British composer and singer Joanna Forbes L’Estrange has been commissioned by the Royal School of Church Music to write a special anthem to celebrate the Coronation of King Charles III on 6 May 2023. Read on to find out more about Joanna’s musical background, her influences and inspirations, and why there are “no rules” to composing…..


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

When I was 8 years old, my foster father suggested to my younger sister and me that we join our parish church choir of Bisley and West End in Surrey. The choir was small – I remember we only had one tenor, a rather elderly man called Harry – and Em and I were the youngest members by several decades, but it was there that I fell in love with singing in choirs and with church music. For the next ten years until I was 18, it was a routine of Thursday evening choir practices and Sunday services, crunching up the long gravel path to the church, our freshly-washed, dusky blue robes draped over our arms. Most Sundays it was Eucharist but, once a month, we sang Evensong and these were my favourite services. We would often sing the hymn ‘The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended’ which I thought had the most beautiful melody.

By the time I arrived at Oxford University to begin my music degree, I was longing to sing in a really good choir. There hadn’t been a choir at my comprehensive school so my sole experience of choral music had been my little church choir. I remember being at freshers’ fair, walking among the many stalls of clubs and societies and feeling distinctly overwhelmed, when I suddenly spotted a sign saying “Schola Cantorum of Oxford”. I thought: how cool would it be to sing in a choir with a Latin name?! and added my name to the audition sign-up list. A week later, as I walked into the audition room, it occurred to me that I’d never done an audition before and I suddenly became nervous. Imposter syndrome properly set in when I was asked if I’d done Eton Choral Courses – um, no – or been a member of NYC – er, no. I hadn’t actually heard of either thing and was starting to wonder what on earth I’d been thinking putting my name on this list. However, I knew I could sing and I knew that I was a strong sight-reader, having studied the piano and cello to Grade 8 and been blessed with perfect pitch, so I gave it my best shot and….got in! A whole new world of choral music opened up to me over those next three years: we gave concerts in stunning chapels, recorded several CDs and went on tour to France and Japan. I was in choir heaven.

Three years after graduating from Oxford, I joined the five-time Grammy® award-winning vocal group The Swingle Singers as soprano and Musical Director. Over the next seven years I became obsessed with jazz vocal groups and jazz close harmonies, listening to recordings by groups such as Les Double Six, Manhattan Transfer and The Real Group. I wrote some arrangements, my first one being for the four female voices of the group, my arrangement of Amazing Grace. I also enjoyed twenty extraordinary years with Tenebrae, one of the world’s most respected professional chamber choirs, performing and recording many of the greatest choral pieces.

When I was in my early 30s, my foster father became ordained and, a few months before his ordination, he asked me to write a piece of music for our parish choir to sing. I replied “but I don’t compose music” to which he said, in his typical no-nonsense fashion, “well, it’s time you did”. My father Sebastian Forbes is a composer and my grandfather Watson Forbes had arranged hundreds of pieces for the viola but it had never occurred to me that I too could be a composer. I’d written a couple of pieces for GCSE Music but, to be a “proper” composer, I was under the impression that you had to have a calling at birth and be composing from the age of six to qualify. I also thought you had to be a man. I’d been born into a family of professional musicians, sung in choirs for over 20 years, achieved Grade 8 on two instruments and done a music degree and yet I’d never once been exposed to any music written by a woman. It’s unthinkable, really, but that’s how it was. I still have my chorister’s handbook from when I joined Bisley choir; the whole book is about boy choristers and there’s not one mention of girls. We’ve come a long way since then, I’m happy to say.

I am forever indebted to Reverend Richard Abbott for asking me to compose that piece because it set me on my path as a composer. When he died last November, following a long battle with cancer, my sister and I returned to Bisley church for the funeral and the choir sang my setting of Go forth in Peacethe piece I’d composed for his ordination.

All of my experiences singing in choirs have informed my composing but the most significant is my time singing in my local church choir. There are plenty of composers, my father for one, who write highly complex and challenging music; I love to sing that kind of music myself but, as a composer, that’s not what I feel moved to write. It’s strange to recall that after I met my husband, who’d been a star chorister in the choir of New College, Oxford, I went through a phase of feeling quite bitter that I hadn’t been a chorister in a big cathedral choir. Throughout my singing career I’ve become aware that most of my colleagues did indeed attend Eton Choral Courses and National Youth Choir when they were younger and, again, I have felt annoyed that I wasn’t given such opportunities. But now I realise my calling as a composer is to write the kind of music which choirs like the one I sang in as a child and choirs like it all over the world can sing and enjoy singing. I care deeply that my music is as accessible as possible to choirs of all sizes and abilities which is why I record demos of all of my pieces so that singers who aren’t necessarily confident in reading music can listen to their vocal line and learn the notes by ear instead.

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

At the start of my career as a freelance singer I was full of self-doubt and rather shy. I’d come from a family of high-profile professional musicians, which felt like a lot to live up to. I was forever comparing myself with my viola-playing grandfather, my composer father, my opera singing uncle and aunt, wondering if I’d ever make the grade. I now know that comparison is the thief of joy – thank you Brené Brown – and try to avoid comparing my career with anyone else’s. I also didn’t know where to begin as a freelancer because, in those days, there weren’t all of the wonderful apprentice schemes that there are now. I had to learn to believe in myself, trust my instincts, forge my own path and seek out mentors. This is the advice I now pass on to young people entering the profession. Everyone’s route into the music business is different and there’s no single path to follow. We have to find our own way and hope to meet people who can give us good advice.

