The title of this article is almost that of a CD (CR049) recently released by the UK independent label Convivium Records: Clive Osgood’s Sacred Choral Music. Since the album does what it says on the cover, it seems a good enough label to tweak for this interview with its eponymous composer. I have to admit that before listening to this CD, I hadn’t heard any of the music of Clive Osgood—born in Portsmouth, on the southern English coast, in 1977—and so I opened our Skype conversation by asking him to tell me a little about himself.
Well, I’m a composer and teacher living south of London, in Haslemere. I do a bit of piano teaching and I’m Director of Music at Haslemere Parish Church. My main interest in composition is writing for the different groups and ensembles that I work with.
Haslemere has quite a distinguished musical heritage, doesn’t it?
Yes, with the Dolmetsches …
… and Tovey and Busch Quartet were regular visitors.
And there’s a lot going on nowadays as well!
Anyway, what’s your background? How did you come to be who you are?
I was a church chorister from the age of 10; I got interested in playing the organ and got a scholarship to Salisbury Cathedral, after I went to the University of Wales. I’ve been mainly interested in church music, but I’ve been writing for various ensembles as well.
If someone wanted a thumbnail sketch of your music, allowing that my knowledge of it is limited to the new album, I would said that it has one foot in Vaughan Williams and the other in Lloyd Webber—it has both something of the church and something of the stage as well.
Yes! Yes, I do have something of an interest in musicals as well, so there is that. My favorite composer is Mozart. And my postgraduate degree (in Cardiff, actually, just before I did my organ scholarship) was research, musicology, in turn-of-the-century, 19th-century, music—I was looking at early Beethoven and his contemporaries. That has been a big interest for me, that period of music.
Has that been an ingredient in your style, consciously or otherwise?
More structurally, I suppose. With the Classical ideals, where structure is paramount, I try to have a fairly strong structure within everything I do.
There aren’t really any pieces on the new album that are long enough to see that at work.
That’s a fair point, in terms of these choral pieces, although of course Classical structure is also about the smaller details, such as balanced musical phrases. I have written piano trios and things like that which do have more extended structures. The largest piece on the CD is the Dixit Dominus, which is actually modeled more on Baroque large-scale works, in particular those of Vivaldi, and makes use of compositional devices such as pedals and sequences in a typically Baroque fashion.
How conscious are you of your style? Is it just what comes out?
Yes, it’s probably just what comes out, really. I tend to write what I like, finding a harmonic framework or melodic ideas that I like.
There are fingerprints that resurface on occasion in this recording—little harmonic twists or melodic shapes. And your voice is your voice, after so, and so it’s natural that these things should recur.
I quite like the two-against-three thing and end up using that quite a lot. And Latin American dance rhythms and other jazz elements are predominant. I’m a big fan of the Gershwin style as well, and so that can be heard.
It is, as I said, a kind of intriguing mix of West End and Westminster Abbey, but with the two different styles in one compositional voice. It works, though, and after all Vaughan Williams and Lloyd Webber are both pretty successful composers!
I think the whole idea of fusion in music is a wonderful way forward, taking pre-existing styles and putting them together in a new way. I did that with my Cello Sonata, offsetting a section in 19th-century waltz style against something more akin to Bernstein. That kind of thing can work really well, giving you something completely new.
One of the barriers confronting the contemporary composer is that the post-World War II serialist boom taught classical audiences (most of whom are old and thus remember those days) that they should distrust names they don’t know. There’s plenty of good serial music, of course, but it’s also an easy way to disguise crap. Mind you, since you are working with local forces for local audiences, I imagine that suspicious audiences are not a problem for you.
In fact, we often find when we are marking A-Level composition students that a good way to get marks is to write a serial piece, because if it ticks all the boxes, all the retrogrades and that sort of stuff, you’ll get good marks—and some of it can sound impressive without doing a huge amount! Actually, it has been a bit of an issue, with me working in university environments, although the attitude has certainly changed now from what it was 20 or less years ago, when the whole idea was that you’ve got to be Modernist. But you still have to have your own approach, of course, although some of the style that I do can verge on the pastiche. Essentially, I am writing for local amateur people to do something they’ll enjoy, so if there’s an element of pastiche, I don’t really mind that—as you say, it’s fusing with something else.
