Gareth Treseder, composer

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

My composer career would not exist without the wonderful opportunities granted to me as a tenor – to sing sublime works, whilst at the same time learning how the composer wrote rewardingly for the musician as well as the audience.

Fifteen years as a chorister in Swansea’s St Paul’s Church introduced me to grand works by Charles Stanford, the intricate counterpoint of Renaissance composers, and joyful melodies by John Rutter.

Whilst studying harmony and pastiche composition at the University of Bristol, my Bristol Cathedral Lay Clerkship allowed me to sing many modern chromatic works, including having to sight-read Humphrey Clucas’ Evening Service in F#.

Studying opera at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama allowed me to explore how the composer might depict emotional range on a grander instrumental scale. My concurrent Choral Scholarship with the BBC National Chorus of Wales brought me to the swinging rhythms that define works such as Bernstein’s Mass – performing my Royal Albert Hall solo debut role as Rock Singer in the BBC Proms’ first complete performance was a dream come true.

I have since been blessed with many opportunities to explore stunning works with stupendous choirs. An Apprenticeship with the Monteverdi Choir has allowed me to since tour the world with them as a soloist and chorister; the BBC Singers’ sheer range of repertoire is extraordinary; being invited to sing the conductor’s own works alongside the Eric Whitacre Singers is very humbling.

Without Sonoro, who have already graciously recorded my “Blessed Be That Maid Marie” so beautifully, my setting of “Jesu, Joy Of Our Desiring” would not exist, thanks to their brilliant Choral Inspirations initiative. The fact that they regularly invite me to sing alongside them makes me feel very grateful.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The greatest challenge was unarguably lockdown, which took its toll on absolutely everybody. Finding the creative energy to write new music whilst knowing it would not even be considered for performance until ensembles could once again reform; recording my work remotely using a click track, which was highly dispiriting; not performing with or for people, which defeats the collective purpose of music itself.

A perennial challenge, and perhaps one less maudlin, is finding the opportunities to write and promote one’s music whilst maintaining a singing career and simultaneously being present for my wife and three children. They are an incredibly supportive unit, and seeing my daughter and sons become caring, considerate people is incredibly gratifying. Juggling life and work is, however, a challenge that I enjoy trying to accomplish.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

A commission with clearly defined parameters – a specific text, instrumentation, duration, a time frame in which to complete the work – are enormously helpful for me. Defining the piece’s structure and unifying melodic themes for an emotive text is a real pleasure for me.

The UK hosts an outstanding liturgical choral tradition, because each musician has to proficiently sight-read and rehearse for at most ten minutes per work prior to their daily services. The strength of choral singing, in church or concert, lies within the music’s accessibility to both the chorister and worshipper. That is the challenge of working on a commission, where rehearsal time is so scarce. Premiering a work can be a daunting experience. With any commission, I try to ensure that through a clear score, there are very few logistical questions that need to be asked, that the melodies sit within a comfortable vocal range, and that the text is glorified throughout.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?

Singing with world-class musicians, who are often my closest friends, is pure joy. Rehearsing works written by the masters of their craft – J.S. Bach, Hector Berlioz, Claudio Monteverdi, and Heinrich Schütz to name but a few – hugely informs my writing in terms of allowing the inherent emotion within the text to shine, thereby hopefully presenting a fulfilling work to perform.

The challenge is that rehearsal time is precious. The best modern scores in my singing experience are free from logistical issues – hosting pronunciation guides and performance notes where necessary; offering clear enharmonic writing – E to F# is often easier to read than E to Gb, for instance; consistency in textual underlay and notation, to avoid questions such as, “Is Gloria two or three syllables in this case?” and “Should we include the tied quaver?” Writing scores that are absolutely clear in their intent allows the Artistic Director more time to enthuse each performer with their creative vision.

Of which works are you most proud?

Any of my works that have been embraced wholeheartedly by the musicians, and has been spoken of with affection, makes me feel enormously proud. In this interview, I wish to focus briefly on seven pieces.

Global restrictions over the last two years have been emotionally draining. Setting “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring” in March 2020 was my way of rallying against the fear of lockdown by scribing a joyful Bachian motet in response to a stately Bach chorale. All of Bach’s works, even funereal settings, are infused with hope for the future – this “giocoso” work was my response to such inspirational music.

To celebrate their 50th Anniversary, Richard Wilberforce and the Exon Singers commissioned and recorded “O Virgo Splendens”. Their rendition fills me with such joy, and writing it was a labour of love. This was the first work for which I received a very special critique from Eric Whitacre that takes pride of place on my website. Here is a link to an equally wonderful recording by my good friend Rory McCleery and The Marian Consort.

Swansea Bach Choir, with whom I proudly sang for several years under John Hugh Thomas’ direction and now that of Greg Hallam, have been incredibly generous to have commissioned me to write “The Beautiful Poetry of Wales Volume One”. The final movement, “Farewell to Wales”, is particularly poignant for me as it reminds me of all that I miss about my homeland.

