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

I started composing of my own accord at about the age of 8, without anyone particularly inspiring me or suggesting I do it. I just started writing things down on bits of manuscript paper lying around the house. I remember making up a key signature which combined sharps and flats and showing it to my father, who said there was no such key signature. I didn’t understand why that was, or why I wasn’t allowed to make up my own key signature. As to making a career from music, that was never intended. Most people who write music stop at some point, and I just never stopped.

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

I had an wonderful music teacher called Gwynne Lewis when I was about 10. He didn’t especially inspire me to compose, but he communicated a love of music and the joy of being involved in music and I carry that with me. I also learned a lot about commitment and integrity from the composer Param Vir. Apart from my teachers the inspiration above all has been Igor Stravinsky. I didn’t discover his music until the shockingly late age of 16 or 17, but once I heard the Rite of Spring I never looked back in my devotion to his music. First hearing the Symphony of Psalms was an unforgettable experience.

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

As with all composers, the challenge is to have your music heard. In this I have been pretty lucky, but every composer wants more and higher profile performances and commissions.

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

Having a particular occasion or performed in mind can really help to shape a piece. When the requirements of the commission and you are aligned it is really fun: writing my narrator-and-orchestra piece ‘Not Now, Bernard’ was one such – I realised it was a story I loved to tell, and that the music could add to. I’m really looking forward to it getting a wider audience on the forthcoming album – I’m very fond of it.

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

I’ve been lucky to work quite often with the BBC Singers over many years, including on an album of my music released in 2016. The fun of writing for them is also the danger – they can sing anything and make it sound good, but if you push the boat out too far no one else will ever sing it.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

My musical language changes with each piece I write, so I don’t have a personal style as such – although I am sure there are recurring tricks if you look for them. Writing a piece is finding a solution to a problem, and when the initial restrictions vary, so does the end result. But when I write a piece like ‘Not Now, Bernard’, which is very tuneful and ‘accessible’, I don’t think of it as any less a ‘proper piece’ than my more avant-garde pieces – they are all aspects of my compositional voice.

As a composer, how do you work?

On a practical level I move between the keyboard, handwritten music notation and the computer. They each have their role within the process – although often first ideas come when I’m on my feet, either walking round my neighbourhood or in the shower. I like the handwritten element because you can trace your ideas back archaeologically if you change your mind. But I also love the opportunity the computer offers to check things like pacing, and complex harmony that is beyond my fingers.

Which works are you most proud of?

It would have to be the two large-scale pieces written for the BBC Singers. ‘The Death of Balder’ in particular, is an original conception – a ‘radio opera’ for choir on a Norse myth – and I am happy with how it turned out, after a great deal of uncertainty while composing it. I also had the opportunity to write an orchestral piece in 2012 called ‘Anaphora’ which again caused me a lot of grief in the creation but which I am in retrospect very proud of.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

As mentioned above, I am a huge Stravinsky fan, and always will be. Of contemporary composers, I really love Judith Weir’s music – she is also an extremely kind and generous person and it was a pleasure working with her on the forthcoming album Not Now, Bernard and Other Stories, which features the premiere recording of her piece ‘Thread!’ alongside my own music. My current enthusiasm is for a French composer called Guillaume Connesson, who is very little known in this country but I think is brilliant and deserves much wider programming.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I was lucky enough, as a child living in Berlin in the 1980s, to be taken to hear the Berlin Philharmonic a few times. The two occasions I particularly remember were hearing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and – the first time I went – Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 21. I was about 10 and both completely blew me away, just the sound of the orchestra, and I still love both pieces. I also remember, at one of those concerts, the second half being a Shostakovich symphony, which I hated; Shostakovich symphonies still don’t do it for me.

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

I think it is a responsibility of composers to listen widely, and to music that is not necessarily instantly amenable. I think too many people, young people in particular, are too narrow in their range of listening. In one sense there is no excuse for not listening widely – my excuse as a youngster was that it was difficult to access music, apart from Radio 3 and my local library’s cassette collection. But the flip side is that there is so much music available now that it can be difficult to wade through it all. But it is important for composers to have open ears.

Bernard Hughes co-produced the album Not Now, Bernard and Other Stories which is released on 7 February 2020 on the Orchid Classics label. It features his music alongside pieces by Judith Weir, Malcolm Arnold and John Ireland, narrated by TV star Alexander Armstrong and played by the Orchestra of the Swan.

Bernard’s choral music is being showcased in a portrait concert by the BBC Singers on 30 January, for broadcast in February 2020, which includes the new BBC commission A Ternary of Littles. The BBC Singers album I am the Song is available on Signum Classics.

More information about Bernard at www.bernardhughes.net

Flowing Waters – Luke Whitlock
Suite Antique (piano solo)
Flowing Waters (piano solo)
Evening Prayer (piano solo)
The Faust and Mephisto Waltz (piano solo)
Three Pieces for Wind Trio
Flute Sonata

It’s always nice when someone contacts me to tell me about a new CD which they think I will like, and Luke Whitlock’s debut recording Flowing Waters is no exception. It was recommended to me by librettist Ben Kaye, and I have enjoyed exploring it over the course of several days.

This is the first album devoted to Luke Whitlock’s work (in addition to composing, he is also a producer for Radio 3 and 4) and it reveals a composer whose music is firmly rooted in melody, tonality, lyricism and expression. There are hints of folksong in the Suite Antique, as well as a very obvious hommage to the Baroque tradition of composing dance suites in the titles of the individual movements. It is also redolent of works by Debussy and Ravel which also looked back to Baroque antecedents, with quirky nods to Prokofiev and Shostakovich in the ‘Gigue’. The music is lyrical, elegant and witty, at times mininalist and at others more richly textured in the manner of Chopin or Liszt (‘Minuet’, a sensuous Chopinesque waltz), all sensitively executed by acclaimed pianist Duncan Honeybourne.

The title track ‘Flowing Waters’ was a commission from the Arts Council of Wales and the Welsh Government, and is a musical portrait of the River Teign in Devon. The piece opens with simple chords before moving into a flowing passage which owes much to Philip Glass in its spare textures and unexpected harmonic shifts, but also to Beethoven in the repeated LH quaver figure (the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata springs immediately to mind here) and also Liszt’s second ‘Petrarch Sonnet’ from the Années de Pelerinage. There are some Lisztian harmonies in the middle section of the work too, and the music plots a course through different tonal, melodic and harmonic landscapes, reflecting the winding and varied course of the river which inspired it. I was particularly taken with this track because it echoes a number of piano pieces (including several of Philip Glass’s ‘Etudes’) which I am currently working on.

The ‘Three Pieces for Wind’ trio are haunting and reflective pieces which depict certain landscapes and the listener’s interaction and response to them. There is a pleasing balance and sense of conversation and humour between the instruments (flute, clarinet and bassoon). The ‘Flute Sonata’, composed for flautist Anna Stokes (accompanied here by pianist Wai-Yin Lee), is the major work on the disc and reveals hints of Chopin and Poulenc in its melodies and scope. Meanwhile, ‘Evening Prayer’, which comes between the works for wind, is a tender meditation, redolent of some of Satie’s piano music.

The disc closes with ‘The Faust and Mephisto Waltz’, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Liszt whose music is taken from a score for a silent film. It is jokey and enjoyable in its pastiche, while presenting some technical challenges for the pianist (Duncan Honeybourne), and does indeed have a very filmic quality.

The music contained on this album is very accessible and will certainly appeal to those listeners who may initially shy away from “new music”. Recommended.

Flowing Waters is available on the Divine Art label. Further information here

Composer Luke Whitlock will feature in a future ‘Meet the Artist’ interview