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First the coathanger, then the music: Patrick Hawes’s Nativity

22 December 2023

Childhood memories and Christian faith inspire a new album by Patrick Hawes. He talks to Sarah Meyrick

Bill Smith/Norwich Cathedral

In rehearsal for “A Royal Celebration: Music in honour of our new King”, with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, and Norwich Cathedral Choir, in October

In rehearsal for “A Royal Celebration: Music in honour of our new King”, with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, and Norwich Cathedral Choir, i...

THE seeds of Patrick Hawes’s new album The Nativity were sown many decades ago, during his childhood near Grimsby. He has fond memories of the magic of those early Christmases: “The frosty mornings, open fire, and family gatherings are as vivid in my memory now as they’ve always been,” he writes in the CD’s sleeve notes.

Indeed, the early shoots of his composing career appeared with Christmas. “The very first piece I ever wrote as a teenager was a carol called ‘Winter Is Here’, with words by my brother, which kind of set a precedent,” he says. That particular carol is not on the album, but 11 of the 20 pieces are settings of words by the Revd Andrew Hawes, a retired priest and his long-term collaborator.

The album is a collection of new compositions and older music, none of which has been recorded before. “It’s all new to the listening public, and I think that’s one of the selling points of the album,” Patrick Hawes says. The project came about after the première, in the United States, of his Great War Symphony in Carnegie Hall, New York, in November 2018, when Mark Singleton, the conductor of the New England chamber ensemble Voce, who recorded this CD, happened to be in the audience. “He got in touch afterwards, and we decided to do a project together. It suited them to do a Christmas album, too.”

The album opens with “What child is this?”, a question that the following pieces are designed to answer. Two 15th-century carols come next (“In Bethlehem, that noble place” and “The Endernight”), followed by “The Nativity” — six carols with new texts written by his brother, which can be sung separately or as a collection. “Joseph’s Carol”, for male voices, and “Behold the King” are two more pieces with words by Andrew, but written in the 1990s.

In between comes “Still, still the night”, a commission from Choir of the Earth, which received its online première during the first Christmas of the pandemic. There follow four Christmas motets in Latin and, finally, “Minstrels” (a poem by Wordsworth), a setting of the 15th-century lyric “Lullay my liking”; and two further pieces, “The heart of Mary” and “The colours of Christmas”, setting words by Andrew.

India BryantPatrick Hawes at work, at home

Is it tricky to find something new to say about Christmas? Patrick Hawes laughs. “One of the reviews of the album — only a few sentences — referred to [my writing about] ‘the usual suspects’. I said to my manager, ‘What on earth does that mean?’

“But as with so many other aspects of Christianity, the stories from the Bible and the parables, you can always read something new into them. So that’s part of the answer. But the other thing is that Christmas, for me, is just the most extraordinary, wonderful thing, and it always has been. As a Christian, growing in faith and growing in a relationship with God the Father and God the Son, there’s always something new.”

HE IS “wonderfully aided” by his brother in this exploration. “We have a symbiotic relationship. We feed off one another, and I’m very fortunate that he comes up with these texts on ‘the usual suspects’, but with a different kind of perspective.”

How does the relationship work in practice? “I’d say well over 90 per cent of it starts with his words, which, I always say, is like a coat hanger to hang the music on. Sometimes, I might ask him to change a word or a line in a verse, but he’s always very accommodating.”

He gives as an example the carol “The Infant”, part of “The Nativity”, where a change was needed. “The American choir got back to us and said, You can’t have the word ‘outhouse’ in America, because it means an outside loo. So we had to change that to ‘cow shed’.” Just occasionally, it works the other way round: Patrick has a musical idea, and sends a request to Andrew for words.

Andrew plays the piano — as children, the brothers had the same piano teachers — and he is also “a very good jazz double-bass player”, Patrick says.

