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Interview: Margaret Rizza, composer

20 September 2013

'A chant starts in the head and begins the longest journey in the world'

Deciding to tackle the internet at a very ripe old age has made a big difference to my everyday life. I'm now in touch with so many more people, plus an incredible amount of information, which is great.

At the same time, it's made me prioritise the important things to be done each day. I try to continue with the very simple things in life, such as cooking for the family, and baking exciting cakes with the grandchildren.

I love gardening and tending my little veg patch, which I try to make time for in the evenings. In the mornings, I have my break at around 11, with a large mug of very strong tea laced with honey and full-cream milk, together with some shortbread, and then I begin work at my keyboard.

I try to continue with formal times of meditation each day: one in the morning, and one in the evening. These times of meditation are so important, and yet so difficult to be faithful to. One tries to keep the mind still through the repetition of a prayer phrase, so that the deeper levels of consciousness are able to be open to the indwelling, transforming spirit deep within one's being. 

Through these stark yet rich times of silence, prayer then seems to spring out naturally during my ordinary everyday life, and this gives purpose and sacredness to even the smallest and simplest tasks. 

I seek God in my prayer. I seek this love-relationship, which must then spill over into everything I strive to do. For me, all prayer stems from this - to seek to know God, and to strive to do his will.

It was so strange how I came to compose music in my old age. A great friend of mine, Sister Pamela Hayes, asked me to write some music as an introduction to prayer for an international conference. Never having written music before, I was reluctant to take this on, but in the end I composed six pieces which people found prayerful. And so, in 1997, the first CD came out. 

I went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 17, as a rather bad pianist, and then changed to singing. This resulted in a career that lasted for 25 years. I then taught for many years at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

I've naturally been involved with church music. It has always been part of my musical heritage. Since 1989, I have trained and directed choirs and choral groups, and have conducted ten choral CDs. 

I'm now mainly involved with choral and instrumental writing. I also love writing chants that include a lot of instrumental variations. I also write music for children.

It is an interesting question to discuss why there are relatively so few women composers and conductors. But, fortunately, this is already changing.

Much of my inspiration comes from the texts of poetry and scripture. I long to express in musical terms the ideas that the words evoke within me. I love the fact that this music can be shared with other people.

Some of my music is very simple, and all is underpinned by prayer. It seems that many people are caught, not by my prayer, but by this prayer of the Spirit. This is what they recognise, and is ignited for them, expressing something unique for them.

In such a busy and materialistic culture, many people's hearts are yearning to be filled with the love, compassion, beauty, and truth which God pours into the Spirit of Jesus, and which Jesus then pours into our hearts and minds, making us one with him.

The new work Officium Divinum was conceived by Tim Ruffer, head of publishing at the RSCM. He came up with the idea of composing music for the four periods of daily prayer: morning, midday, evening, and night prayer. I found it such an exciting and wonderful project to work on. The 16 pieces are made up of four choral pieces, with organ; two unaccompanied pieces; and ten choral pieces, with organ and instrumental accompaniment.

Some of the pieces are contemplative in mood, some are celebratory, and some are very simple indeed, allowing small choirs with limited resources to be able to sing them without being stretched beyond their capabilities. As well as giving the various choral groups a wide choice for the particular periods of prayer, the CD can also be listened to by people in their prayer time. 

I have come to love many composers from many different periods of time. But I still return to early polyphonic music, Baroque music, Bach, Handel, Mozart. I love also the music of Arvo Pärt, Morten Lauridsen, and some of John Tavener's compositions.

And then, of course, I love chants. There seems to be something innate in the human being that needs repetition. In our culture, we are encouraged to strive for instant gratification and new attractions, but chants are so easy to learn, and also lovely to sing and to work at.

Through the repetitions, a chant starts in the head, with all its thinking, and begins the longest journey in the world: that is, from head to heart. There, one begins to be open to the beauty of prayer, and drawn into deeper levels of reflection and stillness.

A lot of my music has been used in retreats, hospices, hospitals, and even in prisons. People find that the music links them into a deeper state of prayer and peace, and holds the mind still.

We're in need of this slowing-down process - not, of course, only through music. Let's face it, we're in an extraordinarily volatile and complex society - even just coping with the internet and all the consequences that are now coming to the fore.

When I look back on my family and childhood, how very different it all was. My father and mother were both musical. My father played the organ in the parish church, and my mother played the piano. My husband, George, was the managing director of Chester Music and Novello for close on 40 years. His father came to Scotland from Italy when he was 11; so that's where Rizza comes from.

My son, Andrew, lives in Milan, and is a graphic designer and a photographer. My daughter, Jane, is a potter. She and our son-in-law, Mark, live just round the corner, and have three very feisty young sons, 13, 11, and seven - exhausting. But we have lots of fun: everything very loud, and huge fights, and all of them totally unmusical - but that's fine.

Our main holidays have been renting cottages near the sea in Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, and Wales, where there are wonderful coastal cliff walks. I love the pub food that goes with it all. We've also had good holidays in Spain and Italy, where I love the warm weather and the Mediterranean food.

While on holiday, there is more time for reading. I am passion- ate about the writings of the mys- tics and other spiritual writers. I read mainly the Gospel of St John, Isaiah, the Psalms, the letters of St Paul.

I get great joy being with my family, with the children, writing music, and sharing the music with choirs, being with friends, and my church family and home-prayer group. And I love being surrounded by the beauty of nature.

I feel challenged by the fact that I am part of a world that is so rich, while, at the same time, there are those in the Third World who suffer so terribly. The injustice, the poverty, the brokenness, the hurt, and the loneliness which is so rife in our society and in our world is a constant pain, and something I have to struggle with daily. 

I would choose Jesus to be locked in a church with, but I would leave it up to him as to whom else he would want me to be with. So it would, perhaps, be a question of opening the door to someone I would never dream of being with. But this is how it is with Jesus: he turns me upside down, and amazes me, and helps me to enter into another reality -overwhelms me with love. 

Margaret Rizza was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
Officium Divinum has just been released by RSCM and Convivium Records.

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