“embracing the new audience who have turned to ‘classical’ music as a source of comfort during these unprecedented times is hugely important” – Nigel Hess, composer

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

I started playing the piano when I was very young – always by ear to begin with – and it wasn’t long before I started to pick out my own tunes on the keys. It felt very natural. I’d probably be horrified if I heard those stumblings now, but the seed was definitely sown. So it was always music from the get-go. I had some lucky breaks with television scoring soon after I left university, and it was then that I realized that I might be able to write music and pay the bills!

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

I was lucky enough to have a wonderful music teacher at school – the sort of chap who thought nothing of involving the entire school in an epic performance of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. (I was in charge of the percussion section, and our trip to Woolworths to go through their entire mug collection for the ‘slung mugs’ raindrops is a lasting memory.) Without his encouragement I wouldn’t have gone to Cambridge – and, as is so often the case, I can trace the rest of my musical career from that wonderful springboard.

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

Even if you know it’s the only thing you want to do, starting out as a musician (or any creative artist) is, as we all know, really hard. It’s even more difficult now, especially given the times we’re living through. And to have those pressures, both creative and practical, while trying to stay true to your strengths and not compromise can be daunting. The greatest challenges so far – usually involving being some considerable distance outside my musical comfort zone – have nearly always produced new and inspiring ideas. The greatest frustrations? When you find yourself in a creative cul-de-sac (for any number of reasons) and you have to find a way out because there’s a deadline looming.

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

I’ve been lucky enough to work with so many wonderful musicians and artists over the years, and when you’re able to write music knowing who’s going to play it or sing it, it can be inspirational. When you can tailor a piece or a solo or a whole musical landscape to someone’s personality – quirks and all – then that’s the challenge and the pleasure rolled into one! And collaborating with new colleagues, as I’ve been doing recently, starts that journey again.

Of which works are you most proud?

I’ve written quite a lot of music for youth ensembles, and seeing the fun and sense of accomplishment they give to children of all ages and from every walk of life is wonderful. It’s instant communication, and it’s very special.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

With each new commission I’m nearly always asked to come up with some “good tunes”, so that’s a bit of a giveaway. I’m not a particular fan of the ‘accessible’ description, but I’ve always written in a melodic, tonal style which, it seems, still resonates with a lot of people. I’m the first to admit that the style of my concert pieces owes a lot to my media work, and I’m not trying to create two different worlds. It’s a dramatic language that, for me, crosses over.

How do you work?

When I first started out everything was written at the piano. But, inevitably, the process now is initial sketches at the piano (with a trusty pencil) before going over to the computer and scoring from there – a familiar story for so many composers. When I worked a lot in television I treated the job as a 9 to 5 operation, almost literally. It was the only way to get so much music written in such a short space of time. Concert commissions are more forgiving, but I find I still need the pressure of a deadline. Adrenalin is a wonderful creative tool!

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

There are so many that the list would go on forever. And tomorrow I’d probably give you a completely different list. Working with Lang Lang and Joshua Bell was extraordinary – their musicianship is awe-inspiring – and can I give a shout-out to my great-aunt, the pianist Dame Myra Hess? If you know some of the history of the National Gallery’s lunchtime concerts during the Second World War you will know what an extraordinary woman she was. Composers? All over the place – Elgar, Walton, Mahler, Fauré, John Williams, Tallis, Sondheim….

What do you feel needs to be done to grow and maintain classical music’s audiences?

It goes without saying that the question has a poignancy today that we couldn’t imagine a year ago. To get back to where we were would be a major achievement, and embracing the new audience who have turned to ‘classical’ music as a source of comfort during these unprecedented times is hugely important.

As a composer, what is your definition of success?

If you can start with a blank page (or computer screen) and create music that connects with a listener on any level, whether for a few moments or a lifetime, that’s success.

The Way of Light – The Music of Nigel Hess is released on 5 February on the Orchid Classics Label
Nigel Hess has had considerable success in the film and television world (Campion, Maigret, Wycliffe, Dangerfield, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates, Badger and Ladies in Lavender). This new album concentrates on music he wrote for the concert hall.