Commissioning “Our Last Awakening”


“So no pressure then!” was Bill Ives’s response to the first e-mail I sent him, exploring the possibility of commissioning a new setting of John Donne’s prayer Our Last Awakening, to be sung at my funeral.

I first heard it read at a memorial service in King’s College Chapel, and was so taken with the text that I wanted it said at my own funeral.  But if said, why not sung?  The Harris double choir setting is out of the range of the sort of choir I hope might sing on such an occasion, so I explored the idea of commissioning a new setting for SATB.  From my shortlist of four contemporary composers whose work I enjoy singing I contacted Bill, partly because I am a fan of the King’s Singers, partly because of personal connections with Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was Informator Choristarum (aka director of music) for many years, but mainly because of the range of music he writes, from the very straightforward O for a Closer Walk to much edgier pieces such as Out of the Deep, written for a service commemorating the abolition of slavery.

We exchanged a few e-mails and he set to work.  By then I’d decided that it would be a waste not to be able to sing the piece myself, and had contacted (Director of ECS) Martin van Bleek to ask whether it could be included in the ECS programme for York.  Bill and I met in early March and had an amazing session on the first draft.  He didn’t seem to mind when I made some suggestions, mostly concerned with emphasising the most important words and phrases, and he has been very gracious all through the process.

I hope ECS will enjoy singing the finished piece which I think I am correct in saying is the first to have been commissioned with us in mind.  Bill hopes to be at Evensong on 11 August for its first performance.  So no pressure then…