Meet the Artist……Keith Burstein, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

My parents were both professional violinists, so the likelihood is that I was an embryo even as my mother played in the midst of all the instruments- quite an introduction to music! In addition my aunts were also musicians and so it seemed that music was the stuff of life.

To be a composer was the earliest desire I recall having for myself, although after that I tried many other ambitions as a growing adolescent, including going into politics.

I think a turning point came when I discovered Mahler at age 16, that’s when I understood what music can be more fully than before. Then when I went to study at the Royal College of Music, I was introduced to the avant garde of that time, i.e. Stockhausen etc, and I saw how music can be at the cutting edge. Since then I have attempted to redefine the cutting edge as once again melodious and to rededicate music to what it does best – the expression of emotion.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I would cite the late romantic era as the single greatest influence – the grandeur and vision combined with the emotional intensity are hall marks of that era.

But as a child of the mid 20th century I was also deeply influenced by film music Bernard Hermann, John Barry, John Williams, Ennio Morricone – and of course these were in turn influenced by the late romantic.

I would also mention the great American musicals

Amongst people who have influenced me, firstly my parents who provided an environment in which music making was like the air I breathed, whether it was my parents accompanying one another on violin and piano or playing the Bach double for two violins or my father playing the accordion, or both with my aunts on piano or violin not forgetting my brother on drums, or my older cousin Paul Lewis who is a distinguished composer of TV and film music and now increasingly of concert music. Then I should mention my extraordinary piano teacher in Brighton, the late Christine Pembridge. She taught at Roedean girl’s public school and privately at home in Port Hall.

A remarkable musician and teacher, she transmitted her passion for music with a northern directness. It was she who animated my ability to play and through her I gained direct exposure to the great music of Bach Beethoven Schubert Debussy and Rachmaninov. Among her other pupils, before me, was composer Howard Blake of ‘The Snowman’ fame. Her fine teaching prepared me for the Royal College of music which was my next great field of influence. Here I met contemporaries and great friendship with William Mival, now head of composition there. William was a devoted connoisseur of new music and introduced me to Tippett, Stockhausen and Boulez. I would later go on to rebel against the atonal establishment as I came to see it, but the initial stimulus of exposure to its heartlands and the decade I then spent exploring and writing in its styles was the essential formative experience that made my later enlightenment possible.

Once this rebellion happened I was in trouble but almost immediately found a distinguished friend in the form of the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. I was introduced to him in the mid 90s by his publisher and we got on immediately. I believe he identified with my struggle having had a struggle himself to escape the Soviet Union. He liked my music and gave me very direct help by splitting a commission fee with me to write music for the 900th anniversary of Norwich Cathedral. He wrote ‘The True Vine’ and I wrote my Missa Brevis. A remarkable man of vision and personal humanity.

Then a few years later, while working with South Bank Sinfonia I discovered their patron was the legendary Vladimir Ashkenazy when he came to conduct them. I asked for and was given an introduction. We found affinity immediately on the issue of tonality and he wrote to me positively about the music I was writing for the orchestra. Within a couple of years he arranged for my Symphony ‘Elixir’ to be recorded and released on Naxos. He remains a great friend and support.

Another great friend was the actor the late Corin Redgrave of the Redgrave clan.He produced my opera Manifest Destiny at the Tricycle Theatre and Ralph Steadman designed the sets. Corin, an activist campaigner along with his sister Vanessa Redgrave and wife Kika Markham( my close friend) have all supported my sometimes controversial pathway. Without them it would have been much more difficult and lonely.

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

For the first decade of my career broadly my twenties i ran an ensemble for the performance and commission of new works, The Grosvenor Group. We made some radio 3 recordings and were well supported by various trusts. Then as I approached 30 I underwent a Road to Damascus type conversion to Tonality as I began to compose more full time myself.

Simultaneously I understood that the unmitigated tonalism of my works would not be acceptable to the new music establishment as serious new music and thus began the greatest challenge of my career.

The establishment view was – and remains – based in the atonal paradigm. To challenge this is the same as challenging any establishment- very dangerous.

I felt that I needed not only to produce the work but at the same time to speak out- or even demonstrate. In particular I became involved in a group who booed a Birtwistle opera in 1994.This produced the most incredible outcry and rumble in the press that went on for years

This was captured on television here

and eventually led me to have to sue News International for libel which I did successfully in 2000.

The in 2003 I wrote with playwright Dic Edwards my opera ‘Manifest Destiny’ about suicide bombers who renounce violence and become peace makers. The press nevertheless accused me of glorifying terrorism , a serious criminal offence. Again I sued this time the Daily Mail Group. I won in the High Court but was defeated at Appeal and bankrupted by Associated Newspapers Ltd

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Knowing that it will be performed and I will be paid.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Having the opportunity to work within a dialogue in which changes and adjustments can be made as part of the working process

Of which works are you most proud?

I would have to cite first ‘Manifest Destiny’. This is a work which aspires to reflect and process the current geo-politics and translate then into a convincing human drama and then transmute the content onto a higher plane of transcendence. In this regard the opera seems to serve its purpose having had over 30 performances and several productions. With Dic Edwards the librettist we also managed to produce a work which has proven prescient to this day.

Also ‘The Year’s Midnight’, a meditation on the Holocaust which was broadcast on radio 4 on the first Holocaust memorial day in 2001; my music in memoriam the 51 people who drowned in the Thames in the Marchioness river boat disaster of 1989, Requiem for the Young; and my music in memoriam the former Leader of the Labour Party John Smith,  ‘A Live Flame’ .

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Super Tonal

How do you work?

I type straight into the computer like writing a letter, with no sound, just hearing in my head

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Prince, Miles Davis, John Barry, Eminem, Mahler, Bruckner, Wagner, Bach, Elgar, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Scriabin

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Karl Bohm conducting the last three Mozart Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic in the Royal Festival Hall in 1978 – life changing visionary experience.

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

Music is a unique portal into the human soul

Keith Burstein was born in Brighton, England. He came from a musical family; both parents were classical violinists who played for Sadlers Wells Ballet, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Ulster Orchestra and the Halle Orchestra as well as for the Royal Opera House. (Originally of Russian-Jewish extraction, the family name had been anglicised to Burston). Burstein held two scholarships at the Royal College of Music in London where he studied composition with Bernard Stevens and John Lambert. Post-graduation, he continued his composition studies with Jonathan Harvey. This was a period of great discovery for him.

Read more about Keith Burstein here