Posted by: njs44 | July 19, 2010

David Fanshawe RIP

Not long after Easter our choir began rehearsing for their Summer concert. The work we were to perform was the African Sanctus, David Fanshawe’s piece for choir, percussion and piano, with accompanying recordings the composer had made on his travels in Africa in the late 60s. Rehearsals were not an enjoyable experience. Most of us complained about the difficulty of the work, an increasing number of members dropped out, and the Soprano section, in which I sing, watched its numbers dwindling more alarmingly than the rest, no doubt due to the fact the in places the soprano parts were almost un-singable. We never really managed to learn to sing all the right notes, and a lot of the time it felt as if we were screeching around, high up in the register, unable, at times, to be sure just what note we were singing, and uncertain as to whether our neighbour was singing the same note, or a different, but adjacent one.

We stuck it out, partly because of loyalty to our lovely conductor, Jonathan Rathbone, who was unfailingly cheerful and optimistic throughout, and partly because we had agreed to do it and didn’t want to let the side down. Those of us who carried on were also encouraged by some of the ‘older’ members who could remember a previous performance of the work some years earlier. They assured us that it would be a memorable performance and that the excitement would carry us along. There wasn’t much excitement at rehearsals, however, when week after week the only tuneful part of the evening was the warm-up exercises we do at the start.

On the day of the performance we met David Fanshawe, the composer, who was coming along to supervise our efforts, and to give a talk in the first half about the piece. We had seen him on the BBC documentary, part of which we watched at an early rehearsal, so we knew a little bit about this eccentric man. In reality he was not to disappoint us, and, in spite of his brusque manner with the choir when he complained about us making a noise during the sound checks, we rallied our forces and attempted to do our best for him, and for Jonathan.

At the rehearsal he told us a story about the filming, and recording, of being imprisoned, on suspicion of being a spy, in Cairo. He was very frustrated and at one point started to rattle the bars of his prison while shouting out at the top of his voice ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus!’ The prison guard heard this, and, being a Coptic Christian, recognised the words. As a result of this, David was released the next day, and the guard took him to meet his friend, the Muezzin. This same Muezzin is the voice on the tape in the African Sanctus whose Call to Prayer leads in to one of the more lyrical movements, the Kyrie. When I heard the story that went with the music, I could understand much better what the composer was trying to achieve in this fusion of Islamic and Christian music.

Of course it was all right on the night. Nothing went badly wrong, the audience seemed to enjoy it, and we sang the very lovely Our Father as an encore. To be honest, some of us breathed a sigh of relief that it was over, and that our next concert, the Brahms German Requiem, will be a much more accessible piece. We will look forward to those rehearsals, in the autumn, even if we are singing in German, a language some of us find more challenging than Latin.

And then came the shocking news that David Fanshawe had died, aged 68, of a stroke, 9 days after our performance. I suspect that ours was the last African Sanctus he performed, unless he managed to slip in another one in those 9 days. Although I found the work so difficult, I now feel privileged to have taken part in that performance. Fanshawe has left a legacy of thousands of hours of recordings of indigenous music from around the world. You can read his Obituary in the Guardian here

May he rest in peace.


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