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DP in Dobrss

August 18th, 2019

JP      Milos Valent      Ariel Abramovich

This was a first for us, multiple firsts in fact  – the first time Ariel, Milos and I had performed together, the first time Ariel had played with the Dowland Project, and the first time we’ve done a gig without the sax of John Surman. It was exhilarating – bang on the DP button, with neither us nor the audience knowing exactly what would happen next. We revisited some old DP repertoire, beginning Can ve la lautzeter mover, with Milos conjuring bird noises on his rebec from up in the gallery, then morphing into Pulcherima rosa from C16 Prague. Then we were into new territory with Godric’s oldest songs in the English language, and on through Dowland, Holst, Vaughan-Williams, ending up with some Alternative History pieces by Sting and Tony Banks. We finished with Finisterre, and when I announced it as our anti-Brexit song there was an outbreak of spontaneous cheering which was  deeply touching.

We were in beautiful Dobrss, about halfway between Prague and Salzburg and so deep in the Czech countryside that your Satnav probably won’t find it. Yet people came from Prague and even Bratislava to hear us. The Dobrsska-Brana festival is a wonderful combination of local hospitality and international music making – a big thankyou for inviting us. There’s a comprehensive review (in Czech) of the first part of the festival in JazzPort by Michal Sykora  here (with some stunning pics and video).

The good people of Dobrss were obviously well aware of the giant cock-up that is about to befall us Brits:

That’s the last Dowland Project gig in the diary for this year, but we will be on the road again in Germany in 2020. In the meantime I’ll be doing duo recitals with both Ariel and Milos, and Ariel and I will get together for more Alternative History in Sweden and Spain in the autumn. My next gigs are with Trio Mediaeval in the UK and Germany next month: Machaut and the Kings of Cyprus.


Summer concerts

August 2nd, 2019

A Singer’s Guide to Britain

Some weeks ago Jacob Heringman and I did some recording in the Treasurer’s House for  a forthcoming BBC Radio 4 series ‘A Singer’s Guide to Britain‘, fronted by Roderick Williams. Our contributions will appear in episodes 2 and 3 transmitted on August 14 and 21. We wittered away at some length between pieces – mostly about our Alternative History view of the world and how different it is from the CD-driven fantasies of today, but no doubt only a fraction of our ramblings will have made the final cut. Roddy Williams, incidentally, used to sing in our expanded Hilliard choir for Arvo Part’s Passio in his youth and once sacrificed his trousers when mine got left behind.

Dobrsska Brana

On August 16 Ariel Abramovich, Milos Valent and I will be doing  a unique Dowland Project one-off in the Czech Republic, not far from Prague. This will be the first time the three of us have performed together, though I have performed many times with both of them in different contexts. As well as revisiting some Dowland Project numbers we’ll be exploring Holst and Vaughan-Williams as well as new versions of songs by Tony Banks and Sting.

Trio Mediaeval quartet

It’s more than twenty years since I first heard  Trio Mediaeval at a Hilliard Summer School in Cambridge.  They invited me to produce their first albums, which went on to be hugely successful on ECM.  Our paths have occasionally crossed since then, and we’ll be getting together again in September for a new programme called Machaut and the Kings of Cyprus.  This explores the connection between Machaut and the mysterious Cypriot-French composers of a generation or two later. The first half will consist of the Machaut mass, together with Cypriot chant antiphons, followed after the interval by a mass and motets from Cyprus.  The first outing is at Hebden Bridge on September 12,  and then in Otterberg on the 14th.

As it’s summer and holiday time, my next post will reveal what tenors do on their days off…


The Book of Lost Lute Songs

July 1st, 2019

photo Guy Carpenter

This coming Saturday Jacob Heringman and I will open our Book of Lost Lute Songs for the final time in the UK this year. The idea behind it is to apply 17th century performance practice to later music, and among other things imagines a counter-factual take on the early music movement which is assumed to have begun in the 1920s. It’s very much the agenda that drives our Alternative History project with Ariel Abramovich and Anna Maria Friman, and which came together in our Amores Pasados album for ECM.

