Yodit Tekle was born in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, on 29 December 1977, and came to the United Kingdom as a refugee from the harsh internal policies of her native country. We were introduced by a mutual friend at a concert on 13 April 2008, and she stopped the breath in my throat – I hope you know the feeling when you first see someone and know that’s where you have to be – and, but for a hiatus of a few months, we spent the rest of her short life together. In the autumn of 2014 Yodit was diagnosed with stomach cancer. That kind of news throws everything into perspective and so the first thing I said to her when I went to see her in hospital was: ‘I hadn’t realised I loved you so much’. Quick as a flash, she answered: ‘So where’s the ring?’ I countered: ‘But what happens if we get married and you survive?’ We both laughed loudly – because neither of us thought for a minute that she really might die. Even so, on the bus home that evening I didn’t require much reflection to understand what needed to be done, and as soon as I got in, I went online and bought a ring. We duly got engaged on Christmas Day, when Yodit was so full of life and happiness that even now, years later, it doesn’t seem possible that she had less than five months to live.1
This project of 100+ new pieces for string orchestra had its origins in a Skype conversation with the composer Steve Elcock just after that first shocking diagnosis. Steve said that he was very sorry to hear the news and that he didn’t suppose that there was anything he could do to help but, of course, to let him know if there was. Off the top of my head, I said, yes, there was: could he write Yodit some music to bring her some comfort in her illness. I expected perhaps some jolly little tune to cheer her up; instead, to my surprise and delight, the very next day Steve sent the score of his deeply felt, deeply moving Song without Words for Yodit (we later streamlined the title as Song for Yodit)2, along with an electronic realisation so that she could hear it. I immediately e-mailed the two files to her in hospital. She texted me back her reaction, which began: ‘Wow Wow!’; she described it as ‘healing music’.
In spite of a brief window of hope, it wasn’t long before chemotherapy was doing as much harm as good. Over the course of the spring Yodit slowly lost strength and she died on 24 April 2015, aged only 37, and leaving our five-year-old son, Alex. The courage she displayed in her illness left me open-mouthed with admiration – it was a side to her character I had barely glimpsed before then. Only twice did I see her give in to despair, when tests confirmed there was no hope – and even then her sole concern was for Alex: ‘But I have a child!’ Not once did I hear her ask ‘Why me?’ By the same token, she refused to let us show any weakness in her presence: the slightest sign of tears brought a frown and a rebuke. We understood, of course – if you wake from morphine-induced sleep to such a terrible reality, the last thing you need to see is a wall of weeping faces – but it was bloody difficult all the same. And it was made the more difficult by Yodit’s determination that, aided by the God she so believed in, she would survive. That meant that we could not discuss with her the possibility that she might die: it would have been betraying her astonishing resolve. And so, in front of her, at least, we had to maintain the proverbial stiff upper lip and talk as if she would indeed recover.
Because I therefore had to put an optimistic spin on the awful reality of our future, we naturally discussed its more appealing possibilities – like taking a real holiday together, all three of us, since we had never spent more than a few days away as a family. And then, given the pleasure that Steve Elcock’s piece had brought her, an idea came into my head: given that Yodit and I had met at a concert at Cadogan Hall (just off Sloane Square in central London), I would ask some other composer friends to write companion pieces to Steve’s Song for Yodit and put on a concert there – on 29 December, her birthday. I meant it, too, and told her about it. A few years earlier I had forgotten her birthday – it just went completely out of my mind. Of course, I was horrified when I did remember, a few days afterwards, and apologised with a forest of roses. Yodit said it was OK, it didn’t matter, but she must have been hurt. Now I reminded her of that and told her I was going to overcompensate and put on a concert in her honour: it would consist entirely of music written specially for her and last for an hour or so, so that family and friends could then convene downstairs for a birthday party – ‘and all you have to do is be there’. She gave me a you’re-bonkers kind of grin, but you could tell that she really tickled by the idea, even though she was already too weak to discuss it in any detail. In my mind, it would also have been an upbeat, optimistic opportunity for her family, scattered around the world, to come together and say goodbye to her. That’s when I started writing to my composer friends, one after the other, to ask if they would consider writing a piece – for the concert, and so I imposed, rather imperiously, an October deadline.3 I had expected most people to say: ‘Sorry, I’m too busy – I have a commission from Aldborough, Tanglewood, wherever, and so can’t make your deadline’. Instead, almost no one answered along those lines; the responses were overwhelmingly supportive of the idea. In parallel, it was becoming increasingly obvious that Yodit was not going to live much longer and so this concert was going to have to be a memorial event – but even before she died, I already had too many pieces for it.
