Ronald Corp at 60: A Life in Music
By Andrew Stewart (January, 2011)
Living tradition matters to Ronald Corp. Its vital energy has long sustained the man’s generous output as a composer and passions as a performing musician. The unbroken connection of past to present is likewise central to his work as an Anglican priest, music director of two of London’s oldest symphonic choruses, and as all-round musical entrepreneur. His portfolio of job titles and multifaceted biography may represent a challenge to those who prefer to place musicians inside the limits of neatly defined boundaries and brand them with clear labels. And yet the record of his achievements bears witness to a career forged over the past four decades with singular determination and an abiding sense of purpose.
Corp passed a personal milestone in early January, celebrating his sixtieth birthday four days in to the new year. He prefaced the date by reflecting on his development as an artist and the journey he has travelled since Somerset schooldays. When we meet in central London I jog his memory by suggesting that he helped pioneer the portfolio career, a common state of being among today’s classical performers but something still quite exotic when he elected to become a full-time freelance musician in 1988.
While many of his contemporaries made their respective reputations for one or another musical activity, Ronald Corp became variously associated with composing, conducting and arranging, choir training, concert programming, writing books and broadcasting. In recent years the emphasis has increasingly fallen on composition, matched by the growing public appetite for his music. But variety remains the spice of his working life. “The tussle has always been to keep everything going. The fascinating thing is that I always wanted to be a composer. Composition has become the focal point; it’s the thing that has endured through all my years as a musician.”
As the son of non-musical parents, Corp effectively taught himself to compose at the family’s upright piano. He later sought guidance from a family friend and amateur musician who proved unable to explain the practicalities of becoming a composer. “I assumed that composing would be my hobby,” he recalls, “but was always driven to do it.” Recent albums of Corp compositions, on Naxos, Dutton Epoch and Stone Records, include everything from his early song Break, break, break to world premiere recordings of his First Symphony and two string quartets. A new release, issued by Stone Records in the composer’s sixtieth birthday month, marks the discographic debut of Dhammapada, a setting for chamber choir of sayings attributed to the Buddha.
Youthful industry delivered ‘several hundred’ pieces to the young composer’s credit before he went up to Oxford to read music in 1970. The Christ Church undergraduate decided it was better to destroy most of his pre-university creations than open his tally of student performances with pieces bearing unfeasibly high opus numbers. “I felt it was wise to start again,” he notes. The fully mature Corp catalogue dates from And All the Trumpets Sounded, a cantata written for Highgate Choral Society in 1989. “Composition wasn’t on the Oxford music agenda until my second year. And writing in a traditional idiom, as I did, was most definitely considered infra dig in those days.”
After joining the BBC in 1973, Corp became librarian to the BBC Singers. The corporation’s music panel came close to accepting one of his song cycles for performance soon after his arrival at Broadcasting House. Many years and a revolution in establishment attitudes were to pass before his work received BBC airtime. The composer meanwhile honed his skills by writing scores and arranging pieces for the BBC’s staff choral society. He also gained invaluable practical experience as choirmaster of Highgate Choral Society and the London Chorus. Working with children, latterly with the New London Children’s Choir, enabled Corp to create a weighty collection of pieces for young voices. Above all, he learned how to write quality music for amateur musicians and useful lessons about the value of building lasting relationships with ensembles.
The musician’s desire to discover new and neglected scores was both stoked and satisfied by his time with the BBC music library. His employers, however, showed little reciprocal interest in the music of R. Corp. “I knew it was worth persisting with my compositions,” he comments. “But I knew my work was not in line with the avant-garde style favoured by Radio 3. I’d already encountered rejection at school, where my headmaster fancied himself as a conductor. I showed him some of my pieces, which he dismissed as rubbish without justifying his opinion. I went away thinking, ‘Too bad – I know what I want to do’. I’ve held that view ever since.”
Corp, determined to build a successful freelance career, left the BBC after almost 14 years in its service. He established the New London Orchestra in 1988 and swiftly secured its reputation with a series of intriguing programmes and groundbreaking recordings for the Hyperion label. “I was fully aware of the question ‘Why do we need another orchestra?’ If we were going to start yet another orchestra in London, I felt we had to look at music overlooked by other groups.” Grażyna Bacewicz, Rutland Boughton, Martinů, Milhaud, Poulenc, Prokofiev and Virgil Thomson stand among the beneficiaries of NLO attention. The ensemble’s repertoire list and discography are well furnished with works by composers who managed to innovate and advance tradition without joining the avant-garde club. Its credits also include formerly popular English operettas and oratorios from Victorian and Edwardian times, including the world première recording of Arthur Sullivan’s The Golden Legend, and a best-selling series of British, European and American light music albums for Hyperion.
“My experience as conductor and programmer tells me that it’s wrong to dictate what audiences should like. It’s so important to present works you believe in and let the music speak for itself. I was determined that Martinů should be on the programme when we gave our first concert at the Stratford Rex as part of the New London Orchestra’s ongoing residency in the London Borough of Newham. The audience, which came from all backgrounds, clearly appreciated Martinů more than Mozart!” The experience of making music in the East End, Corp adds, has been enhanced by strong personal resonances and priceless memories of childhood. Although raised in rural Somerset, his maternal ancestors belonged to the harsher world of London’s docklands. His mother was injured during the Blitz and evacuated from her Millwall home to recover in Wells. “She met my father in Somerset and stayed there,” he recalls. “Coming to London, for family holidays and to visit mum’s parents on the Isle of Dogs, was always a thrill for me. I loved the energy of the docks and of East London and am delighted to be working there now with the New London Orchestra.”
Corp family values apparently included dogged determination. The quality certainly influenced young Ron’s quest to learn about music…