The programme opens with a group of renaissance poems set by Stephen Wilkinson (originally for voice and guitar) and Peter Pope (for choir). These have been intabulated and arranged by Jake for voice and lute as his 17th century forebears would have done, but with one difference: he plays as many of the composer’s notes as will fit on the instrument and I don’t attempt to ‘improve’ the vocal line. It’s a nod in the direction of what might have happened had lute players been around when 20th century composers set renaissance verse.

Next come three of Holst’s Four Songs for Voice & Violin set to medieval texts. We miss out I Sing of a Maiden, partly because Patrick Hadley wrote the definitive version in my book, but also because I’ve improvised on the poem so many times with the Dowland Project I couldn’t trust myself to stick to Holst’s notes. Instead we’ll do Jake’s intabulation of The Thought (also a love song but of the human rather than spiritual variety). I will be doing the complete set with Milos Valent on violin in the Czech Republic next month as penance.

Then we have two short songs by Vaughan-Williams: Along the Field, also originally for voice and violin, and Twilight People, originally for voice and optional piano. The first half finishes with a group of songs by Peter Warlock. It was Warlock’s settings of 17th century verse that inspired our first forays into this imaginary neck of the woods, but two of the three we have selected have poems by his contemporaries Bruce Blunt and Hilaire Belloc. The third is Warlock’s shortest song, How Many Miles to Babylon, a lullaby which I hope to surprise my granddaughters with as it’ll be just about their bed time.

The main reason we like to inhabit the 16th and 17th centuries is not just that the composers are dead, but that the composer-performer relationship would have been completely different when they were alive. That relationship survives in many other compositional genres outside ‘classical music’, and we have been very comfortable asking jazz and rock musicians to create songs for us. The pieces by Sting and Tony Banks in the second half work in exactly the same way as a song from the 17th century: the composer provides a blueprint and our task is to realise the song in whatever way we like; although the composers own the rights, we performers in practice own the music. We’ve never commissioned a ‘proper’ composer, but Late Music asked if we’d do a new piece by Michael Parkin, and we’d already decided to perform the winning song from John Casken’s Alwinton composers competition held earlier this year. This turned out to have two winners: Patrick Gardner and Joshua Brown. So our counter-factual machinations now include assuming the early music movement hasn’t happened at all…except that the Alwinton pieces also have bass viol so we are hoping Susanna Pell will be passing by, instrument at the ready.

Of course it’s not actually as simple as that: Jake has done huge amounts of ‘proper’ music and my concert biog at one time claimed I’d done more first performances than any other English tenor.  Do come and join us on Saturday evening at York’s beautiful St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel if you’d like to hear how we get on.


Amores Pasados

Tampereen Sävel!

June 9th, 2019

Last week I was invited back to Tampere to join the celebrations for the 30th contest for vocal ensembles.   I stopped chairing the ensemble jury four years ago and I still get Tampere withdrawal symptoms in the first week of June. I first joined the jury 28 years ago and chaired it for 22 years, so it was wonderful to be back. I’ve written many blog posts about the Tampere experience – there is nowhere else on earth where singers can experience such joy and warmth, and for audiences and participants alike it’s the one event in the acappella calendar that no one wants to miss.  This year was very special for me, as for the first time I could enjoy the performances without having to judge anyone. It was such a relief! We always made the point that it’s not actually a ‘competition’ – that the competitive element is only the excuse to bring everyone together to celebrate the music we love – but you can’t help being conscious of the fact that of the twelve groups you hear on the first day only a small number will be winners. I was asked to say a few words at the opening of an exhibition commemorating the contest’s 30 years and I should have realised that there would have been a translator on hand. The sensible thing to do would have been to write something down and deliver it in short chunks, but as usual I tried to busk it, got carried away and became increasingly lost in ever longer sentences, which the translator (the formidable Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, one of the country’s most distinguished choral composers) had to distil into Finnish. I eventually gave up before I got to the bits I really wanted to say. I have all my notebooks from every jury session. Many of them are undecipherable or incoherent-seeming as they’re full of crossings-out, bemused comments or even comments on my fellow jurors’ thoughts. No one else will ever see them, of course, but they are a reminder of just how difficult it is to compare ensembles from the different genres and cultural traditions that the contest encourages. It’s actually an impossible task. I also have the CDs of the final concerts that were made for several years, and these sometimes confirm that we got it right, and sometimes make me wonder if we may not have done. The standard in some years was ridiculously high. In 1999, for example, the final concert included Rajaton, Amarcord and Trio Mediaeval, all of whom are among the most successful vocal ensembles on the planet.

