Meet the Artist – Elizabeth Winters, composer

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

I have written music ever since I started playing the piano (around age 6 I think). I used to feel guilty for making up pieces when I felt I should have been practising ‘seriously’! I had a lot of encouragement from various instrumental teachers, and at school, and later at the RCM junior department. However, this encouragement was towards a career as a performer, not a composer. I never studied composition and it would never had occurred to me to do so. I’m not even sure that I knew you could! When I was doing GCSE music composition, my music teacher at school told me I should be concentrating on composition seriously and I should take lessons at junior RCM. I actually had a bit of an argument with her about this as I thought it was a crazy suggestion – I was going to be a viola player and most composers I’d heard of were dead!

Halfway through the undergrad course at the RCM, I injured my left hand quite badly and was told that was it basically, as far as a professional career playing the viola was concerned. I did my final year at a university, mainly by writing a huge dissertation on the Bartok viola concerto (!), but also taking the advanced composition module as I felt it was something I might have a chance of passing. After I graduated I just carried on writing and once I had three pieces I thought were fairly respectable I applied for a masters in composition at Goldsmith’s College. Starting there was a massive shock – I knew nothing about composition really and very little about contemporary music outside of the viola repertoire!

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

There are so many great composers writing now, and I think it’s a very interesting time for women composers in particular. I am very conscious that my work is insignificant compared to many others, but this inspires me to carry on improving my writing. I am grateful to my first composition teacher, Judith Bingham, for helping me when I was first starting out and to Kenneth Hesketh for really challenging me in my writing.

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

I was incredibly lucky with my early compositional career. Up until I was about 30 or so, things really went along pretty nicely and easily. I was doing all the usual young composer stuff and getting some good commissions. Things then went downhill a bit as I was struggling a lot with the conflict between writing how I wanted to write and how I felt I ‘should’ write. There were some challenging things going in in my life as well at that point, and I didn’t write anything for about 3 years. I then had a baby and started writing again! This is probably not a recognised way to rejuvenate your composition, but it worked for me! The frustrations now are that I have very little time to devote to the business side of composition and living out of London makes it extremely hard (both time wise and financially) to travel in for concerts and networking. I also need to be a lot more practical in terms of making money as I have my son to support, so I spend most of my working time teaching.

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

Since the birth of Edward (now 3 years old), I have only written a few pieces and they have all been commissions. Even before then, I pretty much always wrote with a specific performance or performer in mind and I would find it very hard to write any other way. The challenge for me now, with a young son, is the deadline, but without it I would probably never write anything at all!

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

I have found that the stranger the compositional brief, the better the results can be! Sometimes, I find that too much freedom and choice can be a bit overwhelming and haven’t resulted in my best pieces. I have written a couple of pieces for Carla Rees (rarescale) and her quarter tone alto flute. This was a challenge for me, but one that was easily met as she was so generous with her time and advice during the early compositional stages. By the time I was half way through the piece what I was doing felt totally natural to me and the piece was written relatively easily.

Of which works are you most proud?

I am proud of all my pieces in the sense that they all exist in their own time, for a specific purpose. Even the few which I would happily never hear again have played a part in my compositional journey. I know which works I think are ‘better’ in terms of compositional technique or which ones have been more successful, but this doesn’t mean I am any prouder of them.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I’m afraid I can’t answer this one!

How do you work?

I think a lot before starting the piece and usually have it sketched in my head before I start. Once I can hear bits of it reliably then I get to work with manuscript paper planning out the structure and what ideas will come where. If there’s a time limit (which there usually is) then this bit is very important, and I won’t move on from it until I am happy. It saves so much time in the long run. Then I just write the piece from beginning to end! I will sketch each section on manuscript paper until I am happy with it and only when I have a large chunk of ‘finished’ music will I go anywhere near Sibelius [score-writing programme]. Some of my composition pupils write directly onto Sibelius and I would find that extremely hard.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

This is a hard one, but I never tire of listening to Mendelssohn, Schumann or Stravinsky. I love Bach but I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I find Beethoven’s music a bit of a struggle to enjoy – even though I obviously admire his work a great deal.

Among more contemporary composers, long time favourites are Julian Anderson, Thomas Ades, Judith Weir and Oliver Knussen and from the younger generation I like what Ed Nesbit, Helen Grime and Charlotte Bray are doing very much.

I love listening to recordings of ‘old school’ string players such as Fritz Kreisler, Albert Sammons, William Primrose etc. The fact that the performances aren’t ‘perfect’ or anywhere near today’s sound quality somehow adds to the appeal for me.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I am making a living from music (a mixture of composition and teaching). I feel very lucky to be doing something I enjoy, so in that respect I feel successful.

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

Don’t expect to do everything at once and make the most of every opportunity while you can.

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

Alive – and still enjoying my writing.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I’m not sure that this exists other than for brief moments. I feel content if my family is healthy and happy and there aren’t too many outstanding bills to pay!

What is your most treasured possession?

My sanity.


Elizabeth Winters has established herself in the UK as one of the leading composers of the younger generation. Her music is regularly performed throughout the UK, by performers as diverse as the London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, BBC Singers, Ensemble 10/10, Rarescale, The Orlando Consort, Aurora Nova and the Choir of Canterbury Cathedral. Her works have been programmed as part of LSO Discovery, the Presteigne Festival, the Royal Opera House ‘Exposure’ Series, the Leeds International Concert Season, the European Capital of Culture Concert Series, the Aldeburgh Festival and during services at St Paul’s and St Alban’s Cathedrals. Several works have been broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Elizabeth won a British Composer Award (2009, Making Music Category) for her orchestral piece The Serious Side of Madness. Other competition successes include first prize in the 2015 Orion Orchestra Composer Competition and first prize in the Liverpool Capital of Culture New Composer Competition. Elizabeth recently received funding from The Composers’ Fund to support the creation of a composition studio. The Composers’ Fund is a PRS for Music Foundation initiative in association with the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

Born in 1979, Elizabeth studied at the Royal College of Music and Goldsmith College, where she gained her MMus in Composition with Distinction. Her principal composition teachers were Judith Bingham and Kenneth Hesketh. She has also worked with Julian Anderson, John Casken (Lake District Summer Music Composer Residency) and Colin Matthews, Michael Gandolfi and Oliver Knussen (Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme). Elizabeth also enjoys working with young musicians and been commissioned by the National Youth Recorder Orchestra and the Farnham Festival.

elizabethwinters.com