Volume 16 Number 2
A Musician, Heart and Soul
01 April 2003

Not many people launch out on a new career in their late sixties, but composer Margaret Rizza did. She talks to Mary Lean.

Margaret Rizza writes music to lift the heart and still the mind. Her chants, hymns and choral works have made her something of a celebrity - a description she would detest - on the Christian retreat circuit. She describes her work simply as 'a way of sharing my prayer time'.

She welcomes me into her house with promises of tea, enthuses about For A Change and makes me feel as if it is I who am being generous with my time, rather than she with hers. When my mobile rings in the middle of our interview to tell me that my brother is just going into theatre for an operation, it seems quite natural to ask if we can pray for him.

For before everything else, Margaret Rizza is a person of prayer. Although she didn't formally join a church until she was in her thirties, she has always talked to God. As a painfully shy child in Rhyl, North Wales, prayer and music were a 'language' for her, she says. But it was only in her fifties that she had what she describes as her 'conversion of the heart', and only in her late sixties - after 25 years as a professional singer and 17 as a teacher of professional singers - that she began to compose.

She studied in London at the Royal College of Music and the National School of Opera and completed her opera training in Italy. Over the next two decades she sang, as Margaret Lensky, at Glyndebourne, La Scala and Sadler's Wells and broadcast frequently - a career which she modestly describes as 'middle of the road'. She married George Rizza, a music publisher, and decided to stop travelling when their daughter was born. In 1977 she went to Guildhall, London, to teach singing and voice production.

It was in Rome, in 1967, that she felt the pull to become a Christian and join an institutional church. She describes this as 'something irreversible', but 'really only a head conversion'. Sixteen years later, in 1983, she experienced something completely different, 'which turned me upside down and made me question everything I was doing'.

By then she had been working in the highly pressured environment of Guildhall for six years. 'I was happily married, with a wonderful husband and great children, and my work gave me a huge amount of satisfaction. But I realized that there was a part of me that was dying, grieving and anguished.' Baffled, she went out into the garden one evening and prayed. 'I don't know what I was praying for - I knew there was something there much greater than myself that I was longing to come in touch with. I was hanging on by my fingers onto a rock face. I came back indoors, life continued and I didn't think too much about it.'


Three months later, her homeopathic doctor lent her a book by an Indian swami on meditation. After initial hesitation, she read it. 'At the end I was totally undone,' she says. 'The feeling is very difficult to describe: when you put it into words it becomes banal. I had a feeling of total unconditional love. It wasn't a flash in the pan: it went on for weeks. As I went back to the environment of competition and climbing ladders for success, self-importance and recognition, which affects both students and teachers alike, I felt almost schizophrenic because my reality was beginning to change.'

She visited various ashrams, but found it hard to connect culturally. Then one day her husband came home with information about Christian meditation sessions in London, run by a Carmelite monk, Matthew McGrettrick. He introduced her to the teachings of John Main, a Benedictine, who encouraged the use of a mantra as a means of stilling the mind and opening one's heart to the spirit of God within. 'It was like coming home,' she says. 'It gave me a new understanding of scripture and Christian values.'

She continued at Guildhall, but with an increasing sense of unease. In 1990 she went on a six-week silent retreat at St Bueno's Ignatian Spirituality Centre in North Wales, and decided to come out of high-level teaching. 'I don't regret one second of my time at Guildhall: I loved teaching and the experience taught me everything about voices. I owe so much to Guildhall. But I felt I was being unfair to my students, because I couldn't commit myself 100 per cent to the very competitive environment which was - necessarily - the bedrock of professional training.'

She wrestled with whether to leave music entirely and devote herself to working with the marginalized. 'I felt guilty doing music: it felt such an extravagance,' she says. But after 'constant asking', she felt that she was not being called to give up music. She went back to Guildhall to work part-time with music therapists and became involved with Live Music Now, a project set up by Yehudi Menuhin. This took young professional musicians to sing and play in prisons, hospices, inner city schools and old people's homes. 'I can say for all the young people that they received more than they gave,' she comments.

She also volunteered to visit Maidstone Prison - 'I wanted to take in meditation, but they said no, so we did music' - and became more and more involved in helping with retreats, quiet days and accompanying individuals on their spiritual journeys. In 1994 she left Guildhall to concentrate on this work and on training the St Thomas Music Group, which she had founded at her church in 1989.

In 1996, a persistent friend, Pamela Hayes, launched her on a new, and unlooked-for, career. She asked her to write music to help participants in an international conference prepare for prayer. 'I said, “Pamela, I don't compose. I can't. You've got the wrong person.? She said, “Come on, Margaret, I'll phone you in a fortnight's time and see how you're getting on.?'

A frustrating couple of days followed. 'Nothing came: my ego was right up front. On the third day I let go of all that and started out by praying. Little by little the music started bubbling up, and in the end I had six pieces.' After the conference people came up to her to ask where they could get the music. This gave her the confidence to write to Kevin Mayhew, a music publisher, and her first collection, Fountain of Life, was published in 1997.

Three further collections of 'music for contemplative worship' followed: Fire of Love, River of Peace and Light in our Darkness. Her latest CD, Icons 1, is purely instrumental, while the one before that, Silence of the Soul, is a combination of talks and music tracks.

Her melodies - and the words set to them - bubble up in the mind as one goes about one's daily life. Lawrence Freeman, Director of the World Community for Christian Meditation, describes her music as an 'awakening force' which 'reminds us of what awaits us in the depths of our soul'. Gerard W Hughes, author of The God of Surprises, writes, 'In prayer our heart speaks to the heart of God. Margaret Rizza's music lifts the heart to pray beyond words.'


'I think music is a very strong language and it can heal,' says Margaret Rizza. 'It can say to people, “You are precious, you are infinitely lovable.? That's what I want to get through to people. At the prayer days and weekends I do, I come across people who are very hurt, very lonely.' When we meet she is just about to go to Dublin for a weekend, one day of which will focus on health and healing, and another on alcohol and drug dependency.

Composing is still a struggle for her: 'I have no academic background for it, and as I go on I realize the difficulties more.' It is a struggle, too, to put into words the depth of the experience she believes prayer and contemplation have to offer. 'It's something cosmic, universal, much deeper than the mind. It's ungraspable, both transcendant and imminent, totally within us and completely outside us: something eternal, completely unchanging, deep bedrock.

Through prayer, through silence, through stillness we allow ourselves to be remade, transformed. It's so easy not to want to change, but something extraordinary happens when we allow it.'

In her most recent work, Icons 1 - a collection of instrumental chants on previous themes - she has turned away from words altogether, in the hope of touching people for whom institutional religion is foreign territory. 'Words can be a barrier to people who are reaching towards spirituality for the first time,' she says. 'I want to meet people through music which is birthed in prayer, meditation and contemplation.' She also hopes that her music can be appreciated by people of other faiths.

She still wrestles with the feelings of irrelevance which once made her wonder about giving up music. 'It's a huge problem for me: I feel I live a terribly spoilt existence in a very first world environment.' In her introduction to River of Peace, she refers to the 'injustice, unrest and division between peoples of many different countries where so often it is the innocent and poor that suffer.... For me the struggle for peace is not an easy option but one which will cost not less than everything.'

Margaret Rizza's music is published by Kevin Mayhew. It can be ordered from Kevin Mayhew, Buxall, Stowmarket, Suffolk IP14 3BW, UK, or via
Mary Lean

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