With every contest we would revisit the rules, and this evolution was comprehensively documented in the commentary that accompanied the photographs in the exhibition (drawn from the Kalle Kaihari archives and beautifully translated by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi). It was this kind of attention to detail that kept the contest in the moment and not dependent on a traditional set of conventions. We always looked for originality, and we almost always found it. This year was one of extreme contrasts for me as a listener. The groups came from Europe, Turkey, South America and Uganda; the overall winner was flamboyant Danish group Sønk , with the German Ensemble Nobiles (sometime coached by yours truly) winning the acoustic category. There were some stunning performances as always. The evening concert was  billed as a special 30th anniversary concert with Club for Five and the Tampere Philharmonic, though I wasn’t the only one totally bewildered by what turned out to be a rather middle of the road programme of film music. Later though, we heard Tuuletar in Telakka, the bar/restaurant that acts as a kind of festival club. This group of four women singers had only been together a year when they came to Tampere in 2013. My notes mention their beautiful voices, dynamic stage presence, total commitment and original arrangements. I place them third, but as the jury discussions ebbed and flowed they end up without a prize. That’s juries for you.

Yet here they were, pioneering an entirely new genre – folk hop – blistering vocals and dynamic choreography, with no attempt to ‘entertain’ the audience in a conventional way. We were just witnesses to an intense emotional outpouring. I couldn’t understand a word, but I understood the visceral heart of it. It was the highlight of the festival for me, and exactly what the festival has been about for all these years.

I hope they’ll ask me back  for the 40th anniversary, and I fully expect the festival still to be the place to hear the world’s best ensembles. Where will ensemble singing be then? I still have my wish list – no onstage note giving to break the spell, a post-beatbox percussion that is generically vocal and doesn’t try to imitate a percussion section? Maybe make a start by not miming the instrument you’re imitating (sooo infantile these days…)? Maybe groups could not start by thanking everyone (we know you’re grateful…), and please please don’t say ‘enjoy…’? I live in hope. Oh, and no film music…

Thankyou to everyone for three decades of great music making and wonderful hospitality – to my fellow ex-jury members, to the magnificent and long-suffering jury secretaries, to executive director Minnakaisa Kuivalainen, to Eija Koivusalo and her team, and to whoever first got me into all this (was it you, Heikki?). And very best wishes for the next thirty years!

June/July concerts

May 14th, 2019

Just back from another trip to the Trollhättan Festival in Sweden. A drone strike at Frankfurt airport where I had to change planes on the way out caused complete chaos and I ended up running the length of the airport and just made it before they shut the door. Post-Brexit and without freedom of movement I wouldn’t have made it (and doing the gig at all may even have been just too much hassle). I’m sure anyone reading this in the UK will vote Remain on the 23rd…

Tampere Vocal Festival

At the beginning of June I’ve been invited to the 30th Tampere Vocal Festival, where I’ll be saying a few words at the opening of the ensemble contest exhibition. I chaired the jury for more than 20 of those years and it’ll be great to revisit the Manchester of Finland (now famous for skateboarding as well as singing and its Scottish heritage).

