Artist Led, Creatively Driven

Christopher Wood

Release Date: 1st May 2017


Christopher Wood (b.1945)

1. Kyrie eleison / Requiem aeternam – soprano and chorus 7.09
2. Dies irae / Tuba mirum / Liber scriptus – soprano and chorus 7.19
3. Quid sum miser tunc dicturus? / Rex tremendae – alto, tenor, bass and chorus 8.03
4. Recordare / Ingemisco – bass and chorus 6.27
5. Confutatis / Lacrimosa / Pie Jesu – soprano, alto and chorus 7.17
6. Offertorio: Domine Jesu Christe – alto, tenor, bass and chorus 5.35
7. Sanctus / Benedictus – chorus 4.08
8. Agnus Dei – soprano, alto, tenor, bass and chorus 4.37
9. Lux aeterna – chorus 3.25
10. Libera me – soprano, alto, tenor, bass and chorus 6.55

Total time 60.55

Rebecca Bottone, soprano
Clare McCaldin, alto
Ed Lyon, tenor
Nicholas Garrett, bass
L’Inviti Sinfonia & L’Inviti Singers
Paul Brough, conductor

“When Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother died in 2002 there was an extraordinary show of emotion in Britain, with a real sense of national mourning. Thousands of people queued for hours to file past the coffin to pay their respects, with a mixture of sentiments that was hard to define. There was clearly grief but it was tinged with other emotions, perhaps even patriotic pride; there was sadness but also honour and gratitude, and all for someone most of the people standing in line had never met. But the Queen Mother had been for so long a symbol of the nation and had helped shape the character of Britain in their lifetime. I wondered at the time that if the people filing past the coffin were a choir, what would they sing? More to the point, what music would I have sung to capture the emotions of that moment? So, I thought I would try to express, in music, that sentiment – which is how the idea was born for the composition of this Requiem.”
Christopher Wood

Christopher Wood: Requiem
It occasionally happens that composers have extra-musical careers. Charles Ives was an insurance agent; Alexander Borodin was a noted chemist; and Eric Whitacre, a current superstar of the choral world, even moonlights as a male model. But it’s pretty rare to come across a pharmaceutical entrepreneur who adds composition to his medical activities. Christopher Wood, a former cancer surgeon who now develops cancer drugs, brings the total in this category up to one – although this increase is complicated by the fact that he chooses not to call himself a composer.

How can that be? A man who has written a work which has been exponentially building in popularity since its first performance in 2012 – a work which has touched a profound nerve with choral societies up and down the country, and which has been recorded with stellar soloists and a superb orchestra… how is it that the creator of that piece is not a composer? The answer to that riddle lies further on, and offers a fascinating insight into both Wood’s talent and the story behind his Requiem.

The initial flash of inspiration took place in 2002, during one of Wood’s regular business trips to America, when he witnessed images of the funeral of the Queen Mother on his hotel television. ‘What struck me was the number of people who’d queued for hours to file past and pay their respects. They’d never met the lady, but somehow needed to be there. It wasn’t like a family funeral – they weren’t in tears, they hadn’t lost someone close – and I felt it was somehow more than grief. There was a sense of national pride, of honour. And I thought: if those people were a choir, what would they sing? What would capture that mix of emotions? The choral society I sing in was performing Verdi’s Requiem, so I knew which words to choose. And I thought, well, if Verdi can do it…’ He breaks off to laugh throatily at his own hubris.

Hubris indeed. For up to this point, Wood had never composed a note of music. His ambitions had lain squarely within the world of medicine and medical research – and it’s worth taking a detour here into his primary career, since the passion and dedication which have driven his professional life have also fed his love of music. ‘I was eight when I knew very clearly I wanted to be a surgeon,’ he says. ‘My aunt showed me a gallstone, cut in half. There was a parasite in the middle, with expanding rings of calcification round it, like the rings of a tree.

I was mesmerised. From that moment on, I didn’t have images of pop stars and footballers on my walls – I had pictures of hearts and livers.’ After studying medicine at the University of Wales, Wood rose to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and a consultant surgeon at the Hammersmith Hospital in London, where he led the breast and colon cancer clinics. (During his time there, he also participated in two episodes of the TV programme Your Life in Their Hands, which were presented by fellow Hammersmithonian Robert Winston.) But research was as important to him as the physical aspects of surgery. ‘I wanted to develop drugs, make them available to
patients, to change lives.’

In the mid 1980s, after a chance meeting with a potential backer, he was given the opportunity to develop a new drug in a start-up biotechnology company, which proved enormously successful. In 1997 he left surgery behind, and entered the pharmaceutical industry full-time. He has since started several companies, and successfully developed a range of new medicines, including a breakthrough drug for children with leukaemia. ‘When a patient comes to you with cancer, and you are able to operate and remove the cancer, and you give them the all clear… or when a woman calls to tell you that her son, who’d been given just six weeks to live, is now in remission and playing basketball in the garden – the emotion of those moments is something you can’t describe.’ This delight in other people’s happiness, and this passion for the possibility of changing lives, brings us back to the genesis of a Requiem which has already given hundreds of people enormous pleasure.

