Meet the Artist……Robert Saxton, composer

Robert Saxton 093
Robert Saxton (photo credit: Katie Vandyck)

Who or what inspired you to take up composing and make it your career?

I started the recorder at school, the violin and piano. I always preferred writing music down to practising!

Who or what are the most important influences on your composing? 

As a composer, I was influenced technically, and partially aesthetically, by Elisabeth Lutyens, my teacher for four years (aged 16 -20). In a wider sense, I have been influenced by my ‘dual’ background/heritage: east European Jewish and English C of E, particularly Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Bartok, and  the visionary tradition stretching from Piers Plowman, via late Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets of the 16th century, to Vaughan Williams, Tippett and painters such as Stanley Spencer. I have also been influenced by many discussions with my opera singer wife, Teresa Cahill, relating both to interpretation and musical ‘meaning’.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Teaching as well as possible and trying to put the right notes ijn the right place when composing!

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble? 

Learning from players and, as I get older, finding how much young(er) performers play/sing and interpret my music profoundly and with an ease which i find both amazing and refreshing.

Which recordings are you most proud of?  

The Circles of Light and Concerto for Orchestra with Oliver Knussen and the BBCSO/London Sinfonietta on EMI, Leon Fleisher (Sony Classical)  and John McCabe’s(NMC) recordings of Chacony for piano left-hand, Caritas (NMC), Eloge with Christopher Austin, the Brunel Ensemble and Teresa Cahill (NMC), Five Motets with Edward Wickham and The Clerks (Signum) and The Wandering Jew with the BBCSO, BBC Singers and soloists (NMC).

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

No, but I prefer anywhere to purpose-built concert halls. Possibly churches/cathedrals.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to? 

It depends on the weather!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students? 

Continual work on technique in relation to intention/concept and idea.

What are you working on at the moment? 

String Quartet No 4

Your new work for trumpet, Shakespeare Scenes, is premiered this month. Please say a little more about it

The work is for solo trumpet and strings, and was commissioned by Simon Desbruslais, to whom it is dedicated, with funding from the Britten/ears Foundation and the RVW Trust. The Orchestra of the Swan and their founder/music director, David Curtis, being the ensemble giving the premiere and making a commercial recording of the work, it seemed appropriate to pay tribute to Stratford-upon-Avon’s greatest son. There are five pieces/movements whose tonal centres outline the musical letters of Shakespeare’s name, so that the latter forms the structural basis of the whole.

The first piece, ‘The Magic Wood’, refers to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the strings representing the magic wood/the fairy kingdom, the trumpet Puck. In the second piece, ‘Falstaff’, the trumpet plays the role of Falstaff, the three linked episodes depicting the fat knight waking, the Gad’s Hill episode (with clashing swords) and, closes with the death of Falstaff. The third piece, ‘The Storm on the Heath’, casts the trumpet as the mad, raving King Lear, with a solo violin as his Fool/Jester. ‘Masque’, the fourth piece, rather than referring to a specific play, pays tribute to the Masque as a genre (there are masques in various Shakespeare plays, The Winter’s Tale and A Midsummer Night’s Dream being well-known examples); the upper strings and ‘basses represent the dancers/the courtly crowd, the trumpet playing a Pavane followed by a Galliard, with the cellos accompanying. Although there  are no quotations from Tudor/Jacobean music, the trumpet’s music makes reference to music of the period. In the closing piece, ‘The Magic Island’ (The Tempest), we hear the chastened Prospero (trumpet) and the now-tamed Caliban (solo viola) reconciled against a background of sustained ‘ringing’ string music.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 


What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Being with my wife and at peace.

Robert Saxton’s Shakespeare Scenes receives its world premiere by Simon Desbruslais and the Orchestra of the Swan on Friday 24th May. Further information and tickets here

Robert Saxton (b.1953) studied with Elizabeth Lutyens, Robin Holloway, Robert Sherlaw Johnson and Luciano Berio following guidance from Benjamin Britten. He won the Gaudeamus International Composers prize in 1975 and a Fulbright Arts Fellowship to the USA in 1986.  

Robert Saxton has written major works for orchestras, choirs and chamber groups including the BBC (TV, Proms and Radio), LSO and London Sinfonietta; festivals including Huddersfield, Three Choirs and Cheltenham; and soloists including Teresa Cahill, Steven Isserlis and Mstislav Rostropovich. Recordings have appeared on Sony Classical, Hyperion, Metier, EMI, NMC and Divine Art. 

He is currently Professor of Composition and Tutorial Fellow in Music at Worcester College at the University of Oxford. He has been a regular member of the BBC TV 4 (digital) Proms broadcasting commentary team and was a member of the Southbank Centre board for nine years.  

The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Singers premiered Saxton’s radio opera, The Wandering Jew, in 2010; the recording was released on NMC. The Arditti Quartet premiered Saxton’s Quartet No. 3 in May 2011, commissioned by the Southbank Centre. Premieres in 2013 include a song cycle for baritone Roderick Williams at the Oxford Lieder Festival and a piano cycle for pianist Clare Hammond at the City of London Festival.