Concerts in the UK

Even though Jacob Heringman and I live less than fifty miles from each other we most often meet somewhere on the European mainland at an Alternative History gig (often Spain) to which he has travelled by train and for which I have blown the carbon on a plane. This month we’re being a bit more carbon neutral, beginning with the screening of Mark Burghagen’s Sacred King film for which we provided the music (and subsequently re-used for our own Brexit video). We then have four concerts in the UK: two with the Herschel Trio, one with Pellingman’s Saraband and a lutesong recital of our very own.

The first of these is on June 15th at the  Alwinton Summer Festival when we’ll be joined by Susanna Pell for a mix of old and new music including the winners of the Alwinton Composers’ Competition which we’ll workshop earlier in the afternoon.  Then on the 22nd we’re in Stanhope with the Herschel Trio:

and then on the 23rd we have a concert in York at St Olave’s church:


The programmes for these two concerts will feature a unique copy of the Queen Elisabeth Virginal. This exquisite instrument formed part of the collection of Queen Elizabeth I, and its decoration includes both the Royal Coat of Arms, and an image of a Crowned Falcon standing on a tree stump, hence our title.

A couple of weeks later, on July 6th we’ll be appearing in York again, this time in the Late Music series. This will be an all-20th/21st century programme and we’ll be repeating the winning piece from Alwinton as well as Jake’s transcriptions and arrangements of early twentieth songs by Warlock, Vaughan-Williams, Holst and others, together with some of the songs given to us by Tony Banks and Sting.

…and Portugal

On July 21st I’ll be at the Marvao Festival  for a rare foray into Mozart. I’ll be singing the Missa Solemnis K 337 with the Cologne Chamber Orchestra and Juliana Banse conducted by Christoph Poppen (with whom I recorded Hilliard Morimur album many years ago).  The next day David James, Jacob Heringman and I will be doing an extended version of the programme we did in Sheffield cathedral last year, based on Dufay’s L’Homme Arme Mass (at the  Igreja de Santa Maria / Museu Municipal, starting at 4.00.

After that I have a break until the Dobrs Festival in the Czech Republic in August. It’ll be a unique one-off with Milos Valent and Ariel Abramovich. More details in a while.


Details of these and other ECM-related concerts can be found on my page on the ECM site.


Singing into space

April 5th, 2019

A Tweet from Mark Summers about a blog post of mine on the subject of  acoustic space turned out to be rather timely. Although in the post I seem to be reconciled to amplified sound I sometimes still find it very problematic. Last night I did Gavin Bryars’ Nothing Like the Sun (with the incomparable  Claron McFadden and phenomenal Gavin Friday), and as has become the norm the performance was amplified. I had the same reservations about this as I’ve sometimes had when Alternative History has to do amplified performances in concert halls, and although I think the performance probably worked it was a struggle to get there, all day while trying to get the sound right and in the performance itself (which invariably feels different from the sound check). This is not to detract from the work of the sound guys, who are awesomely competent and very patient on these occasions, but it’s about the nature of vocal sound and technique, what you do with it and who ultimately controls it. As I’ve written many times before, part of the joy of almost all the singing I’ve done has been interacting with the acoustic (it was in the Hilliard Ensemble’s DNA). I’ve often said the building is your amplifier, but it’s more like a palette that enables you to mix your vocal colour. This sound painting makes each performance as unique as the building it happens in, and I’ve been fortunate to perform in some amazing spaces from huge cathedrals to factories and lava tubes.  The first thing that happens when you use a mic is that you’re no longer negotiating with the acoustic, but with a virtual sound world created by the guy (I’ve only ever encountered one female sound person) on the desk. So instantly a huge part of your reason for being a singer vanishes – all that nuance, the micro-adjustments that you make depending on what comes back at you, not the heart of your performance so much as its guts.  The second thing that happens is that you adjust your technique to the fact that you’re suddenly very loud, so one of the main pillars of your conventional technique, the need to project the sound into a space while shaping a phrase, becomes redundant. Of course, you are still negotiating an acoustic space, but it’s mediated by someone who’s trying to minimise the effect of the building you’re in and create an entirely different one (reverb units are calibrated according to the type of building you want, so your own attempts to influence the acoustic are doomed to failure). You no longer balance your sound with your fellow musicians, you get a feed from a stage monitor and someone else determines this crucial musical relationship (another of the great joys of performing) for you.   You’re somehow partially de-humanised from the very first note, before you even get to the actual music (and Nothing Like the Sun has some of the most beautiful Bryars moments in his entire output so you can see why it bothers me). It’s no wonder some of us tie ourselves up in knots when faced with a sound system. Do you relax your technique, stand back and hope for the best? Leave it to the guys on the desk, we’re always told, so your performance leaves your mouth and you have no idea what’s going to happen to it.  Of course, none of this applies to proper microphone singing, which is an art in itself (and I’ve done plenty of that too) and in Nothing Like the Sun listeners have the opportunity to experience microphone singing from Gavin Friday – an absolutely electric wielder of the mic – and two classically trained singers who are simply being amplified. I wonder what a Martian would make of it.

