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‘Peaceful, radiant and clear’ – James Whitbourn’s Choral Music

April 23, 2010

Who is James Whitbourn?
I’m a British composer and conductor. I live quite close to London with my wife and three children. When I’m not composing I also produce music recordings, especially opera and ballet for film.

James Whitbourn
Photo: Alison Whitbourn

What inspired these compositions (or brought about this recording)?
These compositions came about for many diverse reasons: a liturgical celebration of Easter Day in King’s College Chapel Cambridge, a title sequence for television, a concert commemoration of Anne Frank, a gathering of choristers from eighteen cathedral choirs, a black-light dance piece in Philadelphia, a challenge for a High School choir, a television programme on Desmond Tutu and a commission for Commotio, the choir which sings this recording. But one thing unites them all: special words of revelation and insight from wise and enlightened men and women down the ages, words that are touching, moving and inspiring.

What career aspirations did you have as a child/youth?
It seemed obvious that I would work somewhere in the musical world, but it wasn’t always obvious exactly where within that world it would be. Aspirations change as time goes on. Composing, it must be said, is more a compulsion than an aspiration. It’s not really a career choice you can make. When I was a student in the 1980s, the tonal styles of music I write in were slightly frowned upon. But things are completely different now, and there’s a thirst for fresh expressions but in more familiar languages.

What inspires you?
All sorts of things. People, mainly. I find it inspiring when someone asks me to write a piece: with all the choice of music from hundreds of years that is already out there, I love the thought that—for a given moment—someone would prefer to perform a piece which hasn’t even been written but which they have faith in me to write. I also have a very strong visual sense when I write music and I always try to visualise the first performance and project myself forward to that moment when the piece is about to begin. Then I try and imagine what I’d like to hear. I find events and big occasions immensely inspiring, one reason, perhaps, why people have come to me for music for national occasions.

The composer with Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Photo: Alison Whitbourn

What are your guilty musical pleasures?
I never feel guilty about finding pleasure in music. I love the fact that music can bring pleasure, and I’m very comfortable with the fact that it might be different sorts of music at different times of life or even on different days. And music can bring comfort, serenity, excitement and sensuality too.

What is the one thing you wish an interviewer would ask you, and what is your answer?
Actually, I rather like it when someone asks me something I don’t have a ready answer to, and then my answer comes as a surprise to me as well!. That’s happened sometimes when I’ve been working with wonderful undergraduate students who ask questions about things I hadn’t thought about—or at least, I hadn’t realised I’d thought about. And I’m grateful to them for searching and helping me to discover something too.

Naxos has released a recording of James Whitbourn’s choral music:

WHITBOURN Choral Works – Luminosity, Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis, He carried me away in the spirit
Christopher Gillett, tenor
Levine Andrade, viola
Matthew Berry, conductor


Best known for his inspired Son of God Mass for saxophone, choir and organ, the British composer, conductor and writer James Whitbourn is admired for his fresh, distinctive yet accessible compositional voice. Setting texts from ancient seers to the modern luminary Desmond Tutu, the works on his new recording reflect the breadth of the composer’s achievement, from the monumental Magnificat written for King’s College Cambridge, to the Classical Indian fusion work Luminosity—a rare choral work composed for dance. They are performed by Commotio, an Oxford-based chamber choir which specialises in contemporary choral repertoire.

‘This album is extraordinary. It expands the experience of classical music beyond the edges of the traditional map of classical styles. The word "luminosity" describes the nature of celestial light, and the music of composer James Whitbourn is a celebration of that light—peaceful, radiant and clear.’ – All Things Considered
Read the review

James Whitbourn Biography & Discography


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