“In Flanders Fields: A War Cantata” is to date the longest commission – a thirty-minute multi-movement piece written for Eltham Choral Society, for which I received the honour of conducting a rehearsal where I could present some of the ideas that formed the work. In a wonderfully surprising move, the choir lined up during the interval seeking my autograph for their scores. I was utterly delighted. The American premiere, courtesy of Harvard University Choir, may be found on the following YouTube link:

My career would prove absolutely impossible without my family – the support they have shown me, and my love and happiness for them greatly informs my work. “C’est entre nous” for tenor and piano, performed by the fabulous Graham Neal and Matthew Schellhorn in the 2019 Borough New Music Festival, was my Valentine’s Day gift to my wife. I wrote two jolly baptismal anthems for my daughter and twin boys – “Sing To The Lord Glad Hymns Of Praise” and “Twin Princes in the Courts of Heaven” respectively – that were premiered by the amazing Choir of St Margaret’s Westminster Abbey, with whom I sang for ten gloriously happy years.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I seek to write music that is uplifting to perform and direct, interweaving recurring melodies for each voice to sing whilst generally keeping to a simple intervallic structure – awkward intervals are often preceded with voice-leading e.g. the altos will supply the G to which the sopranos must subsequently jump down.

When writing, I imagine performing each melodic line myself. If I would not wish to sing the line – should it sit within an uncomfortable tessitura for a prolonged period, or maybe a complicated and unprepared dissonance is introduced – then I tend to rewrite it. In terms of instrumental writing, again I will endeavour to scribe something rewarding to play that still remains attainable for the performer and accessible to the listener.

How do you work?

Music tends to occur to me either by chance or, conversely, in spite of circumstances.

An example of the former: I was struggling to start writing my male-voice setting of “O merciful God”. While contemplating this, somebody started using their hoover next door. The pitch of the hoover started with a D, leading to an accompanying BA underneath. Marvellously, this informed how the altos and tenors should open my setting.

As regards the latter: I find myself humming a cheery melody as a means of tuning out a stressful situation, such as if the children misbehave or if I am feeling grotty – imagining how happy I would feel listening to said melody being performed by others immediately perks me up.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Maintaining a fulfilling career, working with inspirational artists, earning enough to pay the bills, and seeing my family every day. Also, if you are happy and healthy, then this is a tremendous success.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

Attend many concerts, listen to new works, perform whenever you can – this will inform your compositional style and help you to determine what works for you. I also find it very helpful to encounter stylistic decisions with which I disagree, as this allows me to consider how else I might have set the text.

Hearing one’s own music performed is very humbling. However, the art of self-promotion tends to fly in the face of one’s humility. You must counteract this by frequently writing emails to many Artistic Directors explaining your musical background and progress, why you are contacting them specifically, and seek permission to send them recordings and scores – else the piece will not exist beyond its premiere.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I feel that classical music concerts, contemporary or otherwise, require a wider promotion on television. The BBC Proms provides an invaluable display of musical variety, but this celebration is limited to the Summer months. Easter from King’s and Carols from King’s receive a deservedly huge viewership and introduce wonderful new choral works to the masses as well as beautiful traditional pieces. Why can’t there be more programmes dedicated to such music, on a regular basis? Bringing more music to the people at home allows for the repertoire to become embedded in the audience’s psyche.

“Popular” film music concerts receive a huge attendance. People are more likely to attend the classical music concert if the works have received the opportunity to become popular. BBC producers took a chance by including a 1972 recording of Pavarotti and the London Philharmonic Orchestra performing Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” for its 1990 World Cup soundtrack. This surely inspired many a person who may not otherwise have gone to the opera to see “Turandot” live, or at the very least to witness many tenors – not I as yet, alas – conclude a concert with “Vincerò!”

If the media can present classical music performances as essential viewing, concert attendance will increase dramatically.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about but you think we should be?

Any concert, particularly tours involving performances in multiple venues, requires a strong team of people whose administrative work behind the scenes allow the performers to present their music at their best. I believe that, certainly for the last recital within a tour or for any large-scale operation, a staple of performance etiquette should include bringing these people to the stage for their bow. Every film concludes with crediting both the actors and those who bring their work to the screen. Concert practice should follow suit.

What next – where would you like to be in 10 years?

If I have since been commissioned to write an opera, while continuing to sing for such fabulous ensembles, I would be very happy.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Having opportunities to sing, creating music for others while providing for, and spending lots of time with my family.

What is your most treasured possession?

Photo albums. Underneath the photos, my wife and I often write down some amusing phrases the children make up. At the time, one thinks they’ll always remember them. The memories fade over time, and we can now have a chuckle reading them back to ourselves.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Introducing friends to Donald X Vaccarino’s phenomenal card game, Dominion. Carcassone, Settlers of Catan and Monopoly Deal also rank highly. Once my children are old enough to play these games, you can ask me again about my “idea of perfect happiness”.

What is your present state of mind?

As I write this [June 2022], I’m performing on tour abroad. Presently I feel admiration for my colleagues; calmness tinged with excitement about tonight’s concert; immense satisfaction with my job. Also, I’m looking forward to reuniting with my family.

Gareth Treseder’s ‘Jesu Joy Of Our Desiring’ was specially commissioned by Sonoro for their Choral Inspirations Volume 2 album.

Gareth Treseder composes chiefly sacred choral works, which have been performed and recorded globally. A Song Was Heard at Christmas and Blessed be that Maid Marie were recorded by the BBC Singers and subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 3. These works, alongside several others, have since been published by Boosey and Hawkes, Hal Leonard and the RSCM.

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