My other complaint about amplification is an aesthetic one: a live performance should be unique, ie different from any other performance. Sound systems create a kind of ideal soundscape in which everything is optimised as far as possible, so they tend to sound all very similar (and they’re almost all very loud). Very few musicians I know are expecting to give an ideal performance, just one of an infinite number of possible ones unique to the occasion. And as an audience member I don’t go to a concert hoping that it will sound just like a louder version of a ‘perfect’ CD recording – I want something special to that occasion, that building, those performers. It’s rather ironic that we can spend all day trying to get the concert sound as good as it is on your hi-fi, while in the studio we try to get everything down in one or two takes and make it as live as  possible.

Brexit Music for REMA

March 29th, 2019

photo: Guy Carpenter

Last night Jacob Heringman and I had the privilege of performing to REMA, the European Early Music Association who were having their annual conference in York in solidarity with their Brexit-Benighted English colleagues. Although it didn’t perhaps have the poignancy that it might have had if it had really been Brexit Eve, it was nevertheless a moving occasion and we chose a programme that reflected our mutual sense of loss. When we decided on the pieces several weeks ago we didn’t know what the Brexit state of play would be, and it turned out that we were none the wiser last night either. We ruled out offering the assembled delegates an indicative vote on what sort of programme they might want (after all, they might have voted for none of them and told us to come back on Monday) but we did replace Dowland’s Now O Now I needs Must Part with Campion’s Leave Prolonging Thy Distress.  Sadly, we couldn’t show our video of In Darkness Let me Dwell, but I was able to describe our walk along the Brexit cliff edge to the post-Brexit ruin in which we burned our music to keep warm. And we were able to include Compere’s Omnium Bonorum Plena where the composer prays for twelve of his fellow citizens of nowhere, and Cipriano’s madrigal about the joys of coming back, finishing with what has become our Brexit anthem, Finisterre. We were even able to acknowledge the Irish backstop with the Vaughan-Williams/Sheamus O’Sullivan Twilight People as an encore.  A huge thankyou to the legendary Delma Tomlin for hosting the event and inviting us to be a part of it, and also to ECM who provided us with a very stylish discography, the outer pages of which are above and below.

In darkness – the making of…

March 1st, 2019

To commemorate our REMA performance on Brexit Eve (March 28) Jacob Heringman and I persuaded Guy Carpenter to create a video to go with our recent recording of Dowland’s In Darkness Let me Dwell (originally recorded for Mark Burghagen’s Sacred King film).  The inspiration for the shoot was a session the three of us did last year at a ruined cottage high up in the Dales, and the plan this time was for us to walk along an appropriately Brexit-like cliff edge and arrive at the ruin where we would again burn our scores to keep warm in the post-Brexit landscape. The window of opportunity consisted of  a just a few hours of the one day we were all free, which miraculously turned out to be the hottest winter day ever with the most amazing light.

