Peter Johnstone and his NHS diaries

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Singing member, Peter Johnstone, talks about his experience with COVID-19 in the ICU last March 2020 and how his diaries provided the inspiration behind a new choral commission ‘Vision of a Garden‘, by Richard Blackford.

15 October 2020 was a very special day for me. On that day, just over two months after I left hospital, I was invited back for a `follow-up clinic’ involving various tests and interviews with doctors and nurses who had been involved in my care (and who were, I believe, genuinely surprised by how much progress I had made). What I hadn’t expected, that day, was to be given two little booklets called `ICU Diaries‘, containing messages of support written by the nurses who had looked after me in the intensive care unit. Without exception, these are the most heart-warming documents I’ve ever read (just as the `After Visit Summary’ which I was given on the day of my discharge, and which lists with clinical precision all the things that I’d been treated for, is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read).

Two weeks later, David Hill came over to Cambridge for lunch, and I showed him the diaries. I thought nothing more of that until February, when he emailed me with the suggestion that my experiences, and the text of the Diaries, might make the basis of a libretto for the piece he was planning to commission from Richard Blackford. For myself, I’d never have thought of such an idea, but I soon realised that it struck a chord with me: I feel strongly that my survival places an obligation on me to tell the story of what I went through, and telling it in music is a natural way for me to do that.

Richard Blackford and Vision of a Garden

Composer and Trustee of The Bach Choir, Richard Blackford talks about how this extraordinary piece came about, and his approach to composing it. The Choir have so enjoyed learning the piece in our first rehearsals back. Vision of a Garden will premiere on Sunday 24 October in ‘Faure’s Requiem: Music for Reflection and Hope’ at Royal Festival Hall.

I was immediately drawn to his idea of composing a work to be written during the Covid-19 pandemic about one man’s direct and intense experience of it, and the care he received from the nursing staff. Peter was very patient and generous in allowing me to select entries that I felt could provide a satisfying musical structure, entries which could encompass the different stages of his experience, from delirium, crisis, lyrical reflection, to recovery and gratitude to his nurses. The text itself is unsentimental and factual, so I was anxious to avoid writing music that was itself too sentimental. In fact, just the opposite is the case: some of the music is quite angry at times, reflecting Peter’s desperate situation, his fight for life, and the efforts of the medics to save him. But it is still, I hope, very expressive.

The work is framed by gently overlapping choral entries in which the nurses introduce themselves, set against a pulsating, almost mechanical string accompaniment that evokes the sounds of hospital ward machines. The first choral outburst, You are positive with the Covid-19 virus is thematically linked to the later chorus where someone died from the Covid-19 virus after the dream garden sequence. A male nurse describes how he sung along to a recording of Handel’s Messiah which was played to the delirious Peter. This quote, with its harmonically blurred cadence, leads to the first garden dream music. A lyrical solo viola weaves through the baritone’s vocal line. Later, in the real visit to the garden, the viola’s material is taken up and transformed by a solo violin. These musical mirrors help to unify the work and help prepare for the choral climax that starts, I hope you feel better soon.” In the final section, in which the baritone articulates the overwhelming feeling of love Peter felt for his nurses, their soft overlapping voices return, as if introducing themselves once more to the next patient in the ICU.

Vision of a Garden will premiere on Sunday 24 October in ‘Faure’s Requiem: Music for Reflection and Hope‘ at Royal Festival Hall. You can secure your tickets here. 20% discount for NHS Staff via bluelightcard.co.uk