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Interview: Patrick Hawes, composer

21 March 2014

'Music, like all art, is ultimately there to praise God'

Craftsman's art and music's measure: the composer Patrick Hawes with his brother and collaborator, the priest-poet Canon Andrew Hawes SSC

Craftsman's art and music's measure: the composer Patrick Hawes with his brother and collaborator, the priest-poet Canon Andrew Hawes SSC

I began to compose seriously when I was a teacher of music and English at Pangbourne College. I wrote some incidental music for a production of King Lear, and then was asked to write a large-scale piecefor the school choral society. After this, I was appointed composer-in-residence at Charterhouse, which combined some teaching with the freedom to take on new commissions. 

As a student at Durham University, I was conductor of the university chamber choir, and also of the symphony orchestra. This gave me plenty of experience, so that I was able to conduct orchestras like the Philharmonia and English Chamber Orchestra with a certain amount of confidence. I particularly love choral conducting, which is an art all of its own. 

I play both piano and organ. They are very different instruments. And I love accompanying the Christian liturgy on the organ.

Yes, it pays the bills, and I feel very fortunate that it does. For many years I had to supplement my income with teaching and examining. Nowadays, income from commissions and royalties mean I can live a comfortable life composing. In my 20s, I began writing library production music, and have continued ever since.

This is music on a shelf, which film producers can just download and use as they need it. I frequently hear my music on programmes unexpectedly, and am delighted when I receive my next royalty statement.

Audionetwork.com produce a thousand tracks a month, from composers all over the world. It's an enormous business now. They give me a brief, like an album of pieces on war, or Christmas music, or a pastoral album. I don't belittle it, because they use the very best orchestras and recording engineers, and it's available on iTunes, so it can actually be downloaded and enjoyed by anyone. I take as much pride in it, and as much care, as I do in any of my music. I've recently recorded a whole library album of First World War music.

But it's a world away from my serious art music, like my Angel CD, which I've just written for Decca. There's a lot of interest in it already. 

Various things came together that made me want to write this album. I've always loved the story of the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary, the very beginning of the Christian faith, and that's probably the single most important thing. And my father once saw angels. Then there's the story of the angel of Mons. Decca took me over to Mons in December to film an interview there. You can see all this on YouTube.

I spent my MA year researching music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque. This period saw the birth of tonality, and I'm drawn more and more to the great figures of this period, particularly Victoria, Tallis, Monteverdi, and Cavalli. Their approach to line, and the way they delight in controlled dissonance, has a massive influence on my music. 

My country, those I love, and my Christian faith are the other main influences on me. I believe music is born of the soul, so anything that affects the soul finds a place in my musical output. Christianity - this gives meaning to my whole life. It's the bedrock of my work as a composer.

I was commissioned by a local choir, the Sheringham and Cromer Choral Society, to write a new work to be premiered this year, and the heroism of Edith Cavell provided the perfect starting point. As a resident of Norfolk, I've always been aware of Edith Cavell, and I visited her grave in Norwich Cathedral on a number of occasions. As I've learnt more about her life, her work, and the days leading up to her death, I have developed huge respect, even profound love, for this brave woman of such deep faith. I found the account of her last night, written by the prison chaplain, very, very moving. 

The première of Eventide: In Memoriam Edith Cavellwill take place in Norwich Cathedral on 12 July, with the Sheringham and Cromer Choral Society, the soprano Elin Manahan Thomas, and the English Chamber Orchestra. 

On Angel, there is an excerpt from a larger work called The Angel of Mons. Over the next few months, I want to complete this work so that we can premiere it on 23 August, which will be the exact centenary of the apparition. At the same time, I'll be working on a commission from the Aliquando choir in Henley - a setting of Wilfred Owen's "I Know The Music" for SATB choir, soprano solo, and string quartet. The Angel music will have its London première on 9 June at St John's, Smith Square, with the choir of New College, Oxford, and the Royal Philarmonic Orchestra. I'm sharing the conducting with the choir's director, Edward Higginbottom. 

Most of my music is sacred. I like nothing more than to take a text from the psalms or a spiritual poem by my brother Andrew - he's an Anglican priest in Lincolnshire - and set it to music. Music, like all art, is ultimately there to praise God. I've written short piano pieces called Towards the Light, and my largest works to date are the Te Deum and the Lazarus Requiem

I was born and bred in Lincolnshire, where my family ran a pub near Skegness. I learnt to play the piano and sang in the village church choir. Andrew is four years older than me. He's a poet, as well as being a priest, and he plays a vital part in my work by providing beautiful words and spiritual encouragement. Now I live in Norfolk between the Broads and the coast, with my partner and our cat, Yum Yum. 

My favourite sound is the crashing of waves, closely followed by the purr of my cat. Both reveal to me, in a very real sense, the beauty and mystery of God's creation.

Because I'm constantly thinking about music, I like nothing better than to seek peace and relaxation in a quiet hotel by the sea in either Spain or Greece. There, I can soak up the sun, read books, and forget all about crotchets and quavers. 

As a student I attended a retreatin Alnmouth, Northumberland, with a few fellow students fromSt Chad's College, Durham. It was led by Michael Ramsey. What an honour! The retreat was silent, but he spoke to us every so oftenon the subject of the Transfiguration. I will never forget the softness of his voice and his wise, searching eyes.

Another huge influence was Philip Ainsworth, my music teacher for my two years of O level. He taught me everything I know about harmony and counterpoint. He was the best teacher I ever had, and a real inspiration. 

Teaching literature is very different from reading it, and allowed me to really taste the deep beauty of the English classics. The Mayor of Casterbridge particularly fired my imagination. Maybe it has the potential to be developed into an opera libretto. The other work that particularly affected me as a teacher was Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience.

My main prayer is for the safekeeping of those I love, but Ialso pray that I may be sustainedin my work as a composer and remain faithful to Christ in all thatI do. 

I would love to meet St John, Christ's beloved disciple. If I could meet one towering musical figure, it would be George Frideric Handel, whom I believe managed to convey more than anyone else a perfect marriage between things sensual and things spiritual in his music.

Patrick Hawes was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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