If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Geoffrey Burgon

I was sitting in the car in Morrisons car park today, having a quiet listen to Radio Four, as you do, when I heard the news that Geoffrey Burgon had died.

He was best known for his film and television themes, where he was able to turn out music that was both moody and melodic, and highly memorable. The two best known were the theme to Granada's Brideshead Revisited in 1981, and the magical setting of the Nunc Dimittis which played out every episode of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in 1979. But I remember him for a much more obscure work - so obscure that it doesn't even feature in his Wikipedia entry. Even his own website doesn't list it.

In 1984, The National Federation of Music Societies (now known, tediously, as 'Making Music'), with funding from the Arts Council, commissioned a work from Burgon as part of its Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1985. The work was commissioned to be sung at twelve regional performances by choirs made up of local music societies. Its title was Revelations, and the composer combined the words of St John the Divine in the last book of the Bible with the words of four mystical and visionary poems: Yeats' 'The Cold Heaven', Emily Dickinson's 'Behind Me Dips Eternity', 'But Sweet Sister Death' by David Jones, and 'Darest thou, O soul, walk out with me towards the unknown region' by Walt Whitman. It's a stunning and thought-provoking collection.

At the time I was a member of the local Choral Society (top tenor, since you ask), and as we were the crack choir of the area, we were invited to make up part of the regional choir. We rehearsed the work for several weeks and eventually performed it in Lincoln Cathedral. For the performance, it was paired with the Fauré Requiem, which made an odd combination.

Performing any work will let the music get well under your skin, but this one really got to me. It was very modern in style and harmonic structure, which pleased me and irritated the older members of the choir. In places, all four parts were split, giving eight melodic lines, and some of the harmonies made Phil Spector's 'Wall Of Sound' seem like a cheap MP3 player. It was the first piece I ever sang where both major and minor chords were sung simultaneously. It's frighteningly hard to pitch, and it ought to have grated, but the effect was cataclysmic and incredibly moving. I enjoyed rehearsing and performing that work as much as any I have done.

I still have the vocal score, but although I have searched everywhere I have not been able to track down a recording. I would love to hear it again.

Thank you, Geoffrey Burgon, for some lovely music.


  1. I wish I had been in Lincoln Cathedral to hear it.

  2. It would have been worth the trip, WW. The Fauré is a gentle and melodic piece, and the contrast with the dissonance and moodiness of the Burgon was terrific. However, the Burgon was scheduled first, with the Fauré to finish, so it was clear which was the main event. The Cathedral people built massive staging in front of the West Door and turned all the pews round, so we sang from West to East, as it were. I love Lincoln Cathedral anyway, but this was special.

  3. Wonderful artist.


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