We walked for what seemed like hours through the heather, with spectacular views on all sides

as the sun got lower and more dazzling with each step

until Guy launched his drone.

We had to work quickly as the clock (Brexit-like…) ticked away, so  we set off on our cliff-edge trek into the sunset,

eventually arriving at our destination, where we lit the fire

and managed to get it all in the can before the sun sank out of sight


You can see the result on YouTube here

Projects for 2019

December 7th, 2018

In darkness…

My last event of 2018 was recording John Dowland’s In darkness let me Dwell with Jacob Heringman for Mark Burghagen’s film of the final soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard II launched in February  on the anniversary of the King’s death in 1400.  Dowland’s most melancholic piece  seemed not only appropriate for the Shakespeare but also for most of the likely Brexit scenarios. This Guy Carpenter photo of Jake and me in a post-Brexit landscape (burning our scores to keep warm) is the inspiration for a video that we’re making to coincide with our private valedictory performance to European early music promoters on Brexit Eve, which will use In Darkness as the sound track.

Alternative History

On February 15 the Alternative History ensemble got back together for gigs in Madrid (Amores Pasados) and Barcelona (an all-Josquin programme). It was a great start to what promises to be another busy Alternative History year  and the press loved both events:

Rompiendo barreras con “Amores pasados: de Dowland a Sting”, de Alternative History

Desprez en la intimidad


The various fractals of the Alternative History project will also be busy, and I’ll be doing recitals with both Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman. Jake and I have more UK gigs,including  John Casken’s Alwinton Summer Music, which will feature a composition competition for a new lute song. We’ll then repeat the winning entry in York’s Late Music series. John Casken wrote Sharp Thorne – one of the Hilliard Ensemble’s signature pieces – and it will be great to catch up with him again. Jake and I will also be doing concerts in York (including a special Brexit themed event on Brexit Eve for the REMA conference at the NCEM) and we’ll repeat our Dufay mass with countertenor David James in Portugal.

Bryars and Beyond

I’ll be doing Gavin Bryars’ Nothing Like the Sun in Hull in April and returning to Trollhättan for the TrollhättansTidig Musik-dagar with Serikon in May, and there will be new collaborations in the summer. More soon…

Trio Mediaeval

Plans for the new project with Trio Mediaeval are coming on apace. The programme is called Machaut and the Kings of Cyprus, and will celebrate the extraordinary connection between Reims and Nicosia at the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th. The manuscript known to musicologists (but not to many performers or audiences) as Torino J.II.9 is an extraordinary collection of ars subtilior polyphony and chant by a single unknown author who clearly knew the music of Guillaume de Machaut. We will bring the two strands together in performances of the Machaut mass and a Cypriot mass of a generation or two later.  At the moment we have concerts lined up in Norway, Germany and the UK (details to follow when we’ve worked out a coherent schedule). 


I saw eternity…

November 14th, 2018

To mark the publication of Tim Day’s I Saw Eternity the Other Night, his long-awaited history of the King’s College Cambridge choir, I’ve re-posted below part of my reflections on the David Willcocks memorial service in September 2015.  Tim’s book (which has an inordinate number of references to yours truly as well as to far more significant figures) manages to capture something of the essence of the institution and its people, combining a wider history with intimate personal reflections which the author is so good at elucidating.  What’s really striking about the story as it unfolds is the simple humanity that underpins the boys and men just going about the business of singing in a choir, almost oblivious to the magic that emerges.  Here’s what I wrote three years ago:

It took me three goes to get into King’s Cambridge as a treble. At seven I was much too young on my first attempt, but it was presumably useful experience and it was encouraging to be asked to try again. Boris Ord was an intimidating figure, and the semi-pornographic toys on his piano fascinating but beyond our ken.  But eventually he let me in – in a year when so many old choristers had left that not to get in would have been very embarrassing. In the 1954 BBC recording of the Nine Lessons & Carols you could see that his beat bore no relation to what the choir actually sang, and by the time I arrived in 1957 he was seriously unwell.