When I became Musical Director of The Swingle Singers, I had to deal with a few sexist comments such as “women are too emotional to be in charge” and “arrangements for just upper voices wouldn’t work because there’s no bass line”. It also took me a while to get used to the particular style of male banter peculiar to those men who’ve been choristers in all-male choirs most of their lives. Leadership of The Swingles had been rather male-dominated since the 1960s and so it was a challenge at the beginning to be a female MD but I’m happy to say that that tide had turned by the time I left the group and Ward Swingle, the group’s founder, wrote me a beautiful card thanking me for having established a sense of togetherness in the group, which meant everything. At Ward’s funeral eight years ago, my arrangement of Amazing Grace was sung as his coffin was lowered into the grave; that was a moment I’ll never forget.

Covid was a huge challenge to all artists, of course. I kept myself sane by being creative, writing and recording a lot of music at home, but I missed the camaraderie of being with other musicians. There’s nothing like it.

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

I love writing to a commission brief because having certain parameters in place before I put pencil to manuscript paper actually gets the creative juices flowing more readily than when I’m composing without a brief. For example, with the commission for the coronation piece, the scoring, duration, subject matter and accessibility were all established before I began writing. Once I’d found my text, the music came relatively quickly. I’m currently working on a number of other commissions: I’m writing a grace setting for Churchill College in Cambridge for their non-auditioning choir Inter Alios to sing at formal dinners; the brief here was to keep it short and simple and for the style to be something along the lines of my Give us Gracewhich is a gospel-inflected setting of a Jane Austen prayer. I’m also writing a part-song for a wonderful upper voices choir in north London called Jubilate; for this one, I’ll write my own words which is something I enjoy doing; it’ll be about the joys of singing in choirs.

Of which works are you most proud?

It’s hard to say because each piece/song I’ve written has made me proud for different reasons. I’ve written a number of songs for upper voices, often incorporating ideas surrounding gender equality, including Twenty-first-century Woman which we recorded at Abbey Road Studios in 2018 with an all-female choir, band, engineering team and production team. I conducted the session and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. We also made history by being the first ever all-female recording session to take place at Abbey Road Studios. That was a proud moment. I made a music video which features, among others, Prue Leith, Joanna Lumley, Ruby Wax, the Bishop of London, the Harlequins Rugby Team… I also wrote a song called A place for us maids to mark 40 years of women students at Cambridge and one called A woman (wearing bloomers) on a wheel which is a witty Victorian-style song about the impact which the invention of the bicycle had on women’s clothing. It’s been made into a wonderful film by the National Youth Girls’ Choir of Great Britain, filmed on location at the Beamish Museum in Durham. For the Military Wives Choirs of Great Britain I co-wrote a song, with my husband Alexander, called We will remember them which tells a war story from the perspective of wives married to fighting soldiers.

Of my church pieces, I think I’m most proud of my King’s College Service and my Preces and Responsesbecause they’ve been sung so many times by choirs in the UK and the USA. I’m also thrilled that Tenebrae chose to record my Advent ‘O’ Carol on their latest Christmas album. It’s a stunning recording.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

A good tune, something memorable such as a refrain or chorus, jazz-inflected harmonies, rhythms which spring from the natural rhythms of the words I’m setting. I’m not a ground-breaking composer, I’m not stretching the boundaries of choral music or finding a brand new compositional language. I don’t have any desire to win competitions (although I do have a secret desire to write an Oscar-winning end credits song for a film!) or to have accolades bestowed upon me. I just want to write lovely music which choirs want to sing.

How do you work?

I write at my lovely old Steinway piano which I inherited from my father when he inherited his mother’s piano. I have to have a tidy room in order to feel creative so I often start the day with a general clear-up – I have two teenage sons so there’s always plenty of stuff lying around! Then I settle down, recite the text aloud a number of times until (with any luck) a melody begins to suggest itself to me. At this point, I start to sing as I accompany myself on the piano. Harmonies come as does an overall shape and, once I start to commit the music to manuscript paper, I’m immersed and tend not to come up for air until I’m hungry for lunch. If I feel blocked, I go for a blowy stroll across the fields into the village and usually get some great ideas as I walk which I sing into the voice-memo app on my phone, much to the amusement of passing dog walkers!

Tell us more about ‘The Mountains Shall Bring Peace’, your special coronation commission from the Royal School of Church Music….

I was keen to find words which reflected not only King Charles’s faith but also something of his passion for the natural world and his love of the outdoors. When I think of our former Prince of Wales, I picture him walking in the Welsh mountains or in the Scottish Highlands; I’m Welsh born and my father’s side of the family is Scottish so it’s familiar territory for me. I’m also all too aware that this Coronation is taking place during a very turbulent time for our country and our planet and so I was searching for words which would in some way give us all hope for the future. I settled on the opening verses of Psalm 72 because they perfectly encapsulate all of this and more. It’s generally believed that this Psalm was the coronation hymn for the King of Judah; the words speak of the king’s role in relationship to his people and to God. But best of all is the third verse which, in the King James version, reads: “The mountains shall bring peace unto the people”. What could be more perfect? It also gave me my title.

Central to the commission brief was a big, singable tune, the kind of memorable melody which anyone and everyone can enjoy singing at the tops of their voices. So, instead of writing the piece from start to end, I began with this melody, honing it over time until I was satisfied with it. When I was setting the words “the mountains shall bring peace unto the people” I created a melodic shape comprising rising and falling 4ths which, together with the melodic sequence, depicts the mountains.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

If you can make a living doing something you love, to me that is success. Contentment is everything. I may have made more money being a barrister (which is the profession suggested to me by a school career’s advisor!) but I don’t think that would have made me happy because I always knew, from the age of 2, that I wanted to be a musician. When I’d just graduated from Oxford I wasn’t ready yet so I did a PGCE and taught music in a secondary school for three years, having singing lessons every week until I felt ready to start auditioning for singing work.

I never take my career for granted and am grateful every day that I get to earn a living from composing, singing and coaching choirs.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

I would say this: there are no rules. Stay true to yourself and write the music you feel compelled to write, whatever form that takes. Authenticity is everything. By all means be inspired by other people but don’t feel you have to write like they do. We are all different and we were put on this earth to be uniquely ourselves. Don’t compare yourself with other composers; stay in your own lane.

