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Choral Notes


Rory Wainwright Johnston: A Composer talks Composing

Rory Wainwright Johnston’s composition A Glimpse of the Light lends its title to the whole evening’s performance on Saturday 16th March in Huddersfield Town Hall. We asked Rory about the significance of the title and how he set about composing the piece.


 You originally wrote A Glimpse of the Light in 2019 as a companion piece for Mozart’s Requiem; we are replicating that pairing in our March concert. In what ways are the texts and musical ideas linked?

Exactly, the piece was written as a partner for Mozart’s Requiem, as part of a memorial concert for an ex-member of the choir who performed in the concert. I am not a religious person, so I wanted to offer a slightly different, more worldly approach to the concept of imagining an ‘afterlife’ that tied in more secular or natural themes. With the Latin Requiem being quite an ornate and heavy piece of liturgical text, I wanted my pieces to provide a more soft-edged, human counterpart which lies closer to the wonder and beauty found in life and after it ends.


What was your starting point for this piece?

 The initial spark for the piece came from a snippet of a Robert Frost poem, ‘A passing glimpse’:

Heaven gives its glimpses only to those

Not in position to look too close.

 If I remember correctly, I had stumbled across this whilst on a train and the idea of the poetry came to me in a physical sense with the appearance of a beautiful sunset becoming visible for a brief moment as the trees parted. I wanted to replicate this idea of there being something beautiful hidden and only briefly or occasionally visible in my music. Throughout the piece you hear occasional iterations of the Lux Aeterna plainchant antiphon that comes from the Requiem Mass. It is slowly ‘brightened’ in its intensity until the audience gets its full glimpse in the closing moments of the third movement.


This was your first piece for chorus, soloists and orchestra. What challenges did you meet along the way?

Trying to tie together all of the ideas into a cohesive piece was definitely a challenge – this was the first time I’d written anything over 10 minutes long without it being made up of smaller chunks (like a song cycle), so trying not to constantly create new material or feel like an idea was getting boring after too short a time was definitely a learning experience. The orchestration for the piece also mirrors the Mozart, apart from the percussion, and so learning how Basset Horns sound and how similar, but also how different, they are to modern clarinets was also a rather interesting journey. The piece was also very limited in its rehearsal time with the orchestra for its premiere, so writing something that could be grasped in a handful of hours and create the effects that I imagined was, I think, the main challenge!


Your website blog tells us you are ‘passionate about encouraging people to engage with contemporary music.  How would you like the Huddersfield audience to react to your composition?

The piece is, in a lot of ways, rather conservative in its construction, being moderately tonal and having relatively few heavily dissonant moments – this ties in to the ideas of nature and beauty that I wanted to express. There are though, many colours, timbres and textures which will hopefully excite or intrigue the ears of the audience, my favourite of those being the ‘raindrop’-like free string pizzicatos which provide the musical/textural tapestry on which the rest of the 2nd movement is written. I would encourage the audience to try and find other examples of colourful textures and effects that you won’t find in the masterful part-writing of Mozart’s Requiem.


Thanks to Rory for talking to us – we are very excited to be performing this work in just over a week’s time! Come along to the HCS Spring Concert on Saturday 16th March to hear Rory’s piece, along with a selection of other ethereal songs, selected and conducted by Ellie Slorach.

 Buy your tickets here:

Photo credit: Jamie Chapman

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