As a probationer one of my tasks was to keep cavee for Boris’ arrival at the school for morning choir practice. He would appear at the corner of the West Road playing field (the gate’s not there any more) and shuffle along with his stick, and we’d know that we had maybe five more minutes play before he made it to the music room. His speech was slow and he was obviously very frail. Within a year or so David Willcocks appeared on the scene, and for those of us who would become professional singers many years later, the seeds of our future careers were sown. He seemed to us to come in tandem with Simon Preston. We had no idea that one was a ‘man’ and the other a student not actually that much older than the head chorister, but they were a double act that we were completely in awe of. Willie and Perton we called them. Both were strict and wouldn’t stand any nonsense, but we soon got used to this;  I’m sure I can remember a growing collective pride in what we did. We knew we were good. A couple of years in, Willcocks produced some evil-smelling purple scores that were the cyclostyled copies of his original drafts of what would become Carols for Choirs (something the BBC shamefully failed to celebrate or even acknowledge in the 60 Years of Carols from King’s programme broadcast on Boxing Day 2014). We performed new ones each Christmas; they were a joy to sing and were soon taken up by choirs throughout the land.  The Advent Carol Service had Paddy Hadley’s magical I sing of a Maiden (still my favourite Christmas piece) and then in the next three weeks we’d rehearse the Willie arrangements. Later I would have mixed feelings about boarding schools (and as a father I couldn’t send my son away) but this experience was fundamental to my later life as a musician. David Willcocks didn’t just teach discipline (though that was sometimes what it felt like at the time): he imbued in us a deep respect for the relationship between words and music, and in the carols he showed us that music was a dynamic, evolving, joyous thing that would never leave us. He also taught us to sing as an ensemble – to listen to each other, that fundamental skill that underpins so many vocal groups. Oh, and yes – he could play dance music on the piano while sitting underneath it facing backwards (which was how we thought he’d won his Military Cross, befuddling the Nazis).

It wasn’t all inspiration, and he and I didn’t always hit it off. He had a habit of rehearsing a piece to the end and then announcing that we’d just try the start –  whereupon he’d make us sing the whole piece again. Once or twice I took him literally and stopped at the end of the first page. This blew up into a tremendous row just before evensong one day which ended up with me in floods of tears, which continued throughout the service. It was all the more awkward because I was the senior boy on my side, and during the Creed I would have to move from the middle of the trebles to the end of the row, next to where Willie would appear from the organ loft to conduct the anthem. By then I was feeling extremely contrite and continued to snivel away, hardly getting a note out, with Willie conducting away as though nothing had happened. It was somehow a defining moment in our relationship – I learned that there were boundaries I could not cross, and he realised I had a bit of growing up to do and was content to let me find that out for myself. In my last year I got to sing the Once in Royal solo – sort of by mistake.  There was no TV in those days so it wasn’t quite the big deal it is today, and there was certainly no mystery over who would get to sing it. There were two big treble solos in the carol service, the other being Willcocks’ arrangement of Be not Afraid from the Christmas Oratorio. The 2nd best treble got the Bach, though in the schools carol service which was a kind of rehearsal a week or so earlier the roles were usually reversed. So when I got Once in royal in the schools service I knew I wasn’t going to get the real thing. But the boy eventually chosen was overcome with the jitters and asked Willie if we could swap. Willie asked if I’d do it and I suppose it was the first time in my life that I realised there were some opportunities you just can’t say no to, however daunting they might seem. Of course I was terrified, but I somehow learned to park my fear somewhere else during the  walk from the vestry, silently making our way to the West end through the crowded antechapel, the congregation standing steaming in their raincoats smelling of wet gabardine. Then Willie hummed the note, and we were off. Would it be in tune when the organ came in? It was the first of half a lifetime of broadcasts where I’d end up a bit flat…