'Don't study music – study languages instead' says conductor Stephen Layton

27 November 2015, 21:30 | Updated: 30 January 2016, 10:47

We spoke to the leading choral conductor about the advice he wishes he'd been given at the start of his career and why J.S. Bach is a god among composers.

What’s your earliest musical memory?

Going to a performance of Handel’s Messiah when I was probably about two, in Sheffield City Hall, with the Hallé Orchestra. My dad put me on my chair for the Hallelujah Chorus – I remember being very excited. I can visualise the scene of seeing the stage and hearing the sound around me and finding it all a bit fun that we stood up at that point.

Why did you decide to become a choral conductor?

The reason, I think, it happened for me was that because I became a cathedral choirboy. That was the turning point for me. I had a voice and my parents were told that I could sing by various people. I lived in Derbyshire and I went away to Winchester Cathedral to be a choirboy when I was nine and from that moment on it was clear to me that the only thing that I wanted to do in life was to be a musician.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone trying to become a conductor?

If you’re a teenager now or slightly younger, just join a choir as soon as you can because it’s a good way to get into choral music, but also it’s a fantastic social opportunity, an opportunity to work with other people as a team. You make friends, you learn when to sing softly, when to take a breath – teamwork skills. That whole thing of how you work with other people you learn very well in a choir, because in a choir the sum of the parts are greater than the individual.

And what about music students or recent graduates – what advice would you give aspiring conductors?

It’s a tough profession, and there’s not room for many conductors. There’s more room for instrumentalists and singers than conductors. I think most people who do end up being conductors, it’s almost like a fated destiny that they couldn’t do anything else. But in the main, unless you’re really sure that’s what you want to do, there are lots of other exciting jobs that one can do other than conducting.

What one thing do you wish someone had told you when you were training?

It would probably be to study modern languages – don’t study music in terms of a degree. Be a conductor and be a musician, but don’t read music as a subject. Don’t make that your complete thing, do something else. I read music – which I thoroughly enjoyed – but if somebody got me doing German and Italian and speaking those fluently as a student that would have been fantastically helpful as a musician.

Name one of your musical idols.

There’s only one person – and it’s a very, very obvious answer. There has been one musician who has walked this earth who transcends everything, and everybody in this life, and that’s J.S. Bach. For me, he is the ultimate god. He is a saint, he was put on this earth to do something quite extraordinary, and for me there’s nobody else, including any composer, who’s done anything quite like him.

 Which of your recordings are you most proud of?

It would be Cloudburst by Eric Whitacre, which I recorded in about 2005, and I’m proud of that because I think the sound-world opened people’s ears to new possibilities. And the by-product of all that recording was that this music became the most popular choral music of the last 50 years. That recording put it on the map and then everybody started doing it.

Which composer – whether from the past or alive today – would you most like to go for a pint with and why?

I would like to go and talk to J.S. Bach. The thing that really intrigues me is to talk about the driving force behind him, and what made him write this music. Whether one is a believer in the Christian faith or not, it’s clear that he did believe in something in order to be able to write this music. It’s so imbued with scriptural references and, we think, hidden codes in some places.

I would just love to sit down with him and ask him the questions: “Did you know you were doing this?”, “why did you do this?” and “what was it all for?” I would be interested to hear, of course, how he thought his music should be performed. But I think there are things of equal interest about him as a person, which if one were just allowed to talk about those things with him, would inform you about the way to perform his music.

Stephen Layton is the director of the Christmas Festival at St John's Smith Square, 11th-23th December, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.