Ronald Corp

Conductor & Composer

Ronald Corp at 60: A Life in Music

Part 2

Corp family values apparently included dogged determination. The quality certainly influenced young Ron’s quest to learn about music and has propelled his adult journey as performer and composer. The lessons of childhood, he reflects, included potent examples of setbacks conquered and of education’s spiritual rewards. “There were very few books in our house, so I was not surrounded by great literature or learned volumes. During adolescence, I experienced a great hunger for learning. Perhaps it was then that I realised the need to grab whatever knowledge I could and simply keep on going.”

Singing as sometimes the only tenor in a church choir supplied Corp with impressive sight-reading skills, introduced him to the Anglican liturgy, opened his heart to the Christian faith and set stable foundations for his eventual ordination. The presence and proximity of Wells Cathedral also stimulated his attraction to all things ecclesiastical. “I was born in No.1 Cathedral Green in Wells, a few steps inside Penniless Porch,” he recalls. “We lived in a flat at the top of the building where I remember hearing the cathedral bells and seeing the clergy walking across the green as a tiny boy.” Although the 18-year-old Corp considered training for holy orders, music supplied the stronger calling. “It sounds pious, but I’ve always considered music to be my ministry,” he observes. “I have certainly approached it that way, with zeal in wanting to share music with others.”

Religion remained essentially a private matter until the late 1990s when Corp was asked to consider training for the priesthood. “I replied that I had to earn a living and that music allowed me to do that!” The Church of England, however, offered a best-of-both-worlds alternative, through which individuals received support to train for ordination while continuing in paid employment. “I didn’t tell a soul that I was training to be ordained. I used to arrive with my luggage direct from weekend courses at Salisbury to take Sunday afternoon rehearsals with the New London Children’s Choir hoping that nobody would ask where I’d been! I had to know that this was the right thing for me before telling people what I was doing.”

Today, Ronald Corp neatly dovetails diary commitments as musician and composer with duties as assistant priest at the central London Church of St. Alban the Martyr. “Although I believe that music is my ministry, I never allow it to dominate when I’m working with musicians. When I perform one of Bach’s Passions, I experience different feelings to those I have when I’m performing a Martinů symphony. But I’m certainly not there to proselytise in the concert hall or at rehearsals.”

For his sixtieth birthday concert with Highgate Choral Society, which takes place at the Royal Festival Hall on 9 July, Corp will conduct the world premiere of his The Wayfarer, a homage to Gustav Mahler for sixteen vocal soloists and orchestra.  Dhammapada, meanwhile, is set to receive its first performance on 6 February at Village Underground, a multicultural, multi-arts venue in Shoreditch. How does the composer respond to those who question why a Christian minister was drawn to set a fundamental Buddhist text? The work, he says, was created to open dialogue among faiths. “It’s about inviting people to open their ears and minds to spirituality. These words, thought to be by the Buddha himself, tell us essential truths, which stand against cynical and untrusting ways of seeing the world and our place in it.” Dhammapada contemplates the corrupting force of material things and the transience of wealth, beauty and power.

In conclusion Corp suggests that the art of making music belongs to a great collective tradition, through which individual performers and listeners are drawn together. “I know that classical music can be inclusive, that it can touch and move people of all beliefs and none, and celebrate feelings that unite rather than divide.” The musician points to the range of contemporary work that he has introduced to audiences in company with the New London Children’s Choir, which includes everything from scores by Luciano Berio and Peter Maxwell Davies to Diana Burrell and Gabriel Jackson. Likewise, the breadth of his New London Orchestra programming speaks of inclusion and openness to the new and the neglected. “I would love to present a Classic FM show and introduce a massive audience to all those great and fascinating pieces that struggled to compete with the ideology of the avant-garde. And, of course, I want to share my compositions with the greatest number of people.”

© Andrew Stewart, January, 2011

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