The World How Wide
Produced during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 (September to December), The World How Wide is a choral reimagining of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, commissioned by Sage Gateshead for the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia, arranged and conducted by Timothy Burke. Parts were recorded individually at home, by singers in lockdown isolation, before being pieced together for the final film.
Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia is defined by its partnership with the orchestra, so it seemed natural and interesting – in this time where they couldn’t perform together – to look to orchestral repertoire with strong vocal associations for this project. Faced with lockdown restrictions, we took the opportunity of musicians turning to the online sphere, channelling creativity and exploring the possibilities presented by digital media – both musically and visually. The result was a product that would be less easily achieved offline, as recordings made by singers on their phones could be multitracked several times to create a huge symphonic texture of voices.
As Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia (and Tallis’ theme) is based on the hymn Why fum’th in sight, we were drawn to the opportunity to reintroduce the text in this choral arrangement. Vaughan Williams’ style of writing, with the central melody weaving between parts, made the Fantasia the perfect piece for this project. Fitting the words to the contrapuntal lines highlighted, with fresh clarity, Vaughan Williams’ fragmentation and development process. Individual singers recording these parts to be pieces together allowed us to recreate the towering chord structures of Vaughan Williams’ original, and engaged singers in a creative way that focused on excellence and repertoire exploration.
135 singers from Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia, Quay Voices, and The World How Wide Community Choir, rehearsed and recorded their parts individually at home during lockdown, as well as meeting online to hone details of the performance. Vaughan Williams wrote for and supported amateur and student performance and believed strongly in doing all he could to make music as widely available as possible, so we were delighted to involve so many musicians in The World How Wide. Recording at home did naturally pose some challenges, which you can discover below.
Joining the project team were a string quartet from Royal Northern Sinfonia who recorded the quartet parts from Vaughan Williams’ original, Floating Earth who edited together all 650 individual recordings, and Novak – the creative studio commissioned to create the accompanying film. The film pairs Vaughan Williams’ music with our majestic landscape. Just as the musical history of the piece is mapped – our 21st century arrangement, Vaughan Williams’ 1910 original, Tallis’ 16th century hymn based on an ancient psalm – so too is the history of our beloved landscape, with millennial architecture at Sage Gateshead, Victorian sea defences, medieval castles, Hadrian’s wall, and the ancient landscape and sea itself.
We documented the creative process throughout, and hope you’ll enjoy reading more below.
The premiere of The World How Wide took place on Friday 11 December 2020, preceded by a pre-recorded pre-concert talk. The film has since been viewed over 310k times across the world.
The World How WIde at Durham Cathedral
On 29 September 2022, The Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia and Director Timothy Burke performed their musical work live for the first time at Durham Cathedral.
They shared their award-winning choral arrangement of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis with the Durham University Choral Society, the World How Wide Community Choir and a double string quartet from Durham University Orchestral Society.
Tom, President of Durham University Choral Society:
‘It’s so exciting to give everyone this opportunity to work with the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia and to be in this amazing space singing this amazing work the way it was originally intended.”
Take a peek at our gallery below.
The Creation Process
Introduction from Tim Burke
Royal Northern Sinfonia string quartet
Rehearsing and recording at Sage Gateshead, Thursday 5 November
In November a string quartet from Royal Northern Sinfonia (Tristan, Gaelle-Anne, Mike and Dan) got together at Sage Gateshead to rehearse and record their parts for our digital commission.
About the project, Tristan said:
“It’s fantastic to be a part of this pioneering project. It feels as if we’re going to finish up with a really unique film presenting this beautiful piece of music in a completely innovative way. It’s been wonderful to be able to collaborate with Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia, particularly at such a challenging time for all of us.
“The solo parts are lovely to play with such sweeping sustained and expressive phrases and the sound world is rewardingly immersive and resonant. We have played large sections to click track and synthesised sounds which will be lined up with the chorus recordings, but crucially, more intimate sections have been free, so it really feels as if we have found a way to preserve that sense of creativity and spontaneity in the performance.”
