GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT. Today, we're exploring the power of a promise, the limits of a vow. Do people mean what they say? Should they? For our next story, we're cashing in all of our frequent flyer miles in order to head off to London. SNAP favorite, Johnathan Grubert, has the story.
JOHNATHAN GRUBERT, BYLINE: Stuart Sharp and his wife Jo ran a pub in the English countryside where he lived with his mom and daughter. On the eve of the birth of his first son, Stuart and his wife already had a name for the baby picked out - Ben. But things went badly during Ben's delivery.
STUART SHARP: And when we got to the hospital, she was in labor and the doctor was there. It was - in those days, it was a very cold, frugal room. And she was lying on a slab like a lamb to the slaughter. It was a very strange environment. And the doctor was there, and suddenly, he rushed past me out of the room, called the ambulance for the big center in Leicester. Eventually, we managed to get her to the hospital in Leicester. And we didn't know at that point that Ben was already dead. Jo...
GRUBERT: Inside of her?
SHARP: Yeah. She'd had a uterus rupture. When they did deliver Ben, they actually caused so much damage to her she nearly died as well. So my wife was nearly dead, Ben was dead. It was devastating.
GRUBERT: Wow. What'd you do?
SHARP: I didn't know what to do.
GRUBERT: Stuart buried Ben in a shoebox-sized grave. The night of the funeral, he went to bed and had a dream, a dream that would change his life.
SHARP: And I was back at the gravesite with Ben in the dream. I saw Ben rise from the coffin and sort of travel up towards the skies. And suddenly, I started hearing this wonderful angelic music. And then I heard these angels came down and spoke to me. And one of the angels said to me, Ben is safe now. And in these circumstances, we always leave somebody a gift, and the gift for you is you will remember everything. And I could hear every single note of this piece of music. I heard everything.
GRUBERT: Now, can I just quickly stop you here and ask you? Are you religious, Stuart?
GRUBERT: Do you believe in God?
SHARP: No, no, no, no, no.
GRUBERT: What did you think was going on?
SHARP: I just thought there was some great, spiritual power that was going to guide me to do what I was meant to do from Ben's death.
GRUBERT: The music in Stuart's mind was so persistent, so urgent, that he decided to do something dramatic. He decided he had to devote the rest of his life to getting this music written and recorded, no matter what the cost. That meant leaving his wife and daughter and moving to London, despite having no formal musical training or musical talent. He waited a year to break the news to his wife and mother. It did not go well.
SHARP: She said, look, you need therapy after what you've gone through. I understand. You need to go and talk to someone. And I said, I'll give you six months' notice, and in six months to the day, I am going to leave for London. Of course, they both thought, sure, and they just shrugged it off. Yes, six months. Every month, I would say five months to go, four months to go, a month to go. They still thought it was a joke. And I said, listen, I'm serious. And when it came to the day of going and I got my little, old Ford car and my squash bag, and I said I'm going. And my wife was like, what? I was absolutely...
GRUBERT: Because there's a lot of people listening to this right now who are saying to themselves, you just abandoned your family, man.
SHARP: Absolutely, I know that. I know that. I said to her, through this dream, I will make you extremely happy. We will travel the world together. The girls will go to places and see things and get an education they couldn't have dreamed of. That actually made it worse.
GRUBERT: Yeah, because it sounds like the things you have to say to yourself to do something like leave your family.
GRUBERT: It sounds like an excuse.
SHARP: Yeah, oh, absolutely. And I left for London on that day.
GRUBERT: What did it feel like when you got into that car and started driving towards London?
SHARP: I felt that I was going to do what I was destined to do. I expected that the voices - the angels would tell me exactly what to do. So I had never been to London before. It was very miserable weather. I drove along this road. I just kept going round in circles. The traffic was very heavy. I pulled off the road and found a car park. And I just stopped in the car park, said, well, I'll stay here. And it was a huge car park with garbage bins in the corner. So I popped in between the garbage bins and stayed there waiting for my next instruction.
SHARP: I didn't get one.
GRUBERT: Stuart lived in his car, and Jo gave up waiting for him after six months. She divorced him. He stayed in London waiting for the voices to tell him what to do. He sold his car, he moved onto the streets, but the voices said nothing. Stuart fell into despair, and moved into a hostel for the homeless. He'd lost everything, everything except the angelic music in his head. And then he walked by the window of a secondhand shop and saw a guitar.
