plan: I wanted to be a composer; so it all starts from a child, and I don’t know where that comes from in the sense that I always say my parents were not musical. That’s not really true: my father did learn the piano and there was a piano in the house, because back in the ’50s everybody had a piano in their front room.
“I didn’t start learning the piano until I was ten, but, even before that, my memory tells me I wanted to compose on the piano, that I devised ways of representing what I wrote down. In the myth of my mind is this desire to compose even before I could play the piano, and, as soon as I could play the piano, I started writing, and that became an obsession, and if a day passed without me writing something it felt like a day wasted; and that was the ambition, I suppose, to be a composer, but nobody could give me any advice.”
He was born in Wells at 1 Cathedral Green, but had no connection with the cathedral or with music of any sort, and advice for a budding teenage composer was hard to come by. There was no encouragement, and he feels that everything he has done in the composing line has been “slightly against the odds”.
But his parents always had the wireless on, and so young Corp was surrounded by light music on the BBC Light Programme, which explains his knowledge of that repertoire and his passion for it. “Whatever I listened to next I wanted to write the equivalent of; so when I heard Messiah for the first time, I wanted to write an oratorio like that; when I discovered a Haydn symphony, I wanted to write a symphony.”
His discovery of the Church came through singing, at the suggestion of his headmaster who ran the parish-church choir. He began as a tenor — he never sang as a boy treble — and there he “caught the bug of the church as well [as music]”, and those two things went hand in hand up to the time he went to Oxford University.
The Bishop’s chaplain for youth at Wells, the Revd Terry Stokes, became something of a spiritual mentor, and it was he who suggested that Corp should think about going into the priesthood, and so, “just for a minute”, there was a dilemma: the Church or music? “It was so obviously music that was my ministry, and in a sense I’ve always felt it was my ministry — that sounds a bit pious, but I know what I mean when I say that — so I went off and read music with the view to being an academic, hopefully a composer-academic, and then wanted to do research into Victorian oratorio, got the place but didn’t get a grant, so joined the BBC, and began to conduct, and formed the BBC Club choir, and the rest is history.”
The history is that his BBC choir became so good as to be involved in the Proms and recordings; he was increasingly asked to conduct elsewhere or to deputise; he began his relationship with the Highgate Choral Society, for whose concerts an orchestra was formed that eventually became the permanent New London Orchestra; then came broadcasts and an eventual recording contract with Hyperion, with the aim of promoting the music he was passionate about, but which others were not playing.
Nothing was planned, but he found that he had become a conductor. Lately, his compositions have come to be heard more widely, and there are CDs of his songs and choral pieces, music for children, string quartets, a piano concerto, and a symphony, and he is now able to explain to people that “I was a composer all along. You didn’t know that, but I was.”
Amid all this activity, when does he actually find time to compose these sometimes extensive pieces? “If you’ve got something burning around within you, you’re thinking about it the whole time. It’s a bit like sermons: if I know I’m preaching on a Sunday, every time I walk to the Tube, every time I have quiet moments, you’re thinking about it; so at the point when you write it, it just comes out.” It is true that his instrumental music sounds literally as if it pre-existed and he simply had to write it down. “I [sometimes] look at pieces and I don’t know how the notes got there,” he says.
I asked him if being a clergyman has any impact on being a musician, or vice versa. “I’m very aware that when I conduct the St Matthew Passion, for me there’s a spiritual something happening, and I guess some of that is going to rub off. From what people say about my performances, there’s obviously a something that I can convey — and it doesn’t have to be a spiritual piece; for I think I see myself as the servant of the composer rather than imposing an interpretation. I see myself as the vehicle through which the composer’s soul can be exposed.
“The other way round, to be aware of how music fits into a service, whether it’s just the hymn-singing, or whatever it is, I think, is a valuable asset, because the way a service is conducted [determines] whether the service has shape, meaning, and pace, and all those sorts of things.”
His work as an assistant priest at St Alban’s, Holborn, includes the customary pastoral work — home visiting, home communions, and so on. “It’s such an extraordinary area of London where you’ve got a market here, you’ve got Hatton Garden there, you’ve got Lincoln’s Inn and the rest; and the way you can interact with all those people when you’ve got your dog collar on is quite special.”
I wondered if the orchestra’s outreach at Newham can perhaps be seen as a form of evangelism. “Although I’ve said that I felt music was my ministry,” Corp says, “when I stand in front of a choir, I’m not there to proselytise or preach.” But he is a very successful communicator, which comes from his passion for music and the desire to share his enjoyment of it, and not allowing negative feelings to affect the mood of the performers.
On 9 July, at the Royal Festival Hall, there is to be a Ronald Corp 60th-birthday concert — a present from the Highgate Choral Society, who spotted the opportunity a couple of years ago. If he is embarrassed by having attention drawn to this unlikely milestone in his life, he has the satisfaction of the opportunity to conduct two of his own works, And All the Trumpets Sounded (cantata, 1989, commissioned by the Highgate Choral Society), and the world première of The Wayfarer, in homage to Mahler, together with Orff’s Carmina Burana, preceded by an interview with Richard Morrison, chief music critic of The Times, and himself a church organist.
Finally, I ask him, as interviewers do, whether he has any leisure pursuits, and get an intriguing answer: “I see the Church as leisure from the music, and music as leisure from the Church.”