On a more practical level, having additional strands of income which can sustain you during lean composing patches can be a lifeline. For me, it’s being a session singer for film and TV soundtracks and coaching choirs and a cappella groups. It’s good to have lots of strings to your bow if you want to be a freelance musician. I learned that from my grandfather Watson Forbes whose autobiography is actually called “Strings to my bow”. He was the viola player in the Aeolian String Quartet but he also wrote arrangements for the viola, conducted orchestras and was an examiner for the ABRSM.

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

We need to foster a love for classical music when children are in primary school and keep that going all the way through to the end of secondary school. Singing in choirs, learning to play an instrument, going to orchestral concerts, hearing wonderful choirs in beautiful acoustics….all of these experiences at a young age create adults who love classical music just as listening to pop music, playing in a band and going to see bands live create adults who love pop music. The trouble is that unless the government makes music a priority in schools again by investing in schemes such as free instrumental lessons for a year, trips to concerts etc classical music will be seen as elitist, exclusive to the independent school sector or to families who can afford to pay for instruments and music lessons. I went to very unremarkable schools but, in the 1970s, even there we had a recorder group in my primary school and sang every day in assembly and in the classroom. The problem we’ve got nowadays is that very few primary schools have someone who can even play the piano. It’s been proven time and time again that schools thrive where there is a good arts programme; failing schools have been revived by installing a good arts programme. Music should be an essential part of the curriculum as learning an instrument improves learning across the curriculum.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about but you think we should be?

Gender bias. I have been singing on film soundtracks for over 20 years and have never been conducted by a woman and have only once (last year) recorded a soundtrack composed by a woman. It used to be the case that all of the sound engineers and producers were men too but that has changed in recent years and you’re just as likely to see a woman setting up the microphones etc as a man. We now have (at last) girl choristers and women lay clerks and choral scholars so things are gradually moving in the right direction. Let’s see more women on the conductor’s podium in London’s studios next, please!

What do you enjoy doing most?

Spending time with friends who enjoy making music for fun, even if it’s also their profession. On New Year’s Eve, our house was full of friends and music. We had everything from a teenage bagpiper to a jazz jam around the piano with our sons Harry (piano) and Toby (double bass) to an impromptu performance by my friend Grace Davidson (soprano) of Handel’s Let the Bright Seraphim, accompanied by Nigel Short (Artistic Director of Tenebrae) on the piano and trumpet obbligato courtesy of Mark Armstrong (NYJO Director), to a raucous sing-song of a brilliant arrangement by my husband Alexander L’Estrange (who writes for The King’s Singers) of ABBA’s Happy New Year at midnight. We also love to have a cappella singer friends over for dinner and to sing Take Six arrangements for fun. Once a month, we meet up with friends in a pub in London who love to sing 16th-century music by Tallis, Tye, Byrd and Gibbons from part-books with original, early notation. Eclectic is the word! No matter what the style of music, there’s nothing better than making music with friends.


The Mountains shall bring peace is Joanna Forbes L’Estrange’s specially-commissioned coronation anthem for the Royal School of Church Music. Find out more about the project here

Follow the project on social media with hashtag #singfortheking

Joanna Forbes L’Estrange is an internationally renowned British soprano and jazz vocalist, specialising in contemporary music of all styles. A Master of Arts music graduate of Oxford University, she began her career as soprano and Musical Director of the five-time Grammy® award-winning a cappella group the Swingle Singers and, since then, has enjoyed a busy freelance career as a concert artist, studio session singer, song writer, choral composer and choral leader. She has also appeared on television as a judge for the Sky 1 series Sing: Ultimate A Cappella.Joanna has performed on many of the world’s most famous stages, from New York’s Carnegie Hall to Tokyo’s Orchard Hall to La Scala Milan and the Châtelet in Paris. In the UK, she has sung to a packed O2 Arena with Pete Tong and the Heritage Orchestra and at the Proms, Edinburgh International Festival and Glastonbury as well as for the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She is much in demand as the soloist for Will Todd’s Mass in Blue and her solo concert repertoire also includes Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts and numerous works by Steve Reich, Stockhausen, John Adams and Luciano Berio, whose iconic masterpiece Sinfonia she has performed fifty times with the world’s leading orchestras and conductors. Recordings include a cappella and solo jazz albums, contemporary orchestral works, CDs with the award-winning chamber choir Tenebrae and hundreds of soundtracks to video games and Hollywood films.Joanna’s choral compositions and songs are published by RSCM, Faber Music and andagio. In 2018, she made history by organising and conducting the first ever entirely female recording session at London’s Abbey Road Studios, recording her song Twenty-first-century Woman as a charity single for International Women’s Day with an all-female band, choir and production team. All proceeds from downloads of the song go to charities supporting girls’ education worldwide.

www.joannaforbeslestrange.com

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

I didn’t begin to compose until I was sixteen. At that time I had given up piano lessons (I learned the piano between seven and thirteen) and attended a school where there was no music teacher, so composing was something I had to teach myself, or rather with the collaboration of my younger brother Colin, who also began to compose shortly after me. What made me start to compose was hearing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the first time, and thinking that this was the most wonderful music I’d ever heard and that I must write a symphony of my own – so I did, and spent the next two years writing one, and when I’d finished, writing another. Beethoven is still my favourite composer, the ideal of everything I believe in. Meanwhile Mahler, all of whose works I’d got to know, became a huge influence, not just the music itself, but also what he stood for as a composer in Beethoven’s succession. Many other composers too were influential, Sibelius and Stravinsky pre-eminently, as I spent all my spare time listening to music and studying scores.

