Bill Ives on “Our last Awakening”

Of the many commissions I’ve received over the years, a request to compose a piece to be sung (eventually) at the client’s funeral has been one of the most intriguing.

Penny Granger asked if I would set Our Last Awakening (more widely known by its opening line, Bring us, O Lord God), the glorious prayer by John Donne. We agreed that the piece would be for unaccompanied SATB, approachable enough so as not to frighten enthusiastic amateurs, to be premièred by the European Chamber Singers, of which Penny is a member.

This presented an immediate challenge: there is already a musical setting of the same words – a famous choral piece by Sir William Harris (written in 1959 for unaccompanied double choir), admired, respected, widely recorded, and sung in all corners of the globe. How to proceed without constantly recalling the Harris?

Maurice Ravel once said of commissions that the more prescriptive they are, the better (for example: the piano concerto for the left hand). It focuses the mind of the composer, who, as the mist gradually clears, begins to see the wood for the trees.

Composers of choral music have an added advantage: the text. This determines mood and atmosphere, and, most important, structure. In the central section of Donne’s poem, the repetitive words (one equal light, one equal music, one equal possession) offer the composer a chance to build the music to a ringing climax (at one equal eternity).

It was clear from the start that Penny wanted to be a hands-on commissioner. We had some most productive and enjoyable sessions together, looking at early drafts, discussing points of interest, and framing revisions. Rather than being a hindrance, this was extremely helpful and stimulating. Thank you, Penny!

Bill Ives

23 April 2017