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Uncommon Wealth

By Tim Benjamin  |  January, 2012 (Originally written for the magazine Milestones, in advance of the world premiere of Common Wealth


Next year, as well as being the year in which the world (according to the Mayans) is due to end, and in which the Olympics come to England, also features the one and only National Soundcheck Day. It's on the 12th of December, if you haven't guessed.

The other milestone for 2012 is Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee, marking (as I'm sure you know) the 60th anniversary of the Queen's accession to the throne. This is a remarkable achievement for any head of state, particularly in a democracy, and speaks volumes not just about the Queen's longevity and ability to survive the beheadings, coups and excommunications that bedevilled her predecessors, but also about the genuine affection in which she is held by (most of) her subjects. It's relatively easy to do this for a few years - we all "agreed with Nick" just a few months ago, after all, and now look! - but 60 years is quite another thing. And it's not just "being popular"; popularity contests never end well or last long. There's something quite intangible about the test of time which the Queen has so brilliantly passed.

The "test of time" is a slippery thing that is all too often applied to the works of composers, a subject with which I am all too familiar. The conductor Thomas Beecham supposedly once quipped, "there's not much the public wants of a composer, except that he's dead". He also came up with: "the oboe - an ill wind that blows no-one any good", so I'll forgive him. There is some truth in that (about composers, but also some truth about oboes, as anyone who's played in an amateur orchestra can attest), and as I intend to linger on for a good few decades yet, it's with some trepidation that I have agreed to a commission from the London Borough of Barnet, to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee.

This was a tricky brief in many ways; not least that it was incredibly vague. "Write us Something", they said, "some Music to celebrate the Jubilee". "By when, for whom, and what instruments shall they play - or do they prefer, perhaps, to sing?", I asked, as one must in my position. The deafening silence with which I was answered nearly prompted me to deliver a kind of rebellious John Cage-esque Two Minutes Silence, but in the nick of time I was notified that the combined forces of (appropriately enough) Queen Elizabeth's School and Mill Hill County High School would be available, and that the venue would be a Civic Service at Golders Green early in 2012.

Not much less tricky a brief given the details, especially if you consider that my usual output consists of difficult, obscure, and unpopular chamber music and opera (at least until I'm dead, in which case I fully expect the world to realise the underlying simplicity, common touch and obvious popularity of it all). However, I'm really not a stranger to coming up with suitable music for occasions: you might not have realised it, but every Sunday when I was organist at All Saints I composed something new. We had this game, you see; Choirmaster James (Kent-Winsley) would play a random cluster of notes during Communion, and I would have to seamlessly transform this offence into soothing, sorrowful, or triumphant music as fit the occasion. Sea Sunday? Nautical jigs were thrown in. Advent? "O Come, O Come" would feature. England lost against Wales at rugby the day before? "Jerusalem" worked over by "Land Of Our Fathers". Either you were all terribly polite and polite about it all, or no-one noticed!

So back to the Jubilee piece. I didn't want to write something just about England, about the number 60, or even about good old Elizabeth W. herself, but it had to at least attempt to combine many aspects of the anniversary in question. Oh, and it would have to be easily performable with minimal rehearsal, by young people of mixed ability, and it would really have to be somehow uplifting and perhaps even catchy. (With the best will in the world you won't find that in my Mrs Lazarus or Eine Erscheinung aus den Wäldern, even after I cease to tread this mortal coil.)

Common Wealth, therefore (for that is the new work's title), is a celebration of the Queen as head of the Commonwealth. She is the first monarch to hold the title, and to endure as a beloved figurehead across such different parts of the world, through such changing times, is a real inspiration. The split words of the title also reflect my own belief in music as a kind of common "wealth": the freely available common riches of all cultures (at least, freely available once the composer's well and truly dead, if you don't want to anger his publisher).

Common Wealth requires many groups of musicians, located all around the venue, to respond to the calls of a central group. The central group begins by playing a bagpipe-ish drone (this truly ill wind being, inexplicably, Her Majesty's favourite instrument, to the extent that she has a lone piper outside her bedroom window to wake her each morning). They then perform a "call", which is based on a familiar snippet of our National Anthem (the rising bit just before "Send her victorious"). The other groups join one by one - in their own time - with their responses, which are based on snippets from hopefully well-known traditional songs from parts of the Commonwealth - Linstead Market from Jamaica, for example, and Waltzing Matilda from Australia. These "responding" musicians gradually walk closer to the "calling" group, playing louder and louder. Now, I've had to be careful in my scoring to avoid a chaotic atonal cacophony, and hopefully we'll end up with a degree of chaos, yes, but of the more euphonic sort. Eventually, they'll all come together as one, for an uplifting and united ending.

I hope for a fun, symbolic and heartwarming celebration of all that unites the diverse and wonderful Commonwealth, not the least of which is our own Queen. And I do hope to be around to hear it!


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