Music has always been a fundamentally vital part of Wood’s life. Partly he ascribes his early contact with song to growing up in Wales ‘where everybody sings’, and partly to his weekly participation in the choir of his local church. (He is still a strongly religious person, and this is another cornerstone of his music.) But more concretely, his love of the lyric arts can be ascribed to the fact that his mother was a soprano in the chorus of Welsh National Opera. ‘My earliest memories are of her teaching me to sing. She instilled a love of singing in the whole family – and I’ve sung in choirs and choral societies for my whole life.’ (His voice is a bass-baritone.)

Although music has taken a secondary role, it has always been present in his imagination in some form or other, every hour of the day. So when he saw the Queen Mother’s funeral, and the idea arose of giving voice to the emotion which he witnessed there, it was as if all the foundations were ready for his work.

After the initial light-bulb of inspiration, it took about eight years to write. ‘There was no deadline: it was just for my own pleasure. I was running a company in America, and so would finish my day around 9 or 10 at night. And the first thing I’d do would be to go to the piano, and write a few lines. And then when I went to bed, I’d imagine a choir, and how they might sing ‘Confutatis’ or ‘Recordare’.’ He describes it as the hardest thing he’s ever done. ‘I realised my stupidity when I began to do it. But it was never intended for performance. I have plenty of ways of making a fool of myself, but I wasn’t planning to do that in public with my first major composition. This was an exercise, purely for my own pleasure, to try to distil an emotion into music.’

After a chance meeting with David Guest – a professional musician whose company specialises in musical event production and management – Wood asked Guest if he might show him the Requiem ‘to find out where my mistakes are, to see what I can improve.’ Guest put him in touch with orchestrator Jonathan Rathbone. ‘We met in the Harvey Nichols coffee shop. I nervously pulled out the Kyrie, expecting to be savaged and bracing myself for a good kicking. But he looked at it and said: “I can see harps there… I’d bring in an oboe here”. He saw the potential not just to edit it, but to orchestrate it.’

Wood reminded Rathbone that the work was most definitely not intended for performance. ‘But he said he’d do a deal. He would orchestrate it, if I would allow it to be performed. Secretly I thought it would never happen, but I agreed. I imagined I’d be able to listen to it on my computer, and that would be the end of it.’
The orchestration took around two years, squeezed around Rathbone’s busy schedule. Wood was thrilled with the results. ‘The orchestration was just stunning – Jonathan turned a pig’s ear into a silk purse.’ As each section came back, Wood’s enthusiasm grew and grew, and he eventually suggested performing and recording it. ‘It would be just for my own gratification. It was a dream. I imagined the CD would be just for my wife and me.

Guest invited Paul Brough, principal guest conductor of the BBC Singers, to conduct the work, and also organised a superb team of professional soloists, choir and orchestra. The work was recorded at St John’s, Smith Square on December 12, 2012, and the first live performance took place at Smith Square the same evening. Despite a deafening buzz of chainsaws during the afternoon rehearsal (the council had chosen that day to prune the trees immediately outside) the evening performance was a triumph. ‘A friend of mine, for whom this really wasn’t his sort of music, came to me with tears in his eyes, and said he’d been really moved. I couldn’t quite believe it could have that effect. And even now, I still have to pinch myself to realise that people quite like it.’ Now that the ball had been set rolling, David Guest was keen that there should be further performances. He suggested promoting a series of workshop-style study events around the country, and writing to choral societies to see if they would be interested in workshopping the piece over the course of a single day. This offer has been taken up by choral societies across the country – from Newcastle to Jersey and Norwich to Newbury – with many more events planned. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and further live performances, including in a major London venue, are in the pipeline.

This Requiem sets the full text of the Latin Requiem Mass. Most other settings – except Verdi’s – make subtractions or additions to the poetry. ‘I actively went against what Verdi had done, because I was anxious not to copy such a celebrated work. Verdi’s Dies Irae (‘Day of wrath, day of judgement’) is loud and stormy. But I felt that on the Day of Judgement, I’m not going to be shouting. I’m going to be quaking in my boots. So there’s a quiet, shocked gasp in the middle of the words ‘Dies Irae’.’

The Kyrie Eleison (‘Lord, have mercy’) is also very personal. ‘I have in my mind’s eye the mourners filing past the Queen Mother’s coffin… the soldiers standing guard, the quietness of the abbey.’

The close of the Requiem is rather unusual. ‘Every setting I’ve ever sung fades out into quiet at the end. So I composed two endings: one fading away, and one with all four soloists, full choir, full orchestra, and all going at full blast. I asked my wife which she preferred, and she didn’t hesitate. ‘Give them a climax they’ll remember,’ she said. ‘You want them to leave the performance saying “That was some ending”’. So naturally I chose that one.’

Wood has subsequently written and recorded Holy Week (an oratorio based on the story of Easter); his Missa Brevis has been performed at St Paul’s Cathedral; and his work for string orchestra – Requiescat Aberfan – was premiered at the Welsh Proms in July 2016. But he still remains bemused by his success, and rather diffident in describing his abilities.

For the work of a supposed non-composer, his affirmative, lavishly melodic Requiem hasn’t done badly. And long may his non-compositional career continue to flourish and give as much pleasure as it has already.

© Warwick Thompson, 2016

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