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Highly prized

Matthew Schellhorn talks to Dominic Veall, winner of the 2020 Schellhorn Prize for Sacred Music Composition.
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Congratulations on winning the 2020 Schellhorn Prize for Sacred Music Composition! Can you tell us something about your life and development as a composer and about your work in composing for choirs? Thank you! I started composing seriously towards the end of school, then studied Music, specialising in composition, at King’s College, London. After that, I did a Masters degree in Composition at Trinity Laban, studying with some incredible tutors, including Errollyn Wallen. Choirs have always been my main focus as a composer – it’s the idiom I know best having been a Head Chorister at Leicester Cathedral and now a freelance choral singer. The last few years have seen some pretty fantastic opportunities. I was commissioned to contribute to the Novello Easy Choral collection, and have transcribed a song written by Gary Barlow and Gareth Malone for Bright Star published by Hal Leonard. I was also a finalist in the Radio 3 Carol Competition 2019, where Bob Chilcott conducted the BBC Singers’ performance of my carol Go to the Child.

Your piece Dormi, Jesu was premiered on Christmas Eve at the Midnight Mass at St Margaret’s Convent Chapel, Canning Town. Have you attended a traditional Latin Mass before? What are your impressions of the ancient Roman Rite? I first experienced Latin liturgy when on a choir tour in 2016, at Maria Laach Abbey in Rheinland-Palatinate, Germany; I was certainly not used to getting up for it at 7.30am each morning! I found it quite peaceful to sit in solemnity and embrace the stillness and calmness of the service, mirrored by the beautiful lake itself, which we would often row across during the day. At the traditional Midnight Mass at Canning Town, where my piece was premiered, I found myself once again immersed in tranquillity and enjoying reading along as the clergy made seamless progressions through the Latin prose. To engage with the ancient words that were sung and spoken in the services made me further appreciate the artistry and history of the Latin language within the Church.

What are the challenges in writing sacred music in Latin and how do you approach setting text? What are your guiding aesthetic principles? Latin is impossibly beautiful, and also bountiful in its imagery, which means that deep, thoughtful settings of the words are essential. In some ways, I find Latin easier to set than English because I feel that the articulation of the words is so much more evocative than their English counterparts. Words that always stick in my mind are cruce, perforatum, and sanguine in the Ave verum corpus; the words themselves and their pronunciations guide what chords, melodies, phrasings, progressions and voicings I envisage for the piece. I aim to use words to create points of familiarity and variation throughout the score, which both relieve and intrigue the listener as well as elevate the portrayal of the text.

Which other composers, past or present, do you admire and who has influenced you the most? Do you see yourself as part of the Western Classical tradition, and what benefits do you think our Christian heritage provides musicians with? I would say that by and large as a composer I follow the Western Classical tradition and am classically trained, but retain an interest in ethnomusicological studies, which I was fortunate to study in my music degrees. I’ve always been drawn to the romance and drama of music by the likes of Poulenc, Ravel, and Fauré, and am frequently told of the “French-ness” of my music, which I take as a great compliment. Additionally, I have a great interests in Latin American music, in the golden age-style American musicals, and in twentieth-century classical composers, which I hope add to a wide palate of musical flavour in my works. The Christian heritage provides musicians and writers with such enormous creative scope, both thematically and musically. One cannot ignore the long-lasting influence of chant in today’s music and the abundance of interesting and powerful narratives of the text that provides composers with endless inspiration and performers with ample professional opportunities. The drama of Latin texts also brings out such power and depth in a musical work, which I don’t believe any other language can match.

What are your current projects and how will you use your recent success to propel your career forwards? What would be your biggest ambition as a musician? As a musician my main enjoyment comes from the variety of working in a host of different environments in different roles with different people. My passion lives not only as a composer, but also as a singer, arranger, conductor, pianist, cellist, and educator, and my main ambition is to achieve a busy and exciting career as a hyphenated musician. Some specific aims are to compose and orchestrate concert and film scores, write and arrange for several professional choirs, and to write a musical at some point! To have had one of my favourite pieces that I’ve written performed by an ensemble of such high esteem as Cantus Magnus will be of huge benefit: it has given me a really strong creative boost as a composer. I am sure that the contacts made from the Competition will also help me connect with a further field of musicians and lead to more exciting work!

This article was first published in Mass of Ages, the quarterly magazine of the Latin Mass Society, in Spring 2021 (Issue 207)
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