Sunday 6 July 2014

A Multitude of Voices - Sospiri's World War One project

With the anniversary of the commencement of the First World War this year, and the prospect of further anniversaries looming for the next four years at least, choirs that sing unaccompanied vocal music are perhaps in danger of feeling left out. There doesn't seem to be a great deal of unaccompanied music on this theme. The Oxford-based choir, Sospiri, and their conductor Christopher Watson are seeking to remedy with a new project, A Multitude of Voices, which debuts this autumn. Watson and the choir have commissioned ten different composers to write works with a World War One theme, the texts are secular and the choice was up to the composers.

I met up with Chris Watson to talk further about the project. Watson is a singer himself and a member of The Tallis Scholars, as well as being Director of Music at St Edmund Hall, in Oxford. He founded Sospiri in 2006 with composer John Duggan. The two met in David Skinner's choir Magdala and Sospiri retains links with other members of Magdala. The choir is non-professional and meets on a project basis. Watson describes the choir as a highly social group, and feels that this comes out in their performances. They have developed a relationship with Merton College and sing Latin vespers there every term. Past performances have included John Duggan's settings of World War I poems (recorded on the choir's disc Requiem) and it was these settings which led to the idea of a group of World War One settings.

The composers were chosen from amongst those with whom the choir has enjoyed working, and they were given free reign with regard to the selection of texts. Watson says that he wanted the composers to set pieces which meant something to them. Watson simply contacted the composers that they identified as wanting to work with, and most had not been asked to do a similar project so were delighted to be involved.

Two of the pieces are co-commissions, that by Francis Pott (which Watson describes as difficult but beautiful) is a co-commission with Winchester School, whilst that by Matthew Martin is a co-commission with Eton. Martin has set a selection of the letters from World War One in the school archive, and the first performance at Eton will be accompanied by an exhibition at the school.

John Duggan and Christopher Watson, co-directors of Sospiri
John Duggan and Christopher Watson, co-directors of Sospiri
Alex L'Estrange's Rain, setting Edward Thomas, piece is perhaps the lightest piece in the group. Francis Pott's Sentinel, also sets texts by Edward Thomas (prose this time) along with poetry by Isaac Rosenberg. Frank Ferko's Trois Chansons de Guerre sets, in French, three poems by Apollinaire which were originally written during the war. Gabriel Jackson's Am Abend sets German words, by Georg Trakl (1887 - 1914) the Austrian expressionist poet who committed suicide whilst serving as a medical officer at the beginning of the war. Colin Mawby has set words by the poet Francis Ledwige, who was killed at Paschendale, and Tom Kettle, an Irish poet killed on the Somme. In Standing as I do before God, Cecilia McDowall has set words by Edith Cavell. Richard Allain's Pain, sets the sonnet on the death of Rupert Brooke by Ivor Gurney and the setting includes the names of the 551 men and boys who died on the same day as Brooke, the names being whispered.

Though the texts are varied, the theme of the pieces is the same and Watson hopes that the works will be taken up by other choirs. The music is similarly varied and many of the composers have displayed a great deal of imagination in their approach to the setting of the words. I look forward to hearing them. There are plans to publish all of them but, as the various composers are with different imprints, a single volume is not going to be possible.

Christopher Watson and Sospiri
Christopher Watson and Sospiri
Watson regards the project as, in fact, two different projects. One involves the commissioning of the music and the publishing of it, the other is a recording which comes out this Autumn (with a launch concert in Oxford). The recording will not include all of the commissioned works, as Watson does not see them so much as a set but as a resource. He feels that the music is varied enough for many different choirs to choose a least one of the pieces. He wants the pieces to become known as he feels that they deserve it, but as a singer himself he also feels that it is important that people are encouraged to buy new music.

This won't be Sospiri's first recording. As with many choirs, their first recording was done by themselves, and the second in support of an abbey in France. A disc for Naxos included music by John Duggan and Cecilia McDowall along with Lamentations settings. They have recorded discs for the The Gift of Music label, and their new disc will be on the Convivium label. It is released in November with a concert on 9 November in Oxford.

During my chat with Chris Watson he tells me that no-one makes any money from Sospiri, it is clearly a labour of love with him. The group is finding the money for the project itself (see their donations page). covering the commissioning fees and the recording costs. They have received some money from the PRS for Music Foundation, and Watson clearly hopes that they can raise enough to pay for the project and perhaps do another disc. There are plans to film the composers talking about their music and these films will be displayed on the Sospiri website.

Chris Watson and Sospiri will be launching their Multitude of Voices project at the Church of St John the Evangelist, Iffley Road, Oxford on 9 November 2014. They will be performing on BBC Radio 3's The Choir later today (6 July).

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