Project Partner - NOVAK
We were delighted to work with North East creative studio NOVAK to produce a specially commissioned film to accompany our choral arrangement of the Fantasia.
While our Chorus were busily recording their parts at home, NOVAK were working across Northumberland to capture footage of the majestic and ever-changing landscape that pairs so beautifully with Vaughan Williams’ music.
Renowned for their work on Lumiere, Leeds Light Night, and Singapore Night Festival, NOVAK specialise in video design and immersive experience, and we were thrilled they could create the visual element of The World How Wide.
Here’s a photograph of them filming in Northumberland. You can find out more about them here.
Project Partner - Floating Earth
Floating Earth is a multi-award winning recording and production company based in West London. They edited together the individual recordings from our singers (all 650 of them!) into the final product you have heard.
Mike at Floating Earth put together a fantastic film (right) detailing the sound editing process for this project.
They have previously worked with the BBC, Channel 4, Gramophone and Universal, and on projects such as The Brit Awards, Children in Need, and Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir.
Find out more about Floating Earth here.
Joanna's Video Diary
Joanna Finlay is a second soprano in Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia. She recorded short video diaries to document the creation process. Here are her videos from Phase 1, Phase 3, and Phase 4 of the project.
Online Support Sessions
Throughout lockdown, Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia met together online to talk through each stage of the project. They worked with Director Timothy Burke to hone the details of their performance before recording their parts individually. It was a great way to keep in touch whilst doing ‘choir at home’.
Chorus of RNS Video Diaries
Throughout lockdown, as well as recording their parts for The World How Wide, we asked Chorus of RNS to produce short video diaries. These videos gave us an insight into what the project was like for them: the challenges they faced, what they enjoyed, and what being part of something like this meant to them.
We’ve uploaded a selection of them here. We particularly love what Graeme (left) had to say: “I usually sing Bass 1, but for this project I’ve also recorded parts for Bass 4, 5, and later today I’ll be recording a track for Bass 7. Other sections of the choir are doing the same, and with so many parts across all the different voices of the choir, I think the soundscape promises to be something rather special. Personally I think that only Vaughan Williams could have created the source material for a project like this.”
It was, at times, daunting for the choir to record their own voices in their own homes – perhaps more so than performing to a full audience – particularly as they did not know how the final product was going to sound.
We’re delighted that Quay Voices, Sage Gateshead’s mixed voice youth choir, joined with Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia to record vocal parts for The World How Wide.
Here’s what Clare, one of our young singers, had to say during the process:
Hi! My name’s Clare, I’m part of Quay Voices, and we are joining Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia for a special choral arrangement of Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams.
I’m about to record my final phase – phase 5. We’re all recording our parts remotely at home, and they’re all going to get put together, and I’m really really looking forward to seeing the results – and I hope you are too!
Thank you so much!
Katie sings Soprano in Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia and she is the soloist in The World How Wide. She chatted to us about her experience of the project, working on the solo, and her time in the Chorus.
How did you get started with singing?
I’ve been singing since I was 6. I joined a children’s choir in the High Peak (Kinder Children’s Choirs of the High Peak) which didn’t audition any of the children. We learned songs by ear, and I loved it! I sang in the choir from the age of 6 to 18.
How does it feel to have the solo line?
Great – I’m very grateful to have it, the music is lovely to sing!
Have you sung solos before?
I’ve sang lots of solos before, in choirs and for local choral societies, but none where I’ve felt so out of practice! Lockdown has been hard, and I’ve really missed rehearsals for Sinfonia, as they keep me singing weekly.
How have you prepared the part?
To prepare for the part, I’ve used the helpful click track and Youtube video that Tim prepared. The violin part has been recorded and that’s on there too, which has allowed me to tune with that beautiful line!
How long have you been in the Chorus?
