Category Archives: Hymns

‘Johnny’ Dankworth

light of the world,

O ne morning in the early 1990s I answered our phone and heard a man’s voice say, ‘John Dankworth here’. Recently, BBC4 delighted us all in the jazz-lovers’ world with an hour’s celebration of his performances, from a 1958 film of the original Johnny Dankworth Seven playing Strayhorn’s Take the A Train through to a 2007 performance with his Big Band and Cleo Laine doing the 1939 Billy Holliday classic, Fine and Mellow. It was wonderful, and I have to thank our good friend Geoff Mackay for pointing out that it was going to happen.

In the ’60s I had revelled in the sound of ‘Johnny’ Dankworth’s Big Band rollicking out its smart, crackling jazz. Whenever he was going to be on the air I made quite sure I didn’t miss it. He was big.

And now, here he was, the man himself, actually speaking to me. When you’re old you can’t absorb these things quickly.

He asked if I would send him something for him to set to music. When it became clear that he was asking for something choral I was shaken. Dankworth and cathedral choirs? Surely not?

And what sort of theme, what sort of language, should I use? I had written for people like Archer, Barnard, Iliff, Kelly, Rose, Sumsion, all composers and arrangers of music for choir alone or choir and congregation – but Dankworth?

Anyway, I plunged, and over the following week or two I worked on a piece and sent it. Another few weeks and I was listening to it. The music, apart from a few lovely jazz chords, was so far removed from everything jazzy that it was difficult to believe that one composer could stretch to such extremes.

We eventually wrote three songs for choir. But one of them stood out from the others immediately. Our Light of the World was published in 1992 and 2000 by The Canterbury Press (Hymns Ancient & Modern) and Novello respectively. Tewkesbury Cathedral School Choir were the first to record it and it is included in their album Light of the World.

Everyone knew John Philip William Dankworth as ‘Johnny’, but as the Queen presented him with the CBE in 2006 he became Sir John. But ‘Sir’ or not, the ‘Johnny’ has persisted.

His death came on February 6, 2010, in the afternoon of the very day that ‘The Stables’ was marking its 40th year in a celebratory concert. This world-famous jazz centre in Milton Keynes was set up by John and Cleo not only for jazz concerts and festivals but also for the teaching of young people in the performance of, and enjoyment in, jazz. John’s wife, Cleo, decided that the concert should go on. She said she knew that John would have insisted that it should.

And, under Cleo Laine’s presentation and performance, the atmosphere that evening was of happiness and loving remembrance.

One well-remembered day in May 2005, John came for lunch and to talk about a future collaboration. To have this truly great man in our home was something we could never forget; time and again I kick myself for failing to set up a tape recorder to record the hilarious few minutes of extemporisation at our keyboard piano/organ.

However, it turned out that any further collaboration was out of the question; John’s and Cleo’s bookings in the US had to take precedence. One piece he was due to set, a children’s celebratory song for the Yorkshire Wildlife Park, was eventually set beautifully by Mark Nightingale.

Some weeks after John’s visit another composer friend called. We had told him of John’s fun with the keyboard and after the meal he stood looking down at the instrument in awe. Turning to Barbara and me he asked with, I think, tongue only very slightly in cheek,  if he might be allowed to sit on the ‘very same’ stool. He sat, and his eyes lifted to heaven.

‘And may I, you know, actually play something?’ he asked. To watch him playing was an entertainment in itself.

Herbert Sumsion, composer

In 1988, Dr Barry Rose, OBE, best known for conducting the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral at the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales and Diana, Princess of Wales, commissioned me to write a suite of four hymns for setting by the great Herbert Sumsion, composer of church music and Gloucester Cathedral’s Organist and Master of the Choristers from 1928 to 1967. For years I had sung Sumsion anthems and services. He was on a par with Elgar and Vaughan Williams. My reaction at the thought of writing for him is indescribable – but ‘awe-struck’ comes to mind.

