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A Q&A with composer Malcolm Archer

Malcolm Archer’s career as a church musician has taken him to posts at Norwich, Bristol, Wells Cathedrals, and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He is the current Director of Chapel Music at Winchester College, where he is responsible for conducting the Chapel Choir and teaching the organ. As a composer, Malcolm has published many works; his pieces are widely performed, recorded, and broadcasted, and are greatly enjoyed for their approachable nature and singability. We spoke with Malcolm about his writing, his inspiration, and his career ambitions besides being a composer.

What does a typical day in your life look like?

There is no such thing as a typical day, as every day is a bit different with different things to achieve, but during term time my days will consist of teaching composition and organ at Winchester College and taking rehearsals with the Winchester College Quiristers and Chapel Choir. The choir sings four services in the College Chapel each week, plus a wide range of concerts, recordings, broadcasts and tours, so the work is pretty full on. I compose when I can squeeze it in, but of course the holidays free up a lot more time for composition.

What is the most difficult piece you’ve ever written and why?

A one act opera called George and the Dragon. It was commissioned by Brockham Choral Society, and is one hour in length and features SATB choir, childrens’ choir, five soloists and chamber orchestra. It was challenging to compose because I needed to keep the children’s music and choral sections relatively straight forward, whilst providing more challenging music for the soloists and orchestra. Working with a librettist has its challenges, since there has to be flexibility in both directions about what will work musically and vice versa. It was a very successful venture and the work has received several performances since its premiere. Its nearest neighbour is probably Britten’s Noyes Fludde.

Tell us about one of your proudest moments.

Here are three: when my choir sang Bach’s motet ‘Komm, Jesu, komm’ by Bach’s grave in St. Thomas, Leipzig, and the Leipzig musicians present were full of admiration for our performance; when my daughter sang her first solo in the choir at Salisbury Cathedral; and when one of my Quiristers won the BBC Chorister of the Year competition in 2015.

Michael Archer in action. Used with permission.

What is your inspiration/what motivates you to compose?

Often sheer panic because there is a deadline looming! I guess I have always enjoyed composing, and much of what I do stems from improvisation, either at the piano or organ, depending on the medium. A really good text is often the spark I need for choral music. I used to get hang ups about writing in an accessible and fairly traditional way, instead of being more ‘avant garde’, but that is the case no longer. Accessibility is the key to regular performance. I try to keep my music harmonically and melodically interesting and I want people to perform it, but if they don’t like it, that is up to them. Luckily, many people seem to quite like my music.

 Which of your pieces holds the most significance to you?

Probably my ‘Requiem Mass’, composed in 1993. It was heard at the funerals of both of my parents. I am also very fond of my ‘Vespers’, a new work, 30 minutes in duration, which was performed by the Farrant Singers in 2017.

What or who has influenced you the most in your life as a composer?

This is a difficult one. I have had so many influences, but I will always be indebted to my composition teachers: Herbert Sumsion, Bernard Stevens, and Alan Ridout. I also think that Finzi and Britten have been huge influences on my style; Britten is a composer I would have been interested to meet and talk to about music. I think his operas were a driving force in the development of opera during the 20th century.

What might you have been if you weren’t a composer?

I would always have done something to do with music. I have been lucky in that my career has allowed me to not only compose, but also to conduct choirs and orchestras, and to give organ recitals. I can’t imagine a career in anything other than music, though I have always loved classic cars, so perhaps I would have bought and sold those!

Is there an instrument you wish you had learnt to play?

Actually, I have always wanted to learn the cello, and have recently started taking some lessons and bought an instrument. I think that the cello is wonderful and probably the closest instrument to the human voice. I also think it is very good to learn a new instrument at my stage in my career, since it reminds me of the struggles that youngsters can experience in learning, and so it helps me to be more patient and understanding when teaching.

How has your music changed throughout your career?

I think my music has become much more harmonically interesting, and I think I have become gradually more adept at setting words to music in a convincing way. I have always admired Britten, Finzi, and Vaughan Williams for their ability to set words. One has to get right to the heart of the text and into the mind of the poet, and then convey that you’ve done that in the music by showing an understanding of the natural rhythm of words, and how they will work in a musical setting by getting stresses in the right places, and so on. I have learnt that all of that is vital if it is to be a successful piece.

Which composer, dead or alive, would you most like to meet?

Mozart. His music is so perfectly conceived, yet that seems to have been at odds with his personality. I find that juxtaposition absolutely fascinating.

Featured image credit: St Martin in the Bullring, Birmingham, United Kingdom by Michael D Beckwith. Public domain via unsplash.

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