James Whitbourn obituary


Within the pre-internet Eighties, listeners to BBC Radio 4’s Day by day Service would usually telephone in, desirous to find out about a brand new piece of choral music that they had simply heard. They’d ask if it was printed or accessible on file, solely to be advised it had been written by the programme’s younger director of music, James Whitbourn, generally solely hours earlier than.

When he took up the job straight from college, he found that few appropriate two-minute items existed for the BBC Singers, so he set about writing his personal. That optimistic response from the viewers inspired him to assume there is likely to be a future for his fashion of tonal composition, the place he sought to say new issues utilizing established musical language.

Whitbourn, who has died aged 60 from most cancers, carried on composing in that modern but accessible method even whereas his work on the BBC expanded to embody enhancing, conducting, producing and presenting. From 1990 to 2001 he ran the Choral Evensong radio sequence and developed a detailed affiliation with the Choir of King’s School, Cambridge, the place he produced the Christmas Eve Pageant of 9 Classes and Carols, driving the dear tape of the dwell broadcast again to Broadcasting Home in a single day for the Christmas Day repeat.

For a person who grew up in a family with no tv, he discovered himself working more and more in that medium, for 30 years producing the TV specials Carols from King’s and Easter from King’s. He additionally wrote the title music for giant occasions, together with Bridge Over Tay, for the protection of the funeral of the Queen Mom in 2002, and D-day 60, which marked the sixtieth anniversary of the Normandy landings.

His piece for saxophone and choir, Residing Voices, was commissioned by Westminster Abbey for its 9/11 commemoration service in 2001, and repeated a yr later in New York on the website of the assaults.

Whitbourn’s rating for the BBC Discovery Channel sequence Son of God developed into his Son of God Mass (2001), which impressed the poet Melanie Challenger to ask him to collaborate on what was to develop into his most enduring work, Annelies, his 2005 concert-length setting of the diary of Anne Frank, now claimed to be one of the sung large-scale choral works of the twenty first century, with greater than 40 performances happening someplace on the earth yearly.

The Son of God Mass opened different doorways. The Choir of Clare School, Cambridge, recorded it beneath Timothy Brown, who confirmed the piece to the conductor James Jordan at Westminster Choir School, Princeton, and a protracted affiliation with the US started. Jordan commissioned Luminosity, a seven-movement multi-media celebration of the facility of inventive love, and recorded Annelies, successful a Grammy nomination, one among 4 that Whitbourn acquired in a broad profession by which he was additionally made govt producer of the Royal Opera Home’s cinema and video label Opus Arte.

His scholarly curiosity took him in many alternative instructions and produced work that ranged from Pika (2000), a large-scale orchestral piece that commemorated the bombing of Hiroshima, to Zahr Al-Khayal (Flowers of Creativeness), for soprano and symphony orchestra, a product of a analysis fellowship into the music of Egypt, premiered final yr on the Kontzerthaus Berlin.

Born in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, James was the youthful of the 2 kids of Anne (nee Marks), an agricultural journal editor, and Philip Whitbourn, a conservation architect. So eager was he to play the piano that his dad and mom discovered a instructor, Beatrice Leach, who agreed to take him on the age of 4. There was a lot household music-making at dwelling, and he sang within the choir at St James’s Church, Tunbridge Wells, the place he discovered the organ with Derek Baldwin, and started conducting.

He began composing when at grammar college, crediting academics Christopher Harris and Jared Armstrong at Skinners’ college with pushing him past A-level. A choral scholarship took him into the choir of Magdalen School, Oxford, the place he studied music, earlier than becoming a member of the BBC, the place he met Alison Jones, a manufacturing assistant. They married in 1991 and arrange dwelling close to Sevenoaks, Kent. Later he returned to Oxford, directing the music at St Edmund Corridor and Harris Manchester School, and interesting in analysis on the theological basis St Stephen’s Home.

In 2020 this modest, likeable man gave me an perception into his compositional approach:

“I prefer to know the choir I’m writing for, and to have its sound in my thoughts. I consider the best way the singers breathe; their facial expressions. I prefer to know for what event the piece is commissioned and to attempt to image its first efficiency and what it’d really feel prefer to be there.”

He would then create a devoted pocket book, with the textual content of the fee on the precise hand web page and 5 staves on the left. “I construct up a sequence of concepts, and infrequently have a number of variations of the identical piece in a single pocket book,” he stated. “However then comes the tough second when you need to select what to maintain and what to discard.”

His final work, Requiem, drawing on his Requiem Canticorum (2010) and Son of God Mass, was orchestrated by John Rutter and shall be carried out at Carnegie Corridor, New York, on 13 April.

Whitbourn is survived by Alison, their kids, Hannah, Naomi and Simeon, his sister, Katherine, and his dad and mom.


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