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Forty singers needed to celebrate Pepys' anniversary

The Pepys Motet
By Benjamin Till

Benjamin Till holds Pepys' diary, with his bookcases behind.
Benjamin Till needs your help to realise his dream of honouring Samuel Pepys

On 1 January 1660, a little-known clerk living in Westminster, wrote the first entry in what became perhaps the most famous diary ever written.

I have been asked to mark the anniversary by writing a choral work.

Now all I need is 40 singers.

Three hundred and fifty years ago Samuel Pepys started his diary and my commission is to write a piece of music which is suitably grand in scale to mark the occasion.

I have composed a motet*, for 40 talented London-based singers, which will be performed on 25 November 2010 at St Olave's Church near Fenchurch Street Station. St Olave's is where Pepys and his wife are buried.

Each of the 40 singers will have their own individual line which means a lot of the writing is highly intricate and exposed. That's why the performers need to be brilliant!

All over the Thames, with one's face in the wind you were almost burned with a shower of Firedrops
Samuel Pepys

I'm not just looking for classical singers. The Pepys Motet will represent 21st Century London by featuring all vocal disciplines including gospel, folk and musical theatre alongside opera, pop and early music vocalists.

I'm not sure this has ever happened before in one piece of music. It's a hugely exciting prospect.

Very few composers have attempted to write a 40-part motet. It's a bit like a poet deciding to write an ode where each sentence has 40 separate rhymes!

Samuel Pepys
Samuel Pepys

Thomas Tallis' Spem In Alium is by far the most famous, written, some say as a dare, over 400 years ago. It's an extraordinary composition and with all 40 singers together it sounds like a flight of magical bees humming in a hive.

Samuel Pepys was the ultimate diarist. He observed, he was honest and his language was direct, concise, detailed and witty.

Pepys wrote daily during some of the most event-packed 10 years in British history. He made it his business to witness and then write about the Restoration of Charles II, the Great Fire of London, The Plague, the Dutch invasion of 1667... the list goes on.

He was also incredibly candid when it came to writing about himself. He was almost cringe-makingly open about sexual conquests and the terrible rows he had with his wife.

Home to dinner, where my wife having dressed herself in a silly dress, of a blue petticoat uppermost and a white satin waistcoat and white hood… did, together with my being hungry (which always makes me peevish), make me angry
Samuel Pepys

And it's a diary of firsts. Flicking through the pages, we find the first written reference to drinking tea, the first account of a lucid dream, and this great reader actually invented the bookcase.

No joke! Being a navy man, he was able to commission a carpenter to make a piece of furniture to store his growing collection of books and thus the very first bookcase was born.

I hope I've written a work which represents the busy-ness of the diary. Pepys changes tack relentlessly. A moving account of the Great Fire tearing through the streets of London will be followed by a description of the wonderful meal he was simultaneously eating or how much he hated his Navy Office boss.

I have chosen to set a number of different passages from the diary and the motet will quote them in chronological order, starting in 1660. There will be six movements and the entire work will last about 30 minutes.

The 40 singers will be split into 8 choirs of five, each of whom will sing texts pertaining to different aspects of Pepys' personality.

Opera singers will represent Pepys desire to improve himself
Musical theatre performers will symbolise his guilty pleasures
Gospel vocalists will sing about his family relationships
Pop singers will recall the hustle and bustle of London

I'm also looking for singers with strong links to Magdalene College Cambridge, where Pepys studied, and the Royal Navy which was his day job.

For more information on this unique project look at my blog, which I've written every day since 1st January. It gives information about the piece, where I am concerning the writing, and what Pepys was up to on that date exactly 350 years ago. Click here: pepysmotet.blogspot.com

You can also email me at ben@benjamintill.com

The work will be performed as a double bill with Oranges and Lemons, which was sponsored by BBC London last year.

*In Classical music, motet is a word that is applied to a number of highly varied choral musical compositions.




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