That said, it was not a traditional upbringing for a composer of sacred music. “Normally, you’re a chorister in a cathedral, but it was very different [for us]. My mum and dad were publicans on the east coast, in Lincolnshire. My grandmother taught me a few things on the piano. She used to play by ear. But my father said that the best-paid person in his pub was the pianist, and so he said, ‘You’re going to have piano lessons.’”

The five-year-old Patrick resisted, at first — “I used to kick and scream” — but, after a break, he tried again, and learned some pop tunes, before moving on to Mozart sonatas. “I had no idea that this was quite advanced. And then we went away to boarding school, and I realised I was streets ahead of anybody. So I ended up playing every day for assembly and shows and things. I was the kind of resident pianist.”

Another influence was a teacher, newly graduated from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, who stayed only a year at the school. “I always say he taught me everything I know about harmony. I was just in the right place at the right time with the right person.”

FAITH was not a particular feature of their upbringing, he says, until his brother started singing in the village-church choir. “That had a massive effect on him, singing in the choir, and I used to go with him to Sunday school.” Boarding school consolidated this. “We both enjoyed the Christian aspect of it. For everybody else, it was a kind of chore, but, on a Sunday morning, we used to walk in a crocodile to the parish church, and it was always something I loved. We both did.”

After reading Music as an organ scholar at Durham University, Patrick was a teacher for some years before pursuing a full-time career as a composer. His breakthrough came in 2004, with his debut album Blue in Blue, which includes his hit “Quanta Qualia”. The album was made CD of the Week on Classic FM, and was nominated for a Classical Brit award.

There followed a year as Composer in Residence at Classic FM (2006 to 2007), and the steady release of more albums. He has worked with, among many others, the English Chamber Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and the King’s Singers, and with Hayley Westenra, Elin Manahan Thomas, Julian Lloyd Webber, Sarah Brightman, and other soloists.

ONE of his best-known works is the Highgrove Suite, written in 2009 for the King when he was Prince of Wales. The commission came about as a result of a collaboration with the royal harpist, Claire Jones, who had played the harp at a performance of Patrick’s Lazarus Requiem in the Cadogan Hall in Chelsea. “I suggested to her that I wrote her a new piece, because we had the English Chamber Orchestra. And word came from Clarence House that, if I was going to write a new piece, the Prince would like to be there. So I ended up writing a piece for harp and string orchestra for the Prince’s 60th birthday.”

Given a blank canvas, Hawes took inspiration from the Prince’s well-known love of nature. A one-movement piece had its première at Covent Garden, and evolved into a full suite of pieces, each inspired by an aspect of the garden at Highgrove. The complete work was premièred in the Orchard Room at Highgrove, in the presence of the Prince and the then Duchess of Cornwall, and was featured in a TV broadcast with Alan Titchmarsh.

Hawes says that his faith underlies all his work, even when the piece is not obviously a sacred one. He is currently working on an oratorio — “a large-scale Christian work, almost like a modern-day Messiah” — to be given its first performance in Houston, Texas, next year.

He and his partner worship at St John’s, Timberhill, in Norwich, a sister church to the Julian Shrine, where he is a server. Unsurprisingly, he has been unable to resist setting the words “All shall be well” to music for choir and strings, although this work is as yet unpublished.

What are his hopes for The Nativity? All the pieces are “reusable”, he says. “They’re all very approachable, and they offer Christmas pieces for choirs of all different abilities. But who knows?”

The album is “incredibly special” to him. “Christmas, for me, is at the heart of my own faith. If ever I doubt God or my faith, I only have to focus on the Christ-child and the Virgin. And, because of my connection with the choir, I feel this has given the music an extra sense of warmth and Christmas identity — a different sense of mood, sometimes.

“I just think these pieces offer something new. They’re deeply based in the English choral tradition. They’re based on texts which are born out of real Christian faith, both the medieval texts and the modern texts by my brother; I hope and believe that they will bring something of the real heart of Christmas into your life.”


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