Will Todd is one of those rare musicians who shows that there is life still in liturgical and sacred music. Sir James MacMillan is another, and one of the most memorable concerts of the last year was the premiere of their separate musical reflections on Cardinal Newman’s meditations at Farm Street Church, courtesy of the Genesis Foundation. “What was nice,” says Todd, “was how different the pieces were. It shows you the way the same text can give you different responses.”
Todd was already familiar with the meditations. “I was brought up Anglican,” he tells me, “but at our church in Durham one of our priests used to read Newman at evensong. It’s nice when you return to a text you associate with an earlier point in your life”. He’s familiar with the Catholic devotional world. “My mother was a Catholic,” he says. “Her family was Irish from a mining village. She went through a period of no faith in her twenties and when she returned to religion she ended up being invited to the [Anglican] university church by a friend.”
We met in the crypt of the church of St Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square, which sometimes hosts one of Todd’s most famous works, the Jazz Mass, or Mass in Blue – which sounds like an oxymoron, but is electrifying. Todd is a natural improviser.
He’s cheerful and open and friendly, and you can see how he works well with children. One potential new commission in fact is from the Catholic diocese of Hexham and Newcastle for “a Mass setting written by kids in schools, getting supervised by composers. These projects are really hard work, messy as anything, but what it does do is allow you to have a debate with young people about what liturgy means to them now. If it can happen, that will be very exciting.”
Musically, he’s a product of a vanishing world, that of the Anglican parish church with choir, and the county music service, which provided state music education for free. “We’re going backwards,” he reflects. “We struggle to face up to this in the classical music world.” He’s now chair of the trustees of the Durham Music Trust, which is based in Ushaw, the former Catholic seminary – “the chapel is extraordinary”.
He’s very worried about that service now. “My children have been through state education,” he says, “in leafy Guildford. Even so, the music is patchy and under-resourced in terms of time and physical resources in the school. All the music staff they’ve ever had have been amazing but it’s just not the same as in the independent school sector. I see that when I visit independent schools – it’s a different world.”
The choir he joined as a boy in Durham at his local parish church formed him musically.
“In our church there were two sung services a week, it had a lot of students and was about 50-strong,” he says. “When you think of parish choirs now, that’s extraordinary. One of the things about a choir is that you look at the whole score, unlike in most instrumental pieces. For someone who is interested in how music connects together, you can see what other vocal lines are doing. The choir master, David Higgins, had a very wide spectrum of musical interests, and we did Palestrina settings in Latin. I’m very grateful for that. It made me aware of many different traditions including Gregorian chant. You can see how modern notation comes out of plainsong – there’s amazing simplicity and flexibility.” The choir’s director was from working-class Sheffield. “He made it very classless. It seems utopian now.”
It’s difficult now to get young people into church choirs. “There’s a different landscape from when I was a boy. On Sunday, there’s a lot of shopping and sport,” he says. One result of the collapse in Sunday worship is that fewer people know hymns. “I don’t know what the answer to that is,” he says sadly. “A good hymn tune is an amazing thing.” (His favourite is “My Song is Love Unknown”.) “If you make one, you’ll end up with your music heard by more people than with a contemporary piece for a famous choir.”
He wrote a hymn for a church musical commissioned by his old church and people tell him they still sing it. “I feel very warm. You want that in your music, for it to be a positive part of people’s lives, and if it helps them, that’s a pretty wonderful thing, actually.” He’s proud too that his carol “My Lord has Come” features in the fifth book of the ubiquitous Carols for Choirs series.
His most famous work, the jazz Mass in Blue, was commissioned as a concert piece. Doesn’t he feel that there’s something odd about that, like religious art for churches ending up in an art gallery? He isn’t exercised about it. “There exists in modern British concert programming the idea of performing a Mass setting. This jazz Mass was deconstructed back into the liturgy to be performed in church.”
But he does feel that it matters to be a churchgoer if you compose church music? “Knowing where I am in the worship when the Sanctus is sung definitely brings something which, if you don’t come from that Christian tradition, I don’t know how you get,” he says. “You can get tone wrong. There’s a rhythm to the Mass, that you’re aware of. Without realising it, I had some good influences in my DNA.”
He feels that the CofE is “a force for good” but wouldn’t have a problem being a Catholic. He’d miss women priests though.
“In my local church we always had women in worship.” Catholic theology is “incredibly familiar. My mother said Hail Marys throughout her life. When the chips were down, it was the Hail Mary.”
His father was less religion-minded. “He wanted proof. He never quite nailed that the whole point was faith. I still exist in a dual thing where there is this spiritual and emotional faith, whereas I have as many questions as anyone about the existence of God. Actually, I feel I stopped worrying about those things a long time ago. If someone says [believing in God] is ridiculous, I can understand what they’re saying but if you’ve been in religion all your life, it’s part of the hue of who you are and you are very fortunate in that.
“My mother battled with depression but her faith gave her glimpses of glory. As a musician you’re trying to use that – glimpses of glory.”
I told Todd that John Rutter, the carols composer, once said to me that he believed in what he wrote just while he was writing it.
“There’s only so far that being a mimic will get you,” he says reflectively. “Is it possible for an unbeliever to write church music, to do it well? I think not. I feel there is something about being steeped in a tradition that gives you a sense of the tone of the text and the dialogue with God which is what happens, which allows you to approach those texts in a comfortable way. If you didn’t have any faith tradition or belief, I don’t know how you’d approach those conversations.”
One of his present commissions – besides an opera for Welsh National Opera on the theme of migrations–- is for a Requiem for a choir in the University of Columbia.
“It is a very difficult form”, he says. “I did a Requiem for voices and electric guitar which is very visceral. It struck me that the guitar deals with these huge differences between dark and light, terror and transcendence. The “Dies Irae” text is very dark. With things like that you need your knowledge of the religion as a whole and of salvation history and the possibility of forgiveness.”
What is his vocation as a musician? “I’m a bit of an ambassador for liturgy,” he says. He is, and he gets it into some unexpected places.
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