English Arts Chorale

An interview with Paul Carr

Catherine Nasskau of English Arts Chorale finds out more from the composer of our newly-commissioned Stabat Mater.

Painting by Paul Carr

Artwork by Paul Carr

CN: Did you always know you wanted to be a composer?   

PC: I started writing music when I was 15, just doodling on the piano one rainy Sunday afternoon, and had my first pieces published in London by Cramer Music when I was 18 (Dance Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, still in print today). The publisher Riccordi came to see me at my family home when I was 16. I took the afternoon off school and when I answered the door they were expecting my father and were surprised to learn I was the one they’d come to see.

CN: Who were your early musical inspirations?

PC:  I loved Wagner, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky from an early age, and Benjamin Britten too. My mother had been a much-loved Australian soprano at the Royal Opera House in the 1950s and 60s and sang a lot of Wagner, Strauss and Britten, so it seemed only natural that I would be influenced. But as a composer I would say my greater influences have been 20th Century English and American music, and now also composers like Morten Lauridsen, Arvo Pärt and Roxanna Panufnik. I love the Beethoven Symphonies, and Mahler of course!  

CN: What led you to working in opera stage management?

PC: My father had been a stage manager at Covent Garden, which is where he met my mother. I always wanted to be a singer or actor, but when I realised I wasn’t going to have the voice I wanted I moved straight into stage management, starting my long career at English National Opera in 1984. In recent years I’ve also begun to direct opera in my own right and the stage-managing has lessened.

CN: You compose for a range of genres. Is there one you feel most at home with?

PC: Well, I made a name for myself through choral music and through my Requiem for an Angel in particular, which Classic FM took up. But I’m really happy writing in all genres. My most recent work is a Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano.

CN: How do you approach composing music for films?

PC:  My career as a film composer was short lived. I did four British comedies and all of them were flops. I also wrote the score to ITV’s Lady Audley’s Secret, that seemed a success at the time. I must admit the money was fantastic: I once got paid £32,000 for three weeks work on a film that never even made it to DVD. 

CN: Of your own work, do you have any favourites, or ones you are most proud of having composed?

PC: Difficult question, but it’s true to say  there are some works I feel to be better than others. Certainly my Requiem would be up there, although I personally think my Seven Last Words from the Cross to be the stronger piece. Of the concertos, the Oboe Concerto which Nicholas Daniel has played twice and recorded would be the one I’ll always be most proud of, although I think my Violin Concerto made an impact too at its première a few years ago. 

CN: What music do you like to listen to?

PC:  I only listen to music in the car, either Radio 3 or Classic FM, or when I’m training it into London. My tastes change and are fairly broad. Recently it’s Roxanna Panufik’s Four World Seasons which I’ll listen to a lot, even in the gym, or Richard Blackford’s marvellous Violin Concerto.

CN: Do you have a special place where you go to compose?

PC: Yes, on my computer with Sibelius 8. The Finn brothers who created this programme have unleashed endless creativity from composers. It’s so wonderful hearing music instantly as you compose! I love the sea and the sky and I wish I had a gorgeous old stone cottage perched on the cliffs in Cornwall – but as much as inspiration might flow . . . I’d be lost without my computer.  


Paul Carr: Stabat Mater score, the opening phrase


CN: What led you to the Stabat Mater?

PC: Some might think it odd that as a non-believer in the “church sense” I should have written so much religious music. But I’ve always had a fascination with Jesus and his story without the need for the God bit. My Requiem is a work giving comfort to those who are left to grieve, and my Seven Last Words from the Cross is inspired by the suffering of an exceptional man, Jesus, and the brutal wrong-doing he suffered at the hands of those in fear. I am drawn to Jesus and also to the suffering inflicted on his mother. The Stabat Mater has been a subject I’ve wanted to write for some time, and this is in fact my third attempt.

Having been asked to write a new work for English Arts Chorale, I decided to give it another go, only this time I had just finished stage-managing Handel’s opera, Alcina, and to my surprise found my creative sensibilities being heavily influenced by this opera. So I have embraced the Baroque sound-world of Handel and also Bach in this work. Not that it sounds like Handel, it doesn’t, it sounds like me – but there’s clearly a nod to Handelian traditions. The use of two oboes and strings is obviously a baroque-styled orchestration, only with a harp instead of harpsichord. Bach’s miraculous Prelude in C makes a very obvious appearance in the final movement, and anyone who loves Arvo Pärt will recognise the influence instilled in me from his ground-breaking work “Credo” based on the same Prelude.            ​​

CN: What makes a good performance of choral work? What should the EAC try and remember?

PC: Haha! Well, good tuning always helps, but basically an understanding of, an embracement and enjoyment of the music you are performing will always win through under any circumstances. That’s true of life, isn’t it?!


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