When I left university – where I read Classics as Music wasn’t possible as I hadn’t got music A level), I had the great good fortune to have got to know Deryck Cooke, who had made the performing version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony and whom Colin and I later helped with a comprehensive revision. Deryck introduced me to a number of significant people in the musical world, among them Donald Mitchell, who had just founded Faber Music, mainly to publish Britten’s music. I began working freelance for Faber Music and quite soon Britten needed someone to help him with editorial work. Donald suggested me, and I then worked part time for Britten for four years. As the greatest living composer in this country, he was probably the most important influence in my life. He didn’t give composition lessons but I learned from him how to be a composer – see your later question, how do you work?

Other important influences were Michael Tippett, whom I also got to know and on whose music I wrote a short book – I liked his music even more than I liked Britten’s; Nicholas Maw, who became a friend and an unofficial teacher – I thought him the best of the younger composers; and the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, whom I met in England in 1974 and who became a close friend until his death in 2014. I visited many him many times in Australia and we collaborated on three film scores. Peter said that the music of the whole world was tonal, so why we should we pay attention to a few central European composers who said tonality was no longer possible? From Australia I saw music in a new light.

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

The greatest challenge was getting my music played when I was young. As I hadn’t been to a music college I knew virtually no musicians. But I did send the score of a string quartet to the BBC when I was about 23 – they then had a reading panel – and it was played and broadcast; and when I was 26 I sent two orchestral songs to the Society for the Promotion of New Music (which sadly no longer exists) and they were performed at the Royal Festival Hall by Jane Manning with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Norman Del Mar (who became a friend and who commissioned my Symphony No.1 – I’d withdrawn my three earlier ones). That was a big step forward. However, I didn’t get a full publishing contract from Faber until 1982.

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

It’s easier, I find, to write a piece if you are given some limitations – i.e. how long it should be, the instrumentation, etc. I wouldn’t want too precise instructions, but that rarely happens. I’ve just written a flute piece for Emma Halnan for the Hertfordshire Festival of Music and what was ideally wanted was a solo piece rather than flute and piano, and a duration of about two and a half minutes. I’ve been able to compose a piece of exactly that length.

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

Well, to carry on with Emma Halnan, I know her and know how she plays, and she’s performed two of my pieces before. So I could imagine her playing it as I was writing. I much prefer writing for musicians I know (as Britten almost always did). I’ve recently written an Oboe Sonata for Nicholas Daniel, someone I know well and for whom I wrote a Concerto. He has a very individual sound, a wonderful ability to play long sustained passages without taking breath, and extraordinary virtuosity. It was a real pleasure writing for him and hearing his special sound in my head.

The same with singers, of course, and with string players. I’ve written two CDs worth of solo violin music for my violinist friend Peter Sheppard Skaerved, and his Kreutzer Quartet are recording all fifteen (so far) of my string quartets, of which five were written especially for them. They know exactly what to do with my music as they’ve played so much of it. I’m not a string player but Peter has taught me so much about string technique. And with orchestras, I have a special relationship with the BBC Philharmonic, for whom I’ve written three of the last four of my ten symphonies. I can write for them knowing just how they will sound, and I’m also careful not to write anything that they won’t enjoy playing.

Of which works are you most proud?

I enjoy listening to my own music – well, if the composer doesn’t like his own music he shouldn’t expect anyone else to! There are quite a few pieces I’m proud of; for instance among my symphonies, No.8, several of my string quartets; also my Cello Concerto, Concerto in Azzurro, written for Steven Isserlis and recorded on CD by Guy Johnston. The piece I’m most proud of is my choral and orchestral piece Vespers, of which there is a splendid recording by the Bach Choir and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Hill. And in the last two years I’ve composed my first opera, which hasn’t yet had a stage performance, only a run-through with piano, but I hope I’ll be proud of it if and when I hear it with orchestra.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

It’s tonal, though usually not in a traditional way. I use very wide-ranging harmony. I use counterpoint modelled on the way the great masters of the past used it, and above all I try to write memorable melodies. I think the loss of memorable melody in most contemporary music is very sad.

How do you work?

When I’m composing, I like to work every day from after breakfast until lunch. I may go back for a while in the late afternoon. I learned regular hours from Britten. But I’m always thinking about the piece I’m writing, and I quite often wake up at night with ideas.

I try to start a piece well in advance of the deadline (another thing I learned from Britten: always meet deadlines). I think a lot about what character the piece will have, and its shape, and then I have the first musical idea, generally a melodic idea, and after that I may leave the piece to grow inside my head for some while before I start it properly. Once I’ve started, I don’t often get stuck – just for a day or two perhaps. I revise a lot while I’m writing, and don’t usually write more than ten to twenty bars a day, though sometimes more when I’ve almost reached the end.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

My music is concerned with my feelings about life, expressed to the best of my ability in melody, harmony and counterpoint, and in a form that I hope conveys what I intended. I’m happy if I think I’ve done my best with these aims. I also hope that the musicians, who work so hard to bring my pieces to life, will enjoy playing what I have written.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

Don’t write pieces that present impossible difficulties to players. Also, be patient, it may take a long time before you can get your pieces played regularly. And find your own voice, don’t get led astray by fashion.

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

Of course it worries me that a lot of people who are brought up on a constant diet of pop music find classical music difficult, and especially modern classical music. Because of this, audiences for contemporary music are almost always small. It’s this that worries me most: I feel that a lot of new music today supplies very little to move audiences, if it’s written in a virtually incomprehensible language, and often a very aggressive, off-putting one. And then, except (rightly) for the Kanneh-Mason family, none of the brilliant young musicians around now are being praised by the mass media, which now largely ignores classical music. Their extraordinary talent should be widely celebrated.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about but you really think we should be?

I’m worried that decisions about what new music to programme, by the BBC for instance, are no longer based purely on quality, which I think they should, but on other criteria. I’m very happy to hear music by women composers, but it must be good music. To play it just because it’s by a woman is in fact insulting.

