Nicola Lisle talks to one of the country’s most popular composers as he turns 60

Bob Chilcott has two passions – music and people. Throughout his distinguished career as a choral composer and conductor, those two passions have been inextricably entwined.

“I’m a social musician so I like to work with people,” he says. “I particularly like working with people who struggle with music and struggle with singing. I like trying to make them understand that they can do it. I enjoy that very much.

“As a composer that’s important to me. You have to have access points for people. That’s really what drives me.”

Many of Bob’s compositions for choirs have become modern-day classics, from A Little Jazz Mass – one of his many pieces for children’s choirs – to The Making of the Drum, Canticles of Light, Jubilate and On Christmas Night.

His popular Requiem, performed recently by the Burford Singers, was premiered at the Sheldonian Theatre in 2010 by the Oxford Bach Choir, while another large-scale work, the St John Passion, has recently been released on CD.

Born into what he calls “an extremely ordinary background”, Bob was brought up in Watford, where he started learning the piano at the age of five and joined the church choir. His musicality was quickly spotted by the vicar, who suggested he try for a choristership.

He was accepted by King’s College, Cambridge, so as a seven-year-old found himself living away from home – and rubbing shoulders with, among others, the sons of eminent conductors Sir Neville Marriner and Sir Charles Groves.

“It was a big change from growing up on an estate outside London,” he chuckles, “but we all integrated very well, and music gave me my life.”

Bob went on to to gain a choral scholarship at King’s College, followed by two years’ postgraduate study at the Royal College of Music.

He joined the King’s Singers in 1985, just before moving to Ascott-under-Wychwood, where he still lives. By this time he was also working as an arranger for BBC Radio 2, most notably for Friday Night Is Music Night.

Gradually, though, composing began to take over, and he left The King’s Singers in 1997 so that he could focus more on this aspect of his work.

So what drew him to composing?

“Well, I always composed. I composed at school. I wrote an oboe concerto and a cello concerto, and a number of pieces for the choir, but I was much more interested in instrumental work at the time.

“I went to university in 1973 and I wrote music that I liked but it was completely off the radar then and I didn’t feel I had a place so I stopped. That’s why I worked for radio – it enabled me to work in a field of music where I felt comfortable.”

If Bob’s music was off the radar then, it is very much the opposite now. His choral works are performed frequently all over the UK and in America, and there is little sign of his popularity diminishing.

His style is very much rooted in the English tradition, but he has a wide range of influences, from early music to jazz.

His Requiem, he admits, is one of his proudest achievements, and came about after the head of the music department at Oxford University Press, with whom he has been associated for many years, suggested the idea to him.

“My immediate thought was I couldn’t possibly do that!” he laughs. “But of course John Rutter has done one which is a very successful model, and I did think it would be a nice thing to do, so I thought I would have a go at it.

“I remember the first performance in the Sheldonian. The atmosphere was marvellous, really great. And they’d done this wonderful education project around it too, which was very motivating.”

For Bob, there is also personal sadness associated with the piece.

“Writing the Requiem coincided with the death of my sister’s elder daughter, who I was very close to, and she died very suddenly. So it was very emotive for me to write that piece, and the fact that it was well received was thrilling.”

His St John Passion was written for Wells Cathedral Choir, at the request of conductor Matthew Owens, and is based on English poems from the 13th to the 17th centuries, interwoven with Passiontide hymn texts.

“I’ve never written hymns before and I loved it!” he says. “Writing for these young singers who sing to such a high level is very motivating. And they made a wonderful recording of it.

“I wanted to write a piece that I thought could be performed somewhere like that but could also be performed in the parish church. That’s important to me to think that it could be performed by all sorts of different people.

“Again, it was a piece where I thought, ‘how can I possibly do that?’. But the ideas came together and I loved writing it.”

Perhaps inevitably, Bob’s career as a composer has spawned a parallel career as a conductor, and this is now an equally important part of his life.

“I never intended it to be,” he admits, “but when I left The King’s Singers someone suggested I stand in as conductor for the Royal College of Music choir, and I thought I’d give it a go!

“I do enjoy it, simply because it brings you into contact with people, and I love that. It’s helped me understand what people respond to when they sing so that’s been very useful for me.”

Bob’s current big project is a commission for Age UK on the theme of loneliness, to be premiered in the Sheldonian Theatre next year.

Meanwhile, you can catch the Cotswolds Youth Choir performing A Little Jazz Mass in a Burford Festival concert with the Burford Singers on Sunday (Burford Parish Church, 7.30pm), under the baton of Adam Treadaway. Tickets for this are available at Bob’s 60th birthday was recently marked with a concert and party at SJE Arts in Oxford, with local choir Commotio performing a selection of his songs. So how does he feel about reaching this milestone?

“The fact that you’re getting older compromises you occasionally but I’m determined to ignore it as long as I can! I’m just glad I still feel a lot of energy for my work, and there’s lots more I want to do.”