Arriving At A New Version Of 'The Seven Heavens' Is A Musical Journey

Nov 3, 2016

Cor Cantiamo, NIU’s professional choir in residence, presents the world premiere Thursday night of a chamber version of “The Seven Heavens” by Grammy-nominated British composer James Whitbourn.

It depicts the life of author, scholar and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis in a journey through the planets as they were conceived of in the Middle Ages. Getting the work to the stage was a journey in itself.

NIU choral director Eric Johnson, founder and artistic director of Cor Cantiamo, says “The Seven Heavens” is the fruit of a long relationship with Whitbourn.

Credit Cor Cantiamo

“The impetus was a collaboration that I’ve had with James going on for four, almost five years now, where I’ve been performing his music and corresponded," Johnson says. "I’ve just really grown to love his writing style, his voice, the energy that he creates in the music. And so we started talking about this commissioning idea.”

Whitbourn says he had been thinking about something along the lines of “The Seven Heavens” already, and of Lewis -- who, like Whitbourn does now, taught at Oxford. With this commission, everything came together. And Whitbourn says it’s appropriate that the premiere of his work takes place in Illinois, just 40 miles or so from Wheaton College, a major center for Lewis studies.

Whitbourn says he spent a lot of time thinking about Lewis’s style before composing a single note.

“One of the things about Lewis that makes him so enduringly attractive and popular is that he likes to write in layers," Whitbourn said. "If you take the Narnia Chronicles, for example, you can just read them as beautiful children’s stories; but, if you want, there are different layers there to be understood.”

Whitbourn says he tries to do the same. So even if you don’t read the program notes or know anything about Lewis or the Middle Ages, he says you can enjoy the music for its own sake.

Whitbourn originally wrote “The Seven Heavens” for chorus and full orchestra. The concert will premiere a chamber version featuring just seven musicians – piano, winds and strings  -- accompanying the choir.  But Whitbourn says people shouldn’t think of it as a ‘reduction'.”

“I don’t think of it as a paperback version of a hardback book -- not at all," he says. "It’s actually a different piece, and each version has its merits -- and will, I hope, have its life.”

James Whitbourn, left, and Eric Johnson
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

There can be a lot of challenges in bringing a work to performance. But Eric Johnson says he’s never thought of it that way.

“Not challenge, but joy. It’s one of the funnest things,” he says, "and things I just love the most, especially commissioning projects, is getting a new piece of music that’s never been heard and digging into it in every possible way to find all of the different ways we can experience and expand and interact with the score.”

Johnson says he and Whitbourn have spent around two and a half years on the piece -- discussing, visiting Lewis’s haunts in England, and so forth. But even now, he says, it’s never completely done. 

“I had recorded our rehearsal on Sunday," Johnson said. "It was the first rehearsal with the choir and the instrumentalists together, and James and I were listening together, and like, ‘but this could be different here and maybe that should be a bassoon instead of a violin or a little more of a diminuendo, a little more shape here’.”

Johnson says it makes for a very collaborative and exciting process.

Whitbourn agrees.  He says he always tries to become familiar with the sound of whatever individual or group he’s writing for and uses that when he’s composing.  So are there usually no big surprises -- and yet:

“Sometimes an artist will bring something that you haven’t quite thought of yourself, or there’s something in a particular player’s way that just inspires you in a different way,” he says. "And just having that little bit of time together to work on things and think through things just before you finally, sort of, send print, is a wonderful thing to be able to do.”

Whitbourn and Johnson say an audience doesn’t need to be aware of any of that to enjoy the performance. But, they say, like Lewis’s writings, there’s always more for those who choose to look deeper. 

The concert begins at 8 o’clock in Boutell Memorial Concert Hall.  Whitbourne and Johnson will give a pre-concert lecture on “The Seven Heavens” at 7 p.m.