What next – where would you like to be in 10 years?

Still alive – as long as I can keep my current good health, and still composing reasonably well, if I’m still able to.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Sharing a meal at home with my wife.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Apart from composing: reading, drinking good wine, walking in the countryside, and watching and listening to birds.

British composer David Matthews is this year’s Featured Living Composer at Hertfordshire Festival of Music (2-11 June). David’s music will be performed throughout the festival, by flautist Emma Halnan and guitarist Jack Hancher, the Hertfordshire Festival Orchestra, and the Maggini Quartet. David will also be in conversation with fellow composer and HFoM Artistic Director James Francis Brown. Full details on the HFoM website.


With a singular body of work spanning almost 60 years, David Matthews has established an international reputation as one of the leading symphonists of our time. Born in London in 1943, he began composing at the age of sixteen. He read Classics at the University of Nottingham – where he has more recently been made an Honorary Doctor of Music – and afterwards studied composition privately with Anthony Milner. He was also helped by the advice and encouragement of Nicholas Maw and spent three years as an assistant to Benjamin Britten in the late 1960s. In the 1970s a friendship with the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (leading to collaboration and numerous trips to Sydney) helped Matthews find his own distinctive voice.

Read more

David Matthews’ website

Award-winning composer Thomas Hewitt Jones was one of the first people I interviewed for my Meet the Artist series, back in 2012.


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

Without a doubt, my paternal grandparents (both composers) were hugely significant influences on me, both musically and in terms of my career trajectory so far. My grandfather Tony was a great craftsman and studied with Nadia Boulanger; my granny Anita wrote educational music that is extremely accessible for young string players, yet is of consistently high quality. Both had studied harmony and composition techniques with the lovely man that was Bernard Rose while at Oxford (who told Tony in an early supervision “you’ll never get a girlfriend unless you cut off your beard”… anyway the next week Tony announced with a wry smile that he was engaged to Anita); however, over her lifetime Granny’s music did better commercially than Tony’s, who wrote entirely for himself (and often wrote choral music that was high quality, yet challenging to both listen to and perform). He once got offered a large amount of money to write music for a TV ad for a building company, and turned it down. I like to think that I have ended up with a mix of both approaches to composition, although I personally enjoy writing music for a wide audience which is nevertheless genuine, with…that ever-important word these days…integrity.

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

I think that we live in a difficult time for composers who want to write music that has what I call ‘horizontal’ emotional narrative. There’s so much soundbitey ‘vertical’ contemporary classical music that is constructed like pop music, built around earworms and varying textures over a repetitive chord sequence rather than maintaining melodic, rhythmic and harmonic interest over time. Music can do so much more than just an earworm intended to get high numbers on Spotify.

On the other end of the artistic spectrum, I’ve got an amusing commercial music track called ‘Funny Song Cavendish’ that has gone mega-viral on TikTok (currently 2 billion streams, and countless celebrity videos as I write this). It is a lesser-discussed part of the music streaming arguments that are currently taking place, but newcomer music usage platforms such as TikTok present difficulties for composers and publishers because royalty streams are not always transparent until legislation is fought for in retrospect. I’ve actually recently been voted on the Ivors Academy Senate Committee for this year, and I’m going to be campaigning for this, and many other similar issues that will hopefully make issues of streaming rates more transparent for the composers of tomorrow. My overriding feeling is that composers in the year 2022 feel that they must write a certain type of music that will serve them well financially through the algorithms of streaming services, rather than being musically satisfying – rather than pushing artforms to a new and exciting place – which is, in my humble opinion, a sorry place to be.

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

It’s always an enjoyable challenge to write to a brief. As artists throughout time have invariably found, the difficult commissions are the ones where there is a clear cognitive dissonance during the creative process – if, for example, there are words a composer doesn’t particularly want to set, or a subject matter that doesn’t really interest him or her. The really great craftsmen can transcend these situations – but the arts at their best are an honest expression of humanity. A composer is invariably emotionally naked, and audiences aren’t stupid so they will realise pretty quickly if music isn’t authentic. I’ve been lucky not to have to deal with such situations, but in the arts there is nowhere to hide!

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

I am incredibly lucky to have worked with some of the finest players around in recording sessions so far, many of whom have become friends as well as colleagues. The COVID lockdowns in 2019-21 were an interesting time because everyone was recording at home, but we managed to still make things work and release albums. As well as writing the music I very much enjoy the music production process as well, so these things came together during that time.

Of which works are you most proud?

I’m not sure that a composer can judge his or her work. Each piece of music you write is like a new offspring, but as soon as it has grown up and left home, it’s no longer yours. For this reason, I make a point of deleting files and throwing away copies of pieces of music that have had copyrights assigned and are published and out in the ether. If people email asking me for copies of pieces, I genuinely can’t help – and I occasionally hear things on the radio that I’ve forgotten I’ve written! As a writer, the thing you are working on is the only piece you are aware of.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Approachable and mainstream, yet high quality and with integrity. That’s what I hope anyway, but it’s not for me to judge.

How do you work?

I have a lot of technology in my studio, and I love using it. That said, I believe that the key elements of music composition are exactly the same as they were in Bach’s time, that great melody and harmony (or interesting texture used in a way that is satisfying in narrative) are key to an emotional experience that makes great music.

It strikes me that today there are a lot of ‘noodlers’ who can’t look at a score and hear it in their head, and can’t compose away from their DAW [Digital Audio Workstation]. For me personally, that isn’t quite right. There is a place for every approach, and improvisation is incredibly important for all-round great musicianship. But for me, the first idea isn’t necessarily the best one, and while noodling might make for perfectly good underscore underneath an emotive speech in a film, it won’t break the mould as a standalone piece. (It might satisfy a mass radio streaming audience who are using music as background wallpaper though.) The creative process is full of contradictions so I always approach each project differently. As Stephen Sondheim so wisely said, ‘Content dictates form’.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

A second performance. I think many of my peers would agree – if you ever meet a load of composers in a bar, they’ll either be chatting about the PRS, or about second performances.