SHARP: And I'd only got a few pounds, whatever it was in my pocket, and I said, this is all I've got. Is it possible you could drop the price? The very nice lady said, not really. What do you want it for anyway? I said, well, look, I'm going to compose a symphony, and I need it to get the notes out so I can give it to someone else. And she eventually said, OK, you can have it.
GRUBERT: What'd you do with it?
SHARP: I took it back to the hostel. I used to sit in this little - tiny, little room, which was full of cockroaches next to the kitchen. Cockroaches crawl over me every night just trying to figure out this guitar. So while I'm fiddling around with these notes, I start being able to pick out some of the melody line on the guitar. I thought, yeah, yeah, I can do this, I can do this. Yeah, I couldn't write the notes down, but what I did - I went back to the Towsnsend's (ph) shop and I bought from them, for a very few pence, a very old tape recorder. And I took it back and started playing all the melodies and stuff into this tape recorder until I'd filled two hours of this tape - everything I could hear. And so I thought, well, now I've got something I can work with.
GRUBERT: One day, Stuart took his guitar and recorder and sat himself in front of the BBC Studios close to the homeless shelter to try his luck at getting noticed.
SHARP: And while I was sitting there, quite a few people walked by and thought I was begging, but I wasn't. And one gentleman came by and he just looked at me and didn't say anything. He walked on. And he stopped 50 meters later and turned around and came back, and said, what are you doing? The guitar? Are you a buscar? I said, no, no, I'm writing a symphony. Oh, you're a composer? I said, well, sort of. He said, well, have you got school? I said, no, I can't write music. And he went, how are you going to write a symphony then? I said because I've got it on tape and I can play little bits of it. He said, where are you living?
And I said, well, I'm living rough, actually. And I'm living in a hostel for the homeless and just bumming around, really. I'm looking for the next stage in my development of this great story. He said, I'm a jazz musician. Look, why don't you come and stay with me for a couple of hours? I'll take you back to my house. I've got a piano. Let me hear your melodies and I'll see what I can do on the piano, see if I can extemporize it for you. So I said, well, that's really kind of you. And he took me back to his house. His wife was absolutely furious. She said to him, are you going completely crazy? This guy could be a murderer. We've got a child - got a baby, and you're bringing him - well, he was not to stay long, just for a few hours. Just kindly make him a bit of soup or something. And I stayed there for six weeks. The first night, I started playing the melody, and he started feeling it on the piano. And in a couple of hours, what he'd done on this piano - and I'm telling you, Johnathan - was phenomenal.
GRUBERT: The jazz musician was Anthony Wade. And yes, this is actually audio from those original recordings in his house back in 1982.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRUBERT: By the end of those six weeks, Stuart and Anthony had pretty well scored the entire symphony. Anthony said it was so good, it could make Stuart rich and famous and should be played by the London Philharmonia Orchestra. That was the good news.
SHARP: My only advice to you is go out and make a fortune 'cause you'll have to pay for it all yourself.
GRUBERT: And how much?
SHARP: Well, I mean, we're talking about over a million pounds.
GRUBERT: A million pounds?
SHARP: Because it's not just going to the Philharmonia Orchestra - as explained to me. You're going to need orchestrators, you're going to need arrangers, you're going to need the best studios in the world. You will need a rehearsal orchestra. You'll need this, you'll need that, you'll need the other. And before you do all that, we would have to work on it together to make an electronic version of it. And for that, you will need to hire a studio, you will need to hire computers, and me - will be very expensive. So on and so forth.
GRUBERT: So here you were at the cusp of realizing your dream. Oh, and by the way, mister homeless man, you're going to have to pay a million pounds to do it. What'd you think when he said that to you?
SHARP: I was excited. You ask me to make a million pounds, and I'll go and make a million pounds.
GRUBERT: He started off by getting a job at the homeless center. Then he got various sales jobs working exclusively on commission, something for which he showed an uncanny ability. He spent years flipping houses for the local council and then, he started doing it for himself. Many houses and 15 years later, he had saved one million pounds.
