Welsh composer Paul Mealor, 35, hit the headlines when his choral piece Ubi Caritas debuted at the Royal Wedding at Westminster Abbey in April. The ceremony was watched by millions of people around the world, and has cemented Paul’s reputation as one of Britain’s leading composers.
He talks to M about the build-up to the Royal Wedding and the ensuing media whirlwind that landed him a record deal with Decca. He also reveals what it is like to be a young composer in Britain today, and offers some advice for up-and-coming talent.
How did it feel to have your piece Ubi Caritas played at the Royal Wedding?
I was speechless. It’s mind blowing. First of all, when I got asked, I found it very difficult to believe I’d be part of this amazing event that will be remembered throughout history, like all royal weddings have been. It’s very special to be involved in any wedding, because you are involved in two people who are beginning a life together. I’ve written a couple of pieces for friends and I’ve always found it very moving because it’s a gift to them, but also its brilliant to share in that moment with them. So for me to be part of this enormous event – the marriage of a future king and queen – was humbling, and made me speechless that they put so much trust in me and my music. It filled me with warmth.
Was Ubi Caritas written specially for the event?
Yes and no. The John Armitage Memorial Trust commissioned a piece from me last year called Now Speaks the Crimson Petal. It’s a setting of Tennyson to choir and was premiered at St Andrews in October. What I don’t know is whether someone from the royal couple’s friends or family was there and heard it, or whether someone recorded it and sent it to them. But the couple came across it and liked it very much. I got contacted by the palace to see if I’d be happy for it to be included at the wedding. Of course I’d be happy, and I thought that was it. But then I got into conversation with the palace and we decided that the words were actually really sensual and wouldn’t really be appropriate for a church service. But because the couple liked the music so much, it was mooted that I could set new words to it. And so I came up with the idea for Ubi Caritas, which is a fourth century Christian hymn. I decided to reset the whole piece to Ubi Caritas and change quite a few things, and they liked it. So it’s a new piece that comes very much from an old piece.
How did you go about pairing the existing music with the new words? Was it a difficult process?
It’s not easy. But I’m not the first person to have done it, if you go back to the Renaissance composers, they were doing that every day. And in more recent times Elton John, with the piece he wrote for Princess Diana. Adapting something is a skill in itself. I write music that comes completely out of the words. So the line ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal and the white’, which is from Tennyson, is about two flowers, a metaphor for two lovers intermingling. With Ubi Caritas, which translates to ‘Where there is charity and love, god is there’, I had to be aware that new meaning was needed. So I changed the chords slightly, changed the movement and changed the emphasis. I did quite a lot of moving around.
How did you begin composing choral pieces in the first place?
When I was a little boy I always wanted to compose. I was slightly hyperactive as a child and music was a way of calming me down. At the age of nine I wrote a few bars of a symphony in crayon which was absolutely awful! But I didn’t just like the sounds, I also liked how it looked on the page – there was an artistic feel to it. I used to listen to huge symphonies that would take me into a different world. I was a choir boy but I also played in brass bands and was involved in music from very early on. I liked the fact that there were people creating this music that we were all playing, and I wanted to do that. I’ve always had a deep faith too. Singing and faith came together in composing sacred music.
What was it like in the days leading up to, and following, the wedding?
The days leading up to it were much more exciting because, of course, I couldn’t tell anyone. I was dying to tell everyone, especially as it was getting so near. Hearing the rehearsals a couple of days before, when there were very few people in the abbey, except the choir, was really amazing. It was a very moving experience – flowers being put up as the choir were rehearsing – it was wonderful to be involved in the build-up. Then hearing my piece for the first time was fantastic. As soon as it was announced, the day before the wedding, the media went berserk! And then afterwards, it’s been brilliant. I had 15,000 emails from people all over the world from people saying they loved the piece and how much it meant to them. They found it was a great oasis of calm in the wedding, a moment of reflection, which is what the Duchess of Cambridge wanted. Everything just stopped for a bit, and that’s what I had hoped for. There have been some strange emails too – one woman wanted to marry me!
What’s next for you?
I’ve just signed a deal with Decca Records.
Congratulations! When did that come through?
They are recording a new CD of my sacred choral music in July, and that will be out in October. I’m really pleased about it. They’ve had quite a lot of interest from people about my music so they thought ‘Right, let’s do an album.’
Will it be reworkings or new pieces?
There will be some new compositions, and Ubi Caritas will be on there and also some other pieces that haven’t been recorded before. All the music is connected to my faith. It’s a selection of sacred choral pieces, and I’m very excited. There are some top people involved, but I can’t say just yet.
It reads like an amazing success story, but obviously you had a career before the wedding and will continue to do so now. I just wondered, how difficult do you think it is for young composers in the UK to get heard?
It’s difficult for composers around the world, generally, to get their music performed. There are lots of major organisations that are giving composers opportunities, such as workshops, so they can have their pieces rehearsed in open sessions by major performers. But there are very few organisations that actually give out commissions to young composers. And its relatively unheard of – I think I’m the only person that’s been given something so big at such a young age. That’s very unusual, which is why I am so in debt to the royal couple for doing that. But then again, there are quite a lot of organisations that are beginning to give some real opportunities. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales have been giving young composers opportunities for a while. It gives composers the chance to do something with major organisations. You learn so much.
Is there any advice you could offer an up-and-coming composer?
Yes, I got quite a bit of advice from very distinguished composers, but I think the main thing is that the young composer must write the music they hear in their head and feel with their heart, and not be swayed by anything else. Don’t be swayed by fads or trends or fashion. Just write the music that you want to write and, if it is any good, sooner or later people will listen to it and want to perform it.