How faith drove Paul Mealor’s Passiontide

FANS of Paul Mealor’s popular choral works may find his debut symphony challenging and dark, but it’s still a cause for celebration, says the composer

Paul Mealor is Professor of Composition at the University of Aberdeen

It’s been 20 years in the making, and its premiere in Aberdeen this week coincides with its creator’s 40th birthday. So it’s hardly surprising composer Paul Mealor felt justified in downing a few large gin and tonics once he had penned the final note of his first symphony, Passiontide.

“It’s an important thing in a composer’s life, having something as big and serious as a major symphony brought to life after years of seeing it take shape on paper,” says the Aberdeen University composition professor, who made an impact several years ago with his Royal Wedding anthem, Ubi Caritas, before hitting further unexpected heights with his Christmas No1 hit, Wherever You Are, written for Gareth Malone’s choir of Military Wives.

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That was fun; this, he says, is serious. Passiontide is a 70-minute musical response to the Easter story, scored for chorus, orchestra and solo soprano and baritone, and it comes from deep within Welsh-born Mealor, both musically and personally. “It brings together everything I’ve been doing compositionally and theologically over the past 20 years in a huge rhetorical symphonic statement. I don’t think anyone else would write a piece like this.”

That’s particularly true in terms of Mealor’s long-held Christian faith, which has been key in driving the evolution of his new symphony, and which took root in a very traumatic way as a child. “I had a bad experience when I was nine,” he says. “I fell into a river and was actually drowning. Suddenly, I had this most overwhelming feeling of there being something else there.”

He survived, and in a bid to understand what he had experienced, joined the local cathedral choir. “It was there, within the Anglican Episcopal tradition, that I heard the wonderful music of Tallis, Tomkins and Gibbons, as well as all those contemporary composers who write for the liturgy.”

At one point, Mealor considered becoming an Anglican priest, but instead found music to be “a surrogate priesthood”. He studied composition at York University, then in Denmark. He has held visiting professorships in the United States, but for the past 12 years has based himself in the thriving music department at the University of Aberdeen.

It was there, in 2009, that he eventually began the physical work on the symphony that had been knocking around in his head since his student days. “It has been going for a while,” he says. “And it just seemed, as I actually began writing it down, to be for me a journey that was important to take. A symphony in the 21st century is a big issue in itself. Why do it, my students kept asking? But I have always been convinced there is still a need for composers to continue expressing themselves in the rhetoric the symphony gives”.

But is Passiontide really a symphony? Broken down into four main sections, two of which constitute substantial solo/choral settings of the Stabat Mater and Easter texts, is it not more akin to a Passion or an oratorio?

“It’s not a Passion because it doesn’t follow that narrative,” Mealor says. “And it isn’t an oratorio because it isn’t telling in essence a story. The way I treat the material follows a symphonic journey musically, and it has an enormous symphonic summing up in the final movement, which is probably the most complex thing I’ve ever written. It certainly is a symphony.”

It’s no surprise to learn that Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony was in Mealor’s mind as he tackled his own musical interpretation. The other influencing factor was Brahms’ Requiem. Was it a coincidence that both tackle faith from a very human, very universal perspective?

“I deliberately use the term ‘Passiontide’ rather than ‘Passion’ because it’s about my response to that particular time of year, which felt more important to me than actually telling the story.” It’s something to do with being Anglican, he reckons.

A conversation with James MacMillan helped determine his approach. “We discussed the idea of the Anglican and Roman Catholic views of the Passion, and it interested me to discover that the Roman Catholic view tends to concentrate on the suffering of Christ, whereas the Anglican standpoint focuses more on the Resurrection.”

Despite the work’s 20-year gestation, it is not, Mealor says, retrospective in terms of his evolving musical style. “It is as I am now,” he insists. “As a young composer, you don’t have the skills, the knowledge, the technique, and I think I realised that when the ideas first took root. But I also lacked understanding of the theology. I just hadn’t lived enough. I never realised it would take quite so long, but I’m glad it did. I hope that the piece in some way reflects the time that was necessary.”

As such there are dark elements which may surprise the many Mealor fans used to his more popular choral works. “It’s the last bit I wrote, incredibly dark, with heavy chromaticism – my way of colouring what is essentially a tonal language. In this symphony you get all the colours that I’ve been working on, at least for the past six or seven years. But it’s a language that is completely my own.”

Is it a luxury he can afford having been so successful with his highly-accessible anthems and songs? “Let’s be perfectly honest. I was incredibly lucky to have been asked to write a piece for the Royal Wedding; it completely changed my life. Suddenly to get 25 million people listening to your music was phenomenal.”

With that, the Military Wives single, and his own classical chart-topping Decca album, I Saw Eternity, contributing to his worldwide success, Mealor has enjoyed the buzz of being at the top of his popular game. “But a symphony’s a big thing,” he believes. “It’s important in a composer’s life.” Especially when life’s about to really begin at 40.

• Passiontide will be premiered by Aberdeen University Chamber Choir, the Marischal Orchestra and MacOpera, under conductor James Jordan, at St Machar Cathedral, Aberdeen on 19 November, 01224 272570