After an amazing year of musical adventures and discoveries in lockdown - a year of bathrobes, of charity advent calendars, of commendations and awards - I have been invited to record Franz Schubert’s heartbreaking song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin on the Convivium Records label.
In order to realise this amazing project I must secure funding in the form of CD preorders.
With your help I will be able to bring this tragic and beautiful story to my very first commercial CD recording and I can’t wait to share the results.
This is a piece that is so very dear to me and has been my musical solace during the COVID 19 pandemic.
The chance now to bring everything I have learned in the last 12 months to a professional recording with Convivium is a dream come true and an amazing and positive end to a difficult year.
I have tried to tell the whole story here: Thank you so much for your support. I can’t wait to send you your signed and dedicated copy of the CD.
For a pledge of £15, you will receive a huge thank you from me.
for £25, you will receive a copy of the CD as soon as it is ready, personally signed and with a dedication of your choice.
for £50, your name will be credited with my thanks in the CD booklet, plus a signed copy of the CD as soon as it is ready.
for £80, everything above plus a short (2'20") personalised bathrobe recital in a genre of your choice from English Song, Folk Song, Lieder, Oratorio, Hymn, Shows and Movies, Pop-crossover.
for £100, everything above plus an invitation to a CD launch concert (to be held in London tbc) and private drinks reception.
Do you remember where you were the evening of March 16, 2020? I do. I was sitting at my dining table watching in disbelief as the Prime Minister delivered the instruction I’d been dreading: Stay At Home.
My work for that week had been cancelled in earnest but, in the hours and days that followed, my diary began to haemorrhage dates – every single rehearsal, recording and concert gone in the blink of an eye.
I have been an ensemble singer and soloist for the best part of twenty years: my entire adult life, in fact. Music isn’t just what I do, it’s who I am. To find it all so suddenly gone, was a blow I would only begin to understand as the weeks and months passed.
It was the morning of March 18 when, still in my dressing gown – What had I to get dressed for? – I sat down at the piano. As always it was covered in all the music I had been working on for the coming weeks, now of course defunct. I pulled a copy from the pile at random and I sang, soon deciding to prop up my phone on a music stand and record a short snatch of that weekend’s cancelled concert work for my oft-neglected Twitter feed.
Clicking send, I wandered out of the room to make another coffee, more for something to do than from any real need, when something extraordinary happened. As I had reached out into the ether, so people began to reach back. Dozens of musicians and music lovers, all left similarly bereft, taking what I had offered and giving back to me a sense of that fellowship and community that I was so sorely missing even after only a few days of absence.
The #BathrobeRecitals was born: a short daily performance of just about anything from Art Song and Oratorio to Disney classics and Andrew Lloyd Webber, all very light-hearted and all delivered in a white towelling bathrobe which seemed to make most of my listeners smile, so why not!
I had gone from serious classical musician to light entertainer overnight, and though I embraced the fun of it all, boy did I begin to take it seriously. The responsibility to keep going, yes, but also the wish to put out better and better content.
I became forensically aware of my own instrument, beginning to find new sounds and ways of expressing myself that I simply hadn’t had that one necessary luxury needed to explore: Time.
With each passing tweet – My daily chance to be part of the musical community again – I was fired by an urgent need to ‘do this properly!’. I’ve always been an ensemble singer foremost, yet here I was with the urge to tell stories through song, and one composer forever on my mind – Franz Schubert.
I dabbled in Schubert, of course, during the #BathrobeRecitals days, but it really didn’t feel like the right forum to honour him or to do justice to the music, and I’ll be honest and confess… I was afraid.
I have often felt that Schubert, more than any other composer, has a sort-of club. An exclusive group of initiates that very much doesn’t include me. To explain my paranoia, I must take you right back to the beginning…
I grew up in a small mining village on the South Yorkshire border where classical music provision was near-zero, but school assembly singing seems, in my memory, to have happened 5 days a week for at least three hours. Such that, by the age of 11, I was hooked on music and keen to thrash out any new tune I encountered on my £1 car boot sale keyboard.
After a misspent adolescence screaming a self-accompanied, one-man rendition of the entirety of Les Mis, I was offered (by some trust or other) the chance to spend a sample week of study at the University of Oxford. There I encountered (and hated) my first Wagner opera, was baffled by Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and was absolutely entranced by a song, in German, handed out in near-illegible photocopy form, and heard through the crackling speaker of a clapped out cassette recorder.
Nevertheless, An Den Mond (D.259) by Mr Schubert was the exciting new piece that I took back to my school music teacher, asking if there was any way of getting hold of a lower transposition that I might actually sing myself. Whether she was daunted by the prospect of shepherding me through such unfamiliar repertoire, I don’t know. She simply told me it wasn’t possible and encouraged me back into tried and tested material.
A year later I found myself studying music at university and once again went looking for Schubert, this time finding an excellent recording of a baritone with a funny name, one Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This time I was able to get my hands on a score and present a song – Die Taubenpost – in recital, singing it as only a lad from Doncaster encountering the German language for the first time could!
Sadly, this rekindling of interest in lieder happened at almost the same moment that I was introduced to another of my life’s great loves… choral music.
From my first rehearsal of Tallis’ O Nata Lux, I was besotted and determined to make a living as an ensemble singer. And so I did, finally joining the elite BBC Singers just five years after graduation.
It was years, then, before the thoughtful gift of Schubert’s first volume of songs caused me to dip back into lieder, unwittingly learning the sixteenth song of Schubert’s earliest cycle, Die schöne Müllerin.
One thing leads to another and I had soon learned the whole cycle but still felt terrified to commit to a performance. However drawn to it I might be, this music still felt like it wasn’t for me!
Cut to the summer of 2020 when – determined to do things properly – I founded the Proud Songsters with a group of friends, using everything I’d learned at home in lockdown to broadcast Art Song recitals live on YouTube.
And what did I sing first? Did you guess Schubert? Well… I sang music by Gerald Finzi, then a couple of short cycles by Ernest Farrar and Willie B. Manson.
It took the support and a positively Herculean amount of prodding by a close friend to convince me that the Proud Songsters’ 6th broadcast should be my long-awaited attempt not only at Die schöne Müllerin, but at a full-length recital!
Imagine that! 15 years a professional, with countless ensemble and concert solo performances under my belt, and yet there I was in an empty church about to climb my own little Everest in front of two cameras, an unknown and intangible online audience, and my partner in this climb, pianist Paul Plummer.
It’s not for me to say if the performance was good enough to secure my membership of the imaginary Schubert Club, but as I sang the final phrases, contemplating the moon, the stars and the vastness of the heavens above me, I cried tears of joy.
I’m proud of what I achieved during lockdown; the many friends made, the commendations and awards, and the money raised for Help Musicians by my festive #BathrobeRecitalsAdventCalendar, but nothing feels quite so significant than allowing myself finally to tell that beautiful and tragic story.
And here we are, a year on from that fateful March evening, and the next stage of my journey is before me. It is time for Paul and I together to record our Schöne Müllerin, which is to be released on the Convivium Records label. It feels so very fitting that my very first solo CD recording will be music by Schubert, the voice that reached out from that old cassette player and gently guided me into classical music.
Thank you for taking the time to read my story, and thank you for your support.