The next excitement came when he invited me to lunch to discuss the new work.

I was virtually levitating. For the next few days my wife and family probably found me insufferable. I dreamed about Sumsion at night and thought about little else in the daytime.

It so happened that I had already planned to stay with a friend who lived not far away from Rodborough Common, Sumsion’s Gloucestershire home, so I decided that the lunch date would fit perfectly at the end of that visit.

The day dawned. With a folder containing my first draft, but, essentially, without a map, I waved farewell to my friend and drove off to Rodborough Common, using the direct route. That is to say, down the lanes. Tracks, sometimes.

I arrived at Rodborough Common without difficulty. But this, I found, is merely a district, with the occasional single rooftop visible through the trees. The similarly occasional signposts pointed to other villages; the Sumsions must live along one of them. Or perhaps on the border between two but, for the convenience of the Post Office, given the name of one of its neighbours.

By the time I discovered the charming little house I was very late indeed. To the lady who opened the door to my knock I stumbled through apologies. With sweet pinkness of face, this gracious elderly couple actually apologised for having decided eventually to have their lunch and keep mine hot.

I was to learn two things about Herbert: first, to friends and family his name was John and had been since he was five; ‘Herbert’ was used exclusively by newcomers. The second: these were the first hymn tunes he had ever written. With my draft on the music stand he spent time at the piano, playing over a few ideas and asking what I thought of them. We discussed the theme I had conceived for the suite: Morning, Noon, Evening and Night. He nodded vigorously as he read them.

It is an encounter I shall never forget. Sadly, he never saw the publication of his work. They were published by Oecumuse but not until Autumn, 1995; he died the same year, on August 11.

So the little work was not only the first of its kind by Herbert Sumsion; it became, almost certainly, the last.

Port Isaac Poet

Man staring through window
One reader is interested to know how I began writing verse. It began close to the onset of adolescence, that grim time of pink spots and sudden urges. The family was on holiday in Port Isaac, Cornwall. It had been a favourite place for many years. While waiting one morning for my parents to get themselves ready to go down to the beach, I had stood at a window gazing at the distant sea, clouds and gulls and simply thought it would be fun to write a little rhyme about it. It never got further than:

Clouds race like tattered rags 
across Port Isaac Bay.

I kept it for years. I was proud of the tattered rags. From that time onwards I have found that completing a satisfactory bit of verse is the best tonic around. Putting words together in an unusual and sometimes enigmatic way can be like walloping a ball at table tennis and seeing it strike the last half-inch of table: you feel unbelievably good.

The actual production of work didn’t start until my early teens, and it was always nonsense sparked off by things happening – and always for showing it off to an immediate audience, more often than not those who were involved in what had happened. I could never keep it to myself; that wouldn’t have made sense. I was essentially a performer, very proud of what I wrote and anxious to give others the benefit of my brilliance.

This was the limit of my output until my my early 30s, when more substantial stuff emerged. In my forties and onwards it became more thoughtful, but still usually influenced by a place or an experience. And it has only today occurred to me that my ‘tattered rags’ were the beginning of it all and they were now showing their face and asking me where the hell I’d been for a couple of decades.

Some time in the 1970s my church Choirmaster, David Iliff,  a founding member of The Jubilate Group, came up to me after Morning Prayer and said he had just realised that very little existed in the hymnbooks about St Paul’s ‘fruits of the Spirit’ in his writings to the Galatians (Galatians 5:22). Would I have a go at writing something about it – something that could be turned into a hymn? In a few weeks’ time?

The eventual hymn, which is in the form of a prayer, was set to the existing and wonderful tune, Lavendon, by the composer and friend, Paul Edwards. It began:

May we, O Holy Spirit, bear your fruit

And that was the beginning of hymn-writing. Since then some 80-90 have been published in half a dozen or so books. For many of them the composer John Barnard has been responsible for both pointing out the need for hymns on certain subjects and composing the music. His compositions are frequently heard in radio and TV broadcasts of church services. One small highlight: I once asked Sir John Betjeman, whom I had come to know fairly well, if I might use the first line of his poem Christmas

The bells of waiting Advent ring.

in a new hymn I was writing. Generously, he said ‘yes’, and it became the title.