That’s why and when it became a recording project – but it didn’t stop there. Although I decided right at the start that I would not ask any composer with whom I didn’t already have a personal connection, I kept thinking of friends whom I really should ask. And I honestly wasn’t aware that I knew so many composers. I suppose that, after some four decades’ activity in classical music, first as a writer (often reviewing performances and recordings of new music), then as a publisher of books on music, as Toccata Press, and, since 2005, as Toccata Classics, I should have realised there might be quite a few – but you don’t sit down and add up the number of economists or doctors that you know, do you? And with the memorial concert no longer an issue (it turned out that the Cadogan Hall was already booked on 29 December, in any case), there was no restriction on numbers. Now, as soon as I thought: ‘Oh, yes, I must ask so-and-so’, off would go an e-mail – and in came one acceptance after another; I think I had only four refusals, and almost all because of the pressure of existing deadlines (one composer had just broken his wrist, his wife explained, and he wasn’t going to be writing anything for anyone anytime soon). And because the series was growing incrementally, one name at a time, I didn’t realise how big the whole thing was getting.
For a few months, the project had the title ‘Music for Yodit’, because that’s exactly what it is, but it soon became clear that Yodit was too exotic a name – although it is only the equivalent of Judith (and Yodit was calling herself ‘Judy’ when we first met). ‘Music for Helen’ or ‘Music for Miranda’ would have been clearer, but no one understood that Yodit wasn’t a village in Uganda or a Japanese transcendental technique, and so the public face of the undertaking became the more universal ‘Music for My Love’, in the hope of getting the message to the widest audience – but in my mind, of course, it’s still ‘Music for Yodit’.
The basic aim, of course, is that Yodit should be remembered in music: she was pleased by the idea that some more pieces might be written for her in succession to Steve Elcock’s Song for Yodit – although she would have been embarrassed (and, I hope, touched) by the size the project has now reached.
It wasn’t until I listened to Chi-Chi Nwanoku on Desert Island Discs on 16 February 2018 that another important aspect of ‘Music for My Love’ struck me. Chi-Chi is the Nigerian-Irish bassist who founded Chineke!, a London-based orchestra that exists specifically to give a platform to gifted black and minority-ethnic musicians, and on Desert Island Discs she discussed her work in bringing Chineke! to life. All of a sudden, it struck me that not only had all these ‘Yodit’ pieces been written for a civilian, a non-musician: they had been composed for a black African woman. I had supposed that this project was probably unique in the history of music; in view of the identity of its central figure, it almost certainly is, and I hope that, like Chineke!, it can do something to expand the audience for new classical music beyond the boundaries that convention has set.
My thoughts soon turned, too, to what further good the project might do. This first release suggests that recording all 100+ pieces will require around £200,000. If we can raise that amount in donations, anything the project earns can be directed elsewhere. l have five targets in mind, where any revenue will go in equal measure. Financial and practical help from Macmillan Cancer Support made Yodit’s last months easier: they paid for a bed in a private ward in Charing Cross Hospital and provided a special pressure-sensitive bed at home to help her rest. Winston’s Wish is a charity that supports bereaved children (every year, apparently, over 35,000 children in the UK lose a parent – more than 100 a day), and they gave me invaluable advice in preparing Alex for his mother’s death. With her diagnosis, Yodit and I naturally took a fierce interest in the state of cancer research, and Cancer Research UK is battling to find a remedy for this awful illness; some of any extra money must go to them. Fourth, I have set up a trust fund for Alex – and Yodit would have insisted that any project in her name must bring him some benefit. Lastly, given the open-ended nature of this project, Toccata Classics needs to be able to look after later commissions in the series.
I must thank all the composers who have found the time and inspiration to allow this venture to begin. It will be many years before it is concluded, but if in that time it enriches your life just a tiny bit as much as Yodit enriched mine, you will understand why I should want to commemorate such a wonderful woman. In life she gave me more than I can measure; in
Martin Anderson founded Toccata Classics and the publishing house Toccata Press after a degree from St Andrews University in
- Some of the composers’ commentaries refer to Yodit as my fiancée and others describe her as my wife, and so a word of explanation may be required. Formally, we were indeed only engaged, but one day in late March 2015 (I think), as I was growing worried at the speed of her deterioration, I said to Yodit: ‘We ought to get married, you know’. She answered calmly: ‘We already are married’. That was good enough for me, and so I think of her as my wife. I did try to organise a ceremony in the chapel of Charing Cross Hospital but she was already too weak, and we had to settle for a blessing on our union from Yodit’s family pastor at St Paul’s, Hammersmith, delivered at the side of her hospital bed; I have been an atheist since I was a lad, but that semi-formal solemnisation meant much to me.
- Recorded by the Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paul Mann on Volume One of this series, Toccata Classics TOCC 0333.
- To begin with, the idea of a birthday concert wasn’t so outlandish: halfway through Yodit’s course of chemotherapy, her oncologists told us that the results were so encouraging that she might have another year of life – but the reprieve turned out to be far shorter than that prognosis, which was itself shocking enough. In the event, her cancer turned out to be unusually aggressive.