Interview: David Lewiston Sharpe, composer, writer

12 July 2019

‘Music is one of the things that defines us. Sidelining it is bonkers’

It’s music that keeps body and soul together, through teaching and developing a knowledge of music and its performance, over the past 30 years or so. Writing prose and poetry is really a supplementary strand.

I’d probably be classified as a contemporary classical composer, although labels can be misleading or restrictive. It’s melody and the lyrical in music that attracts me. It goes back really to the voice, the most natural instrument, which embodies the narrative thread which shapes a tune. This is the true basis and nature of song. Song and story are arguably synonymous.

I’d divide my music into vocal — solo or choral — and instrumental music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, solo instruments. There’s been a recent performance of a duo inspired by the writings of St Thomas Aquinas, for violin and cello, at a church in Düsseldorf. Later this year, there’ll be a performance of my setting of Locus Iste at St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral, Valletta, in Malta, where they’re raising funds for its renovation. I’ve also got a recent song-cycle album, for voice and piano, available on iTunes and Amazon: In The Tavern Of Sweet Songs. There’s audio on my website, too.

I was commissioned a couple of years ago by the Chapel Royal for an anthem to mark the Reformation 500th, which builds on my existing works for choir, with and without organ. That’s led to writing more, including settings for matins, communion, and evensong — my Jubilee Service. Given greater freedom, I’d tend to work with instrumental ensembles and orchestra.

Form is often suggested by the instrumentation of a work. I don’t necessarily adhere to conventional forms like the sonata, symphony, concerto, though I’ve written a number of these, including a piano concerto premièred by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 2002, but none of them are fixed to classical ideals per se.

It’s tradition that attracts me to church music. Becoming a composer is to open yourself and your skills to a defining, deep-seated constituent of human existence and civilisation: something innate to being. I don’t mean by tradition a surface set of actions or rituals, but something deeper: that elusive, ineffable core of being.

I’m drawn to working with sacred words that have been revisited many times, across thousands of years. Trying to enhance or channel the communication of something truly meaningful — which music can achieve — is the duty of making such settings. But you have to feel it in your “insidest inside”, as Edward Elgar says.

Elgar definitely inspired me. His is sometimes the only music I can listen to when I need reassurance from a musical source. There’s consolation in philosophy, too, and also in poetry quite often, where thought and feeling are really one and the same thing.

I’ve written poetry in response to the natural world, to the inner world of dreams, and philosophically oriented ideas about people and places. Like my music, they’re a distillation of memory.

I’ve set a fair amount of poetry to music. The song-cycle Twilight by the River is a set of five songs for voice and piano on poems I wrote while travelling in Egypt about 20 years ago. I’ve also made translations by Edward FitzGerald for my song-cycle In The Tavern Of Sweet Songs. I set W. B. Yeats, too, for his 150th anniversary, in Through The Starry Ways. I agree that some poetry is difficult or impossible to set: Shakespeare, for one; the Romantic poets of the 19th century; a fair amount of recent poetry. This all has too much innate musicality.

My grandparent interested me in lineages. I have ancestors from Ireland and Poland. The Lewistons came from Prussia in the 1830s, having Anglicised their name. There are one or two world-war heroes in my family history, saluted in my motet Exaudi, Deus, verses from Psalm 61 intertwined with the poetry of Edward Thomas, which Chichester Cathedral choir sang at a Remembrance Day service last year. Unwelcome discoveries? There were a couple of family rogues in the 19th century.

I was startled to learn that, via the composer and pianist Brian Chapple, who taught me piano up to Grade 8, a student-teacher lineage leads me back to Bach and Mozart via Sir Arthur Sullivan and Robert Schumann. It sets a benchmark floating above your head, but it’s useful. It connects you to people who might otherwise seem very distant and out of reach — these unknown people whose music you struggle to learn and express — and takes you through to the next step, trying to master what you’re doing as musician or a composer. When I teach, I’m passing this down to others.

I went to a comprehensive in the London suburbs, and was encouraged in my learning and reading at home. My dad’s a musician, but I also had encouragement via the local borough music service. The cuts to music education in schools where I teach really worries me. Music’s one of the things that define us, and it’s so much part of our environment. Sidelining it is bonkers.

Continuous contact with friends and family forms a significant daily thread for my life now. I live in Enfield, and most of my family are in Hertfordshire, or moving back there, as I have a new niece or nephew expected this summer. We’re gravitating back to the place we originally came from.

My first experience of God was at the ruins of the priory at Waltham Abbey, which we visited frequently when I was young. I remember going there with my grandfather. There’s a well there among the foundations of an old monastic blacksmiths’ forge, and a stone bridge — a Roman ruin, I think — and I did sense something profound there. I still have a prayer card, bought in the shop in the crypt: “We thank Thee, O God, for good friends to rejoice with us in our joys; to cheer us in trouble and to lighten our tasks. Help us to repay them in fellowship and in service.” That distilled what I experienced in some way.

I communicate a lot by email and text with friends, but meeting up is happening more — with effort — and I value the support I’ve had from friends who aren’t musicians, but who get what I’m doing as a composer, and draw something from me that I can give through music. Working with players or listeners gives you that tingle factor when there’s a friendship — giving and receiving. I really do feel that music can be a channel for that. That’s what makes me happiest.

I’ve recently read the New Testament a couple of times, prayerfully, as best I was able, over a year. Doing this was a reassuring reminder of many fundamentals of faith. There’s a tidal ebb and flow to faith, I think, sometimes across years or decades. I’m sure that’s the same for many people.

My favourite sound is the dawn chorus. The contours of life and the daily rhythm of the world are reflected in the ebb and flow of faith, ritual, poetic patterns, and the pulse of music, as well as in some prose, visual art, and drama. For me, all these things are inevitably and inextricably linked. Maybe the heart of these is something contemplative, with active power for good in the world.

I’m not sure I ever really feel angry about anything. Frustration, certainly — sometimes significant frustration. That’s part of where musical expression comes from. Gustav Holst once said that one should never write anything unless the not writing of it becomes unbearable.

The most courageous thing I’ve done was taking the road — “the one less travelled” — of a composer. Getting decision-makers to commit to making performances happen is tremendously difficult.

My cup’s always half full, never half empty, even when life sets up apparent obstacles. I think people are, on the whole, the same. That gives me hope for the world, and for people, in the broadest and also a personal sense, too.

The core of my prayer is an appeal for equilibrium: not a cancelling out of two evenly conflicting terms, but an equilibrium with a bias towards positive progress. That’s the only way I can pray for global harmony, which I hope for most. It’s not easy at the moment.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Johann Sebastian Bach, but not so much to talk to him as to hear him play the organ, and improvise. He’s a musical great-grandfather for any of us following the same tradition.

David Lewiston Sharpe was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Coronavirus (Covid-19) update

The latest: Daily news updates

Get the free Church Times email bulletin


> Lift Up Your Hearts: 29 May (PDF download)

> All our recommended resources for prayer, worship, live streaming and more


Record your experience of the pandemic, the ministry that you have given or received, and what you think will happen to churches in a post-pandemic world

> Take the survey

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)