Meet the Artist – Judith Weir, composer

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

My music teacher at school, Margaret Semple, instilled the habit of musical curiosity, and didn’t think it strange that I would want to write and perform my own music.

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

As a teenager, playing the oboe in all kinds of rep, from Bach to improv. The lively new musical culture in my youth, the 1960s, both pop and “classical”. Early inspirations included Cage, Stockhausen, Messiaen, John Tavener.

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

The frustration has always been, and remains, the huge amount of time it takes to compose a new piece of music. A perpetual challenge is to sense the right structure and timescale for musical ideas while struggling to write these ideas down for the first time.

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

Composing for friends or close colleagues is like spending time with them – they are constantly in my mind as I write. Conversely, the challenge is writing for people you don’t know – will they understand and sympathise with your intentions?

Of which works are you most proud?

I am usually thinking about recent work – it’s as if the music I wrote long ago can look after itself. Coming to mind immediately are In the Land of Uz (mini-oratorio), The Big Picture (site-specific cantata) and my Oboe Concerto.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Above all it is animated by line/melody and rhythm.

How do you work?

I brood for a long time. I’m trying to think of a concept which will be so irresistible and compelling that it writes itself. It doesn’t always work out that way…

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

They change all the time, it’s impossible to say. To give some kind of answer, I’ve just looked at what is piled on my CD player today: We Go To Dream (a lovely album by Astrid Williamson); Not Now Bernard and Other Stories (composer Bernard Hughes, excellent); Brendel plays Bach, on the piano obviously; an organ album played by Konstantin Reymaier (more Bach, plus Handel, Marcello,etc).

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

When the work continues to flow in, of its own accord.

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

I wanted to study music because I was interested and curious about it – I still am, almost fifty years later. That has kept me going in difficult times. So my advice is: If you’re not really, really interested in music – the actual dots – don’t bother!

Judith Weir’s ‘Thread’, after a text from the upper horizontal border of the Bayeux Tapestr, receives its world premiere recording on Not Now Bernard and Other Stories, a collection of music for families narrated by Alexander Armstrong, released on the Orchid Classics label on 7 February.


Judith Weir was born into a Scottish family in 1954, but grew up near London. She was an oboe player, performing with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and studied composition with John Tavener during her schooldays. She went on to Cambridge University, where her composition teacher was Robin Holloway; and in 1975 attended summer school at Tanglewood, where she worked with Gunther Schuller. After this she spent several years working in schools and adult education in rural southern England; followed by a period based in Scotland, teaching at Glasgow University and RSAMD.
During this time she began to write a series of operas (including King Harald’s Saga, The Black Spider, A Night at the Chinese Opera, The Vanishing Bridegroom and Blond Eckbert) which have subsequently received many performances in the UK, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium and the USA. The most recent opera is Miss Fortune, premiered at Bregenz in 2011, and then staged at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2012.
As resident composer with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the 1990s, she wrote several works for orchestra and chorus (including Forest, Storm and We are Shadows) which were premiered by the orchestra’s then Music Director, Simon Rattle. She has been commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Music Untangled and Natural History) the Minnesota Orchestra (The Welcome Arrival of Rain) and the London Sinfonietta (Tiger under the Table); and has written concert works for some notable singers, including Jane Manning, Dawn Upshaw, Jessye Norman and Alice Coote. Her latest vocal work is Good Morning, Midnight, premiered by Sarah Connolly and the Aurora Orchestra in May 2015.
She now lives in London, where she has had a long association with Spitalfields Music Festival; and in recent years has taught as a visiting professor at Princeton, Harvard and Cardiff universities. Honours for her work include the Critics’ Circle, South Bank Show, Elise L Stoeger and Ivor Novello awards, a CBE (1995) and the Queen’s Medal for Music (2007). In 2014 she was appointed Master of The Queen’s Music in succession to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. In January 2015 she became Associate Composer to the BBC Singers.
Much of her music has been recorded, and is available on the NMC, Delphian and Signum labels. In 2014-15 there were releases of The Vanishing Bridegroom  (NMC) and Storm (BBC Singers/Signum).  Judith Weir’s music is published by Chester Music and Novello & Co.  She blogs about her experiences of cultural life in the UK at judithweir.com.