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

This will sound facetious, but – like the human condition itself, the route into a musical career is also full of contradictions and there is honestly no set way to approach a career in music. I’m sure many would agree that it’s about hard work, luck, and being happy to be poor while you are building up a reputation in your early years. It took me 8 years after leaving university to make a successful living as a composer. Hopefully the horrendous swagger of entitlement of the generation above us (typified by the likes of certain members of our cabinet) will cause a reassessment of honesty, integrity and equal access for talented newcomers that will filter through to the arts as a whole. But that might be wishful thinking.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?

I think that two ends of our industry have to meet in the middle, and everyone needs to be unjudgmental. I think ClassicFM has done such a huge amount for music appreciation in the general population, and I love its straight-to-the-point promotion of great melody. I also really enjoy listening to the Ligeti Piano Concerto. I think that great music needs to be given as much of an airing irrespective of commercial viability, background or composer’s gender.

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

Last time I did this, I said I would like to be in a hut by the sea, with a wife and kids if I’m lucky. Well now I have a wife, Annalisa and one kid. Maybe next time I do this, I’ll have another kid, but hopefully not another wife!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being with my wife and kid.

What is your most treasured possession?

My wife and kid.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Don’t ask.

What is your present state of mind?

I’ve got a huge amount of writing to do at the moment, on top of some mixing, so I’m extremely busy, but happy to be working on projects at the moment which are employing other musicians. Using live musicians is really important, and never more so than post-COVID. Software sampling is really great these days, but still nothing beats many musical brains working as one…


Thomas Hewitt Jones is an award-winning composer of contemporary classical and commercial music. Since winning the BBC Young Composer Competition in his teens, his music has been published by many of the major music publishers and is frequently heard in concert and on radio, TV and in the cinema.

Thomas’s diverse catalogue includes small instrumental, orchestral, choral and ballet works, and his large number of choral titles includes seasonal carols. ‘What Child is This?’ (OUP) has become a choral classic of recent years, garnering large numbers of performances each season. His music is regularly featured on Classic FM, including most recently ‘Christmas Party’ (his seasonal violin concerto, written and recorded for violinist Simon Hewitt Jones). In 2021, he released ‘Can you hear me?’, an acclaimed response to the COVID19 pandemic. 

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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.

Composer Sally Beamish has received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours, for services to music. Here she shares some insights into her influences and inspirations, the pleasure of working on commissioned pieces, and how talking to audiences can help explain the creative processes involved in making music.


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

My mother, a professional violinist, taught me to read and write notes when I was four – before learning to read and write letters. As soon as I grasped the relationship between the dots on the staves and the sound from her violin, I began to create my own music. It is something I still recognise in myself – the compulsion to ‘do it myself’ – to make, to draw, to write stories.

I don’t think I ever doubted that I would be a musician, and I was lucky that the professional musicians in my family were all female, so there didn’t seem to be any problem with that. My father’s sisters were both musicians, as was my paternal grandmother – though she had been discouraged from a professional career.

However, none of them composed, and I was not aware of any woman who did, apart from Clara Schumann, whom I adopted as my role model from an early age – even though I didn’t have the opportunity to hear much of her music. It was enough for me that she existed.

But, like her, I didn’t consider composition as a possible career, and decided to study viola to achieve a level whereby I could support myself, in order to be able to compose.

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

My mother and paternal grandmother were hugely important. Granny would play piano duets with me, teaching me to sight-read by refusing to wait for me, or slow down, when we played piano duets together. I had to keep going, even if it meant playing one of two notes per bar.

We gave many family concerts – my brother is an excellent trumpeter, and my father was a good amateur flautist and singer. Only my mother and I were shy about singing. Everyone else was happy to perform lieder, show songs and parlour duets, and I was the house accompanist.

Later, as a violin/viola student at the RNCM, I found myself in demand as accompanist and chamber pianist in lessons and master classes, and was able to learn first hand about the instruments I didn’t play myself.

But maybe the biggest influence was my father’s record collection. He worked for Phillips, and was often responsible for taking first-edit records home to check for faults. They were in brown paper sleeves: Ravel’s La Valse, Prokoviev’s Classical Symphony, Schubert’s piano trios. Through his collection I discovered Malcolm Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter, Walton’s viola concerto, and the classics – such as Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Arnold and Walton, in particular, had a profound affect on my orchestration and musical language.

When I was 15, a friend introduced me to Lennox Berkeley, and he became a mentor – encouraging me by telling me that I was ‘a composer, and must not forget it’.

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

During my time studying viola at the RNCM I was quite often asked to write for friends, and also for my teachers – writing a violin sonata for Bronislaw Gimpel and a viola piece for Atar Arad. Several pieces were performed by students who went on to have solo careers. I gained confidence through these opportunities, and applied to study composition as a post-graduate at several institutions. I was turned down for all of them, one of them citing my tonal language as a barrier. This was a blow, and it was hard to keep my confidence. In those days, it simply wasn’t acceptable to write tonally, but I was baffled by the sounds I was hearing from the well respected composers of the time. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t have to try and fit in with something that was alien to me, when I was still developing my own voice.

Later, as a viola player in London, I played a great deal of contemporary music, often with the composers conducting, and I became more comfortable with different languages to my own.

Many of these composers were extremely generous with their time and advice, and this was my period of study – with Oliver Knussen, Nigel Osborne, John Woolrich, Luciano Berio, Peter Mawell Davies and others, who kindly agreed to look at my scores.