Haydn knew both the people who would be listening to his next work and the people who would be playing it. And you are in a similar position—you know who your performers are, and you know who’ll be hearing it, at least first time around. How does that influence how you sit down and write a piece, if at all?
It’s not so much how it sounds. A lot of it has to do with performance restrictions, just making sure—if I write a choral piece—that the voice-leading is easy enough for an amateur singer to be able to sing it. I don’t mind doing anything especially dissonant, but it has got to be able to be performed, and sometimes you have to have a mind for the amateur singer.
It’s interesting that you set a mix of English and Latin texts. You write in the booklet how much you enjoy setting Latin.
It’s partly doing things in a language that has a sort of mystique about it. And there’s also tradition with Latin settings—you have the canon with all these major works. I enjoy setting these words.
I imagine the two languages require different approaches, largely because of the vowels.
Yes, you tend not to have so many diphthongs in Latin, and awkward things to have to set; it can be quite direct. And they’re great dramatic texts as well.
And do the two languages require a different stylistic response? Do you write—even slightly—different music when you’re setting English and Latin texts?
I sometimes feel that I should adopt a greater seriousness with a Latin text, but whether I succeed in that or not, I don’t know.
Well, the liturgy isn’t known for its comic asides. There was plenty of secular, even earthy, Latin literature in days gone by, but because the language was largely preserved by the church, that has generally been lost sight of.
I’m sure it would still appeal, and it’s more direct in its sound quality, but being less understandable, it has a kind of mystique.
How much has your music been heard beyond your immediate audience?
I have had a few performances on national radio, through competitions. Various people have listened to the CD, and I’ve had the odd thing in the past that has made it onto YouTube—and people asked me about performing pieces from hearing it on YouTube. But most of the interest is local.
Do you have a publisher promoting your music?
No, I haven’t: I still haven’t had anything published, so I’m looking to do that. I still hope that I might get something into one of the bigger publishing houses.
You mentioned a piano trio and a cello sonata. What proportion of your output is choral?
It’s mainly choral. I’ve written a few larger pieces, again with local groups in mind. I play the piano for a local music society with a choir and orchestra and I’ve composed a few pieces for them—folksong settings and things like that. I’d love the opportunity to write more for large orchestra. When I did my Masters at Surrey University a couple of years ago, I wrote chamber pieces for the different ensembles there. And I’m always writing for friends, like the Piano Trio, and in fact I’m writing another piano trio this year as well. It’s really just people I’m working with. And I’ve done a piano quartet. It usually involves the piano in some way, so that I get to be involved!
This interview will have a mainly North American readership. Have you had any performances in the U.S.?
No, and I’d love to.
The American choral market, of course, is massive; if you can get picked up by an American publisher, you could look forward to performances all over the place.
That would be a wonderful opportunity. And I would hope that, being fairly melodic and reasonably accessible music, it might have a wide appeal.
Supposing I’m a choral director in Idaho or Illinois—how do I find out about your music?
I have a website, cliveosgood.com, which demonstrates some of my pieces, and most of the pieces on the CD can be streamed on YouTube and Spotify.
How did the CD come about?
It originally came about through a choir I’m involved with, Excelsis; my wife sings with it. They had their 10th anniversary recently, and they wanted to do a CD to celebrate the occasion, and they were kind enough use my music. Fortunately, I had some very generous members of my church choir who helped with the fund-raising, and lots of other people who helped besides. It has been an amazing project, to get it all going. There are two people I have to thank, in terms of the production of the CD. One is Robert Lewis, the conductor of Excelsis, who really pushed the whole thing forward; and, of course, Adrian Green of Convivium Records.
What major projects have you got coming up?
My current project is my Second Piano Trio, which will be performed in June. I have also been fortunate to have had the opportunity to write a couple of operas for the Haslemere Festival, which occurs every two years. I am hoping to work on another project for the festival next year. I am also looking to write another large-scale choral work, maybe a Requiem Mass, but that is on the distant horizon.
Well, maybe our choral director in Idaho or Illinois will sniff out your music and then decide to commission it.
I would love it if this interview got the music out there, into an American market—that would be great. And it’s so much easier to write to commission; writing for the shelf is not something I am very good at doing. Writing for a particular purpose is far more motivational!