I’ve been in the chorus for 15 years, since I was a bright-eyed fresher who moved up to Newcastle to study maths at university.
What are your favourite memories of the Chorus?
I have lots of favourite memories! Socially, I have met friends in the chorus who I count as the best. Going to Hong Kong on tour was pretty epic.
Music wise, there’s so many, especially as I’d never heard Handel before I joined the Chorus! I’ve got vivid memories, from my first concert with them of Brahms’ Requiem (I couldn’t believe the score was so thick) to being the choir in Home Alone, to singing on my own in my dining room into my phone with this World How Wide project.
The World How Wide Community Chorus
We’re thrilled that singers from 10 local choirs joined Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia to form the World How Wide Community Chorus.
Singers from the following groups have all recorded videos and were included in the final film. Thank you all!
- Streetwise Opera
- Low Fell Community Choir
- Low Fell Singers
- Prudhoe Community Choir
- Felling Male Voice Choir
- Inspiration Choir
- Ryton Choral Society
- Prudhoe Gleemen Male Voice Choir
- Collective Voices
- Equal Arts Gateshead Care Home Choir
Vaughan Williams believed strongly in the importance of choral singing in communities, so we are thrilled to have involved so many voices in this project.
Our Project Statistics
Who was Ralph Vaughan Williams?
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) – pronounced ‘Rafe’ at his regular insistence – was quite an extraordinary man. He was the Great-Nephew of Charles Darwin, was described by his wife as a ‘cheerful agnostic’, refused a knighthood, and he had a cat named Zebedee (though the one pictured is called Foxy).
But it’s his musical life we are most interested in, in relation to The World How Wide. As a composer, Vaughan Williams was influenced by folk and Tudor music, and moved away from the established Germanic style of his time. As a conductor, he had an extreme insistence on perfection, even pausing performances to tell the musicians they could do better.
However, far from being an elitist, he believed music should be accessible for all and often wrote pieces for amateurs and students – which is why we are thrilled to be working with so many community choirs for this project. It is documented that if local musicians could not read music, he would go through pieces page by page, and he made a point of visiting amateur choirs to support their rehearsals.
He believed music was “the only means of artistic expression which is natural to everybody. Music is above all things the art of the common man…the art of the humble…Music cannot be treated like cigars or wine, as a mere commodity. It has its spiritual value as well. It shares in preserving the identity of soul of the individual and of the nation.”
Vaughan Williams composed the Fantasia in 1910 for the esteemed Three Choirs Festival – and he conducted the premiere. The score specifies orchestras should be placed apart from each other to emphasise echoes – perfect for individual lockdown recordings! Largely acclaimed by audience and critics alike, of the piece Vaughan Williams said “I feel that I am perhaps beginning to emerge from the fogs at last” and, when writing to the South Shields Orchestral Union, “This, I think is the best thing I have done.”
Journal Culture Awards 2021
We were honoured and thrilled to be awarded the Arts Council Award at the 2021 Journal Culture Awards, hosted at Durham Cathedral, for The World How Wide.
Congratulations to all other winners and nominees too. It was a wonderful evening and fantastic to be surrounded by, and celebrate the work of, so many North East organisations that have worked tirelessly over the past 18 months to support, engage, and encourage our region’s performers and audience.
We are also delighted to have been shortlisted for a Royal Philharmonic Society award. Winners will be revealed in November. Watch this space!
Thank you for watching The World How Wide and for reading about the creation process. We hope you have enjoyed the performance and finding out a little more about the work behind the scenes.
If you’re yet to watch the performance or the pre-concert talk, please do head back to the top of this page to enjoy them. Both films will remain online to watch on demand, for free.
If you’re a singer interested in joining Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia, please email chorusRNS@sagegateshead.com for more information – we would love to hear from you. You can find out more about our Chorus on their webpage here.
Please do share The World How Wide on social media and let us know your thoughts! #WorldHowWide