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

I love the boundaries that come with a commission. I love having the scoring, length, and sometimes an extra-musical theme set out, so that I have parameters to work within. And it is always inspiring to listen to the players I’m writing for – to imagine the occasion of the premiere, and what I would like to hear them playing. I even, in a way, love the deadline – because it takes away a lot of the agonising. Like playing Sheep May Safely Graze with my granny, I just have to keep going. As the deadline approaches, there’s no time to look over my shoulder and wonder if it’s ‘any good’, or what people will say/think.

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

Each musician brings something individual, and the alchemy between composer and performer is very important to me. Often a performer has their own idea of what the piece might be about, or of filling a particular gap in the repertoire – for instance Håkan Hardenberger, who wanted a lyrical trumpet concerto, and Evelyn Glennie, who asked for marimba plus ‘handbag-sized’ percussion; and Robert Cohen, who wanted a cello concerto to draw on his family roots in Poland and South Africa. These are the things that immediately start making sounds in my mind. My three piano concertos were all written within a year, and the inspirational starting points suggested by the three soloists (Ronald Brautigam, Martin Roscoe and Jonathan Biss) made it possible to find a fresh world for each work. The Cairngorm Mountains. The whirlpool at Corrievreckan. Beethoven’s first concerto/the 2016 US election…

Of which works are you most proud?

In 1993, violinist Anthony Marwood asked me to write him a concerto. I knew his playing well – having played for several years with him in the Raphael Ensemble. He sent me Remarque’s book ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. I had never read it, but as soon as I did, I knew what he meant about it being a fantastic starting point for a concerto. The violinist as the protagonist – the lone soldier, pitted against the horrors and futility of war. It chimed in with my own pacifist convictions, and I think produced one of my strongest works. I was still very inexperienced at writing for orchestra, but almost for that reason, was bold and sometimes rash in my instrumental choices, which makes the work one of my most daring for orchestra.

The concerto Seavaigers is one of the few pieces I decided to write and then looked for performance opportunities. I knew I wanted to write for Scottish harpist Catriona McKay and Shetland fiddler Chris Stout, and to put them together with the Scottish Ensemble. The solo parts are mostly notated, but the idea was that Catriona and Chris took them off the page in their own direction, so their recorded version is in places quite different from what I originally wrote. The piece can be performed by non-improvising soloists, and even by soloists on different instruments – which have included nyckelharpa, accordion and recorder – but I loved that original conception of the piece, with the soloists responding freely and spontaneously to my music by extending, ornamenting and expanding.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I find myself speaking different languages, and sometimes become quite a different composer for different projects. My music is very often informed by other genres – for instance jazz, and folk music. Increasingly, I let go of any anxiety about being ‘original’, and try to think of how I can use musical language and idiom to express the broadest range of emotion and ideas.

How do you work?

When I first started composing full-time, I was limited by the 4 hours a day that I had child care, and this worked extremely well. Once I no longer had this limitation, I struggled for years to regain that self-discipline. In 2013, a friend recommended the Pomodoro Technique. I have used it ever since – planning eight 25-minute composing sessions per day. One advantage is that I know when I have finished for the day! Another is that I never have the excuse of it not being worth starting, thinking I have too little time. One pomodoro can be crossed off the list in a spare half hour.

I work straight into Sibelius software, having made notes and planned a structure. Sometimes I start drafting the programme note before writing any notes at all. Now that I’m playing the viola again I do occasionally try out ideas, and I have a keyboard next to me which is useful.

But I tend to start by listening in silence, and waiting. Sometimes 25 minutes is simply a silent preparation. Showing up at my desk is vitally important.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

The folk musicians who’ve inspired me, such as Chris Stout, Catriona Mckay, and Donald Grant (member of the Elias Quartet, for whom I wrote a folk inspired fiddle part in Reed Stanzas). The American saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who I met in 2016, has become very important to my work and inspiration, and I’ve written several classical pieces for him, while planning a jazz collaboration which we hope will come to fruition in the next 10 years or so..! Composers I return to again and again are Knussen, Turnage, Bartok and Gubaidulina.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Communication. If I can express something through a score, via performers, to an audience. If someone in that audience is changed, moved or affirmed in some way by hearing the music.

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

I think it’s important for composers to be in touch with performing. Whether they sing, conduct, or play an instrument, they should be aware of how it feels to be onstage, and to be the direct transmitter of sound and emotion.

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

It’s important to share the creative process – to talk to audiences. The pre-concert talk is good up to a point, but it tends to be talking to the converted. Much better for the composer to come onstage just before the new work, and talk about their process, their inspirations – preferably with examples. It is very difficult for a listener to assimilate a work on one hearing, and therefore to get something from it beyond a vague impression. This applies to the historical repertoire too, and in fact I think the language of the classical canon is very hard to identify with, if it is outside your experience. All the more reason to break down the 4th wall and chat to the audience, being careful not to use exclusive language (such as pizzicato, fugue, sonata form etc etc).

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Collaborating on joint projects. My work with choreographers David Bintley and David Nixon on full-length ballets was transformative, and when I met my husband, a playwright, in 2016, I realised this was the way I wanted to continue to work. He is very often a ‘dramaturg’ in my work, suggesting stories, structures and dramatic trajectory. Our discussions are my idea of perfect happiness.

And being with my family!

What is your most treasured possession?

The viola made for me by my daughter in 2014. Having had a beloved instrument stolen in 1989, and then to have sold all my instruments in 1995 because I decided I simply didn’t have time to play any more, this viola has brought me back to a communion with performers, and reminded me what an important part of my life it is to perform.


Sally Beamish was born in London. She studied viola at the RNCM with Patrick Ireland, and in Detmold with Bruno Giuranna, and was a founder member of the Raphael Ensemble. She also performed regularly with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields and the London Sinfonietta, and was principal viola in the London Mozart Players and Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

She moved from London to Scotland in 1990 to develop her career as a composer. Her music embraces many influences: particularly jazz and Scottish traditional music.

She has recently moved to Brighton, and is married to writer Peter Thomson. She still performs regularly as violist, pianist and narrator.

