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 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.

 

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