In 1981 I completed the cantata Samuel! for the Royal School of Church Music in Montreal. The composer was Dr Alan Ridout of Canterbury Cathedral and one day, during a rehearsal break, the subject of poetry came up and he asked to see what I had written. A week or two later back in England I put it all in a brown paper parcel and sent it. He replied, saying he liked it and suggested that I meet John Bishop of Autolycus Press. He might very well publish them. I did, and he, having read them, came to see me. He said he wanted to publish.

I was stunned. Me? Published? We began discussing suggesting the design of the book, typography and so on. During the chat he surprised me by saying, ’Did you realise you mention trees an awful lot?’ I did not. He said, ‘I want to break it into two books, one for the trees and the other for the autobiographical sort.’  There was more chat. As we shook hands on our Pinner doorstep I said, ‘It’s funny about the trees, isn’t it.’

That phrase stuck with me and, in the lovely setting of Lady Betjeman’s Hay-on-Wye home where I was house-sitting while she was in India, I sat down and wrote the poem, It’s funny about the trees. I sent it to him and asked if he would like to add it to the collection. He did, and the phrase became the title he gave to the book. The second collection became A Suburban Boy.

In a couple of months, they were published. Most of them were sold at my readings in local church halls and schools. During the intervals and at the end of the readings our daughter Jane and I were at a table somewhere at the back; Jane did a brilliant job of the selling and I signed each copy purchased.

A friend’s comment after he’d read them suggested that in fact my work was largely pastiche Betjeman. I bridled at the thought. Me? Imitating someone else’s style? But he was right and my only consolation is that even respectable and famous poets and musicians have at least begun by copying the style of their own personal favourites. Me, I just carry on doing what I’ve always done.

Eventually a lot of Christmas carols emerged. It is a glorious subject to write about. One of the most frequently sung is No Small Wonder and it actually began because of a mental tic.

In November 1983 I had that annoying experience, suffered by most people now and then, a short, everyday phrase repeating itself in my head over and over again. The phrase was simply, ‘small wonder’. Someone must have said it within my hearing. I longed to be rid of it. I wondered if just writing it down over and over again several times would do it. So I tried it. The sheet of repeated words made me aware of its simple waltz-like rhythm. (Try saying ‘small wonder, small wonder, small wonder’ aloud, keeping a steady, regular beat.)

And in the hazy, stumbling process that is fancifully called ‘inspiration’, a poem emerged.

On November 18 and fairly pleased with the result I sent it to the composer and a good friend Paul Edwards. He wrote shortly afterwards, enclosing his setting. He said my letter and poem had arrived just as he was about to take his laundry to the local launderette, so he had taken it with him, plus some manuscript paper. After putting his clothes into the machine he had sat down opposite it, watching the contents going round and round as he worked on a tune. And that lovely tune emerged, shining.

Sir John Betjeman with ArchibaldNo Small Wonder seems to have been well-liked from the time it was published; it became the Publisher’s best-seller; the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge performed it for BBC Television at Christmas 2000 and my Performing Rights Society records show that it is being recorded and broadcast from cathedrals and churches round the world every Christmas.

Then, in 2008, I had the excitement of discovering that the BBC Music Magazine had conducted a poll among cathedral choir directors, organists or composers, asking each of them to name five of their favourite Christmas carols, ancient or modern. Out of the 50 carols chosen, both well-established and modern, No Small Wonder was 19th.

One evening while I was reading to Betjeman from one of his favourite writers, Harry Williams, he interrupted me as I read, and said, ‘You know, I can see you’re a poet.

Now, that sort of thing does wonders for a man, and especially for introverted, inveterate braggers like me.


Text and illustrations ©Paul Wigmore 2010