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Sally Beamish to receive OBE – article in The Strad magazine

Photo credit: Ashley Coombes

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

They always say that you don’t choose music as a way of life, it chooses you. From when I was about six years old I remember endlessly doodling  at the family piano, generally making up my own pieces rather than  learning how to play what was put before me by my piano teacher. I  couldn’t write down what I was making up until a few years later, but the impulse to compose something of my own was always there. I was fortunate to go to a school where music was an important part of the curriculum, I sang in the school choir, and by the time I was in my  teens I was showing up my little compositional efforts to our director of music Edward Chapman, who was always encouraging and never tried to  steer me into any particular style or genre. I was immensely enriched by  a friendship that developed between me and John Tavener, who was a year  ahead of me in school and streets ahead of me in compositional  technique and sophistication. It wasn’t until he left to go on to the Royal Academy of Music and I went to Cambridge that I came out from  under his shadow, but I owe him a great debt for the encouragement he gave and the example he offered. There was never any doubt that he would  become a professional composer, but I had no thought of that happening  to me, and in fact I was advised by my headmaster to go for an academic career (not in music), advice I’m very glad I didn’t take. 

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

This really follows on from my previous answer, and I’ll confine myself to  those I have known personally; I could give you a long list of composers  and other musicians from the past who have inspired me. My kindly college at Cambridge allowed me to do a music degree, even though I had applied to study modern languages, and I was fortunate again: I was assigned Patrick Gowers as a composition teacher, who was a considerably  gifted composer now remembered mainly for his atmospheric and finely-crafted music for a TV serialisation of Sherlock Holmes which ran  for many years, but who was open to all sorts of music (he was a very  good jazz pianist) and who let me go my own way. Also at Cambridge I met  and got to know Sir David Willcocks, the renowned director of King’s  College Choir who believed in my compositional talent and took me under  his wing. It was thanks to him that my first little compositions (a  group of Christmas carols!) were published, and this led to my  association with Oxford University Press which has lasted for a very  long time. David continued to champion my work, and he remained a mentor  and friend to me for the rest of his life. I could list many other key  figures who have offered me opportunities, encouragement and support, I  have been so fortunate: no one I respect has ever told me ‘look, you’re  no good, retrain for another profession’. 

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

The greatest challenge is to keep yourself fresh, not repeat yourself too  much, and find a balance between exercising the skills you know you’ve  already got and learning new ones. Finding the will power and stamina to write when you’re tired and busy with other work is hard. Every day of my life I’m shamed by the quantity and quality of music that so many composers have succeeded in writing when there are only twenty-four hours in a day. I’m not prolific, but then I divide my energies: composition is the compulsion, I guess, but conducting is the pleasure, and being among musicians, sometimes in the role of recording producer,  is a great joy and privilege. My only frustration is that I don’t get  more done. 

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

It’s many years since I’ve undertaken commissioned work. In the 1980s I contracted a debilitating illness, ME (also known as post-viral fatigue syndrome), and, like malaria, it cycles on and off so you have good weeks and bad weeks. When you accept a commission there is a binding obligation to deliver on time, and I had to accept that I might not always be able to do that, so I stopped. After about seven years I made a  full recovery, but did not by then want to go back to what had become a  treadmill, so I continued in a pattern that I have stuck with ever since: from time to time I respond to invitations and suggestions from  the outside world, but then I also work on my own projects. I’m less  productive than in the years I was doing commissions, but I’m less  stressed. The challenge with a commission is to come up with something  that fits the required specification, the pleasure is to be told that it  does fit and that you have actually surpassed expectations. 

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

It always helps if you have the sound of a particular artist or ensemble in your head as you write: you’re writing specially for them. I always try to find out as much as I can in advance about who I’m writing for.  If it’s a group I’m thoroughly familiar with – King’s College Choir in the radiant acoustic of its chapel – I’m half way there before I start.  It’s a poor composer who can’t craft a piece well for its intended  performers. The problems can start when other groups, perhaps not as skilled as those you have written for, have difficulty and think your  music is unreasonably hard, or maybe they just don’t get it. 

Of which works are you most proud? 

That would be like admiring yourself in the mirror. I don’t think about my past work except when I find myself conducting it. I just want the next  piece I write to be the best yet. 

How would you characterise your compositional language? 

Eclectic. Conservative. Accessible. But I hope recognisable as my own. 

How do you work? 

Hard, but not as hard as I used to. 

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

Too many to list. There’s no reputable musician/composer from whom you can’t learn something. If I dislike what I’m hearing, I tend to blame myself.  

As a musician, what is your definition of success? 

To have achieved at least part of what you set out to do. 

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

Be very, very good at what you do if you possibly can. Work harder and more perseveringly than anyone round you. Prepare thoroughly. If you are a performer, try to be true to the composer’s vision; if you are a composer, be true to yourself. If you have a spark of something, it will communicate, regardless of style. 

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

Still on this earth and working. 

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Being too busy to think about it. 

What is your most treasured possession? 

I don’t rate possessions. 

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Enjoying a meal with family and friends after a concert or recording has gone well. 

What is your present state of mind? 

Immersed in my current projects.


John Rutter was born in London in 1945 and studied music at Clare  College, Cambridge. His compositions embrace choral, orchestral, and  instrumental music, and he has co-edited various choral anthologies  including four Carols for Choirs volumes with Sir David Willcocks and the Oxford Choral Classics  series. From 1975-9 he was Director of Music at Clare College, and in  1981 formed his own choir, the Cambridge Singers, as a professional  chamber choir primarily dedicated to recording. 

Rutter’s choral works, including his Requiem and Gloria, are frequently performed around the world. In 2003 Mass of the Children, a major work for adult and children’s choir, soloists, and orchestra,  was premiered in New York’s Carnegie Hall conducted by the composer.

johnrutter.com