Goodbye, Stephen

About the Interviewer: Professor Emma Dillon

Emma Dillon read Music at Christ Church and was a student of Stephen Darlington’s between 1989 and 1992. Emma stayed on for a DPhil and Junior Research Fellowship, going on to teach at the University of Bristol and the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently Professor of Music at King’s College, London. Her research focuses on European Musical Culture from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries.

How did your love of music begin?

I was at a Direct Grant school in Worcester, and like lots of children I learned piano and violin. The particular combination of teachers there made all the difference: Christopher Robinson  was the organist at Worcester Cathedral, and his assistant, Harry Bramma, was also the Director of Music in my school. Together, they were a brilliant team. At sixteen, I also took on a local parish choir in Salwarpe – as early as that, I developed a love for forging something musical out of community.

You were an undergraduate and organ scholar at Christ Church (1971-74). How did the music curriculum in your day compared to today?

The differences were considerable. The course was largely techniques based, and at least five papers were harmony and counterpoint in the exam room. Imagine that! There was an analysis paper and set works (mine were Corelli’s Concerti Grossi, Handel’s Susanna, and Buxtehude’s organ works), keyboard skills and a performance option. There were two history papers (900-1600, 1600-present day), and while there were conventions about what topics would arise, there was much more flexibility. While the scholarship had not developed in the way it has done in the last thirty years, there was something to be said for the fact that it wasn’t too prescriptive.

What were your unexpected musical discoveries?

One was late nineteenth-century orchestral music, and I remember getting fairly obsessed with Strauss. The early music revival was underway, and with Simon Preston [Organist and Tutor, Christ Church, 1970-81] the choir performed lots of Handel. It had such energy and dynamism – that was a discovery for me. Walton [Christ Church, 1918] was another. I loved the vibrancy of his music.

You returned to Christ Church in 1985 after stints at Canterbury and St Albans. What were your ambitions for the choir when you took over?

My main motivation has been to develop, in a monastic way, really, the daily singing within the liturgy at a very high, consistent standard. At Christ Church I felt there was a contribution I could make to this aesthetic form of worship, which today can be regarded with suspicion by the church but embraced widely by the secular community. When people come into a church such as ours and hear wonderful music performed well, they find it uplifting, and it takes them into a dimension which feeds the soul. What that means for people is a lot.

Another desire has been to develop ground-breaking repertoire. There’s lots to be said for having broad taste: that’s very much who I am. I get very excited by music of the Eton Choirbook of which we’ve recorded five discs; and at the other end of the spectrum, by performing and recording New Music, for example Howard Goodall’s Requiem [2008] The wonderful thing about music is that there is always something new to be discovered.

The 51 recordings made during your tenure reflect an extraordinary expansion of the choir’s repertoire. What’s guided your choices, particularly of less familiar repertoire?

Part of that has been connected to my academic interests. For instance, our recent recording of Durante’s Requiem [2016] emerged from a lecture course involving 18th-century Italian liturgical music. I’d not encountered much Durante before, but my teaching prompted me to investigate it and that turned into the recording, and also an editing project [forthcoming with Peters].

Other discoveries have been by chance. In 1990 we went to Prague for a television broadcast to mark the first Christmas celebrated there since the collapse of 40 years of communism. The concert, which involved Plácido Domingo, was unforgettable. There was so much optimism. I’d persuaded Domingo to perform a setting of Janáček’s Ave Maria. While I knew and loved the operas, I’d never come across music of this kind before. So Domingo sang it, and sang it beautifully, and it sowed a seed for a later recording project [2003].

What’s your advice for young composers of choral music?

Don’t make it too difficult! Whether experienced composers or not, they can sometimes allow the ideal to overtake what’s practical and singable.

You have been tutor to 32 years of Christ Church music students. What’s been the most enjoyable part of the teaching process?

I most enjoy seeing the development from point A to point B. I still find myself saying each year to new students that I hope that when they leave that they will have developed their thirst for knowledge and that I will have helped them develop the nuts and bolts of how to approach things independently. What I’m most proud of, or what I get most excited about, is the success of all the people I have had contact with. Although you don’t calculate your contribution, you know that somewhere along the line you had a part to play.

What are your hopes for the future of music in Oxford?

When I first arrived there was a gap – an abyss, even – between scholarly performance and musicology. That changed over the years. Now, there are many opportunities to integrate professional-level music-making with other aspects of the course. I hope that integration will persist. Above all, my hope would be that the music is always referenced, that whatever direction the study of musicology goes in, you come back to the music.

You’re retiring from Christ Church, but not from choral conducting or research. What are your immediate plans?

I’ve been invited to do some teaching at the University of Western Australia (Perth) in the Autumn. Beyond that, I’m deliberately trying not to make too many decisions.