The Story Behind Jon Lord's Durham Concerto

So many rock musicians, including Jon Lord of Deep Purple, have been lured by the siren song of classical composition, perhaps attracted by the challenge and discipline of writing large-scale orchestral works.

When Durham University turned 175 in 2007, the city wanted to celebrate in style. The idea to commission a large-scale musical piece was conceived by the entrepreneur, music lover and author John McLaren, himself a law graduate of the university. 

He wanted to mark the establishment’s birthday with an unusual and high-profile musical event, so turned to Jon Lord, founder of and keyboard player from the rock band Deep Purple and long-time classical fan, to write a piece to crown the celebrations.

It was far from Lord’s first foray into classical composition – in 1969 he penned the rock-classical fusion work Concerto For Group And Orchestra. The Durham Concerto is more classical – although it draws on musical references ranging from jazz, rock and ragtime to Northumbrian folk music and a miners’ lament, too.

Lord was delighted to throw himself into classical composition again.

“Rock and roll snapped my head around and indeed has defined my career, but it never stopped me from loving classical music,” he explained.

 And despite being unfamiliar with Durham – he originally comes from Leicester – he was instantly struck with inspiration on his first visit to the ancient city.

“I was speechless,” he said. “There is something about the space which is awe-inspiring. Walking up through the old town to Palace Green and that astonishing Cathedral, I knew that I had said 'yes' to the right project.”

The premiere of the concerto took place on October 20, 2007 in Durham Cathedral, performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and soloists including Jon Lord himself playing the Hammond organ. 

The music is threaded with local references – it’s cast in six movements that describe dawn breaking over the Cathedral, an afternoon procession, a clash between students and a miners’ band, and a final evening hymn of praise to the city.

As well as becoming a Classic FM chart favourite in such a short time, the Durham Concerto has helped raise the university’s profile, too, having been performed more than 40 times around the world.