SHARP: Then I tracked Anthony Wade down, and I said to him, are you ready to go? He said, go where? The project. He couldn't quite work out what was going on. So I took my bank statement with me. I said, right, you gave me the answer of what to do, here is the money. Let's go.
GRUBERT: And how long did it take to complete?
SHARP: It took five years working every single day to do an electronic version of the whole symphony. Once I got all that done, then I presented it to the conductor of the Philharmonia, with the tape, with a score, please listen to this.
SHARP: He was not too impressed because how could a homeless person with no musical ability write a score that will be good enough for the London Philharmonia Orchestra? And he said to me, it's not a question of money, Stuart. It's a question of credibility. The London Philharmonia Orchestra are not going to record basically rubbish.
GRUBERT: He hadn't even listened to it.
SHARP: He hadn't listened to it, no. And then a few weeks later, I got a call from him at midnight and he was crying on the phone. He said, Stuart, I have just listened to your tape. I have been blubbering for the last five minutes. It is wonderful. I cannot believe it. I'm so sorry I didn't listen to it before. The reason I didn't listen to it before was because I thought, how can I break the bad news to you after all you've gone through? But now I can see with the London Philharmonia recording it, this will be one of the most magnificent things we've ever done.
GRUBERT: Stuart needed to find even more money. It needed to be scored again. The orchestra had to be booked years in advance. And then, one day, the conductor of one of the greatest orchestras in the world turned to Stuart and said...
SHARP: Now it is right for the London Philharmonia Orchestra.
GRUBERT: OK, so the day comes of the recording. Describe the room to me.
SHARP: It was a very big room to enclose 80 musicians. It was a big recording studio in London - massive. Oh my God, is this really going to happen?
GRUBERT: It's the sound. They were all tuning their instruments?
SHARP: They were all tuning their instruments and the hairs on the back of my neck began standing up 'cause I don't know what to expect. I don't know if it's going to be what I heard in my head or something else.
GRUBERT: When the moment came when the conductor stood before them...
SHARP: When the wand came down and as they started playing, it was exactly what I heard in my head - the trumpet call for the angels, the voices, the choir 'cause it had to be a choir as well. A massive choir, it wasn't just an orchestra. It was a big choir joining in it. It was exactly going in sync, and I'm thinking, wait a minute, is that the orchestra doing it or is that what's in my head? It was so strange. And when they'd finished, suddenly, I heard this noise. It was like applause. And the conductor said, Stuart, come over here. This ovation is for you. For me?
GRUBERT: It's hard to know if the musicians of the London Philharmonia were applauding for the music or Stuart's journey or both. Nevertheless, they gave him a standing ovation. Allan Wilson, the conductor of the London Philharmonia is quoted as saying, I had to admit, I was stunned. I've never seen any orchestra anywhere in the world give any composer an ovation like that before. Stuart's symphony has never been performed. It's never been distributed by a major record label, but he had achieved his goal. Stuart had gotten the music out of his head and recorded by one of the greatest orchestras in the world. What's the first thought that went through your head?
SHARP: The first thought went through my head - I can't wait to send this to my ex-wife. I can't wait to send it to her 'cause it's so beautiful. I'm sure it won't hurt her because - and she knew the journey I'd had. And I sent the CD to her, and I got a call from her the next day. I didn't know what she was going to say. And she said, Stuart - uh oh - I played your "Angeli Symphony," and I've had the windows open and I've played it full blast. I have to tell you, it is magnificent. And I cried.
GRUBERT: Let me ask you, you created a lovely family. You had a terrible tragedy, but your family was still intact. Then you had this dream that came to you - that frankly, could have been psychosis for all we know. If you had to do this all over again, would you do it the same way?
SHARP: I didn't have any choice. You have been given a gift, go and use it. So there's no choice for me.
GRUBERT: Was it worth it?
SHARP: I don't know.
WASHINGTON: Thanks for sharing your story, Stuart. That piece was produced by Johnathan Grubert. He's the host of the amazing podcast "The State We're In," distributed by WBEZ. I highly recommend it. That piece was edited by Anna Sussman with sound design by Pat Mesiti-Miller. Now, there are some promises you never want to make - never ever. Find out what they are when SNAP JUDGMENT "The Pact" episode continues. Stay tuned.
(MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.