Jonathan Dove: Finding the right words

At our ANZAC Day evensong (5pm Tuesday April 25) the anthem will be ‘They will rise’ by Jonathan Dove (b. 1959) written for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the RAF, which was commemorated in Westminster Abbey in 2018. We first sang it at our ANZAC Day evensong in 2021, to commemorate the centenary of the RAAF. 

The piece is a setting of the words from Isaiah 40:31: 

‘But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; 
They will rise, they will soar, they will fly up on wings like eagles;
They will run and not grow weary; 
March on and not feel faint.’ 

It is hard to imagine more appropriate words than these, even though they are nearly 3000 years old. In an interview with organist Anna Lapwood, Dove describes how integral texts are for him as a composer: 

‘Finding the right words is usually the hardest thing for any vocal piece, and usually takes longer than writing the music. Finding the right words is also telling you what kind of sound you’re going to make, so once you’ve got the right words you’ve already done quite a lot of composing: the mood, the shape of the piece, and so on.’ 

Dove goes on to describe his compositional processes, and how the melodies eventually ‘come out of the words’: 

‘Occasionally I’ve had this lovely experience of assembling some text – these are exactly the words I want to sing – and just sitting quietly and imagining the music, and it all kind of arriving. And so that felt like, well, I’m just transcribing it, the music’s already there, in the air, and I’m just going to write it down. But more often there’s quite a lot of exploration and a lot of sketching. Usually I begin with the accompaniment – I suppose about half of the choral pieces I’ve written have an organ accompaniment, but the others are a capella – finding the right kind of harmony, the right territory, the right key, the right mode, that’s the sort of background choice. And it’s trial and error for me, usually. … And it’s only really once that sort of preliminary feeling about the piece is clear that the melodies start to connect with the words, or come out of the words.’ 

‘They will rise’ is an amazing piece, and we are very much looking forward to singing it again! 

Source: Anna Lapwood: In Conversation with Jonathan Dove, 2021, 

Photo © Marshall Light Studio, used by permission. 

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