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Robert Saxton (photo credit: Katie Vandyck)

Who or what inspired you to take up composing and make it your career?

I started the recorder at school, the violin and piano. I always preferred writing music down to practising!

Who or what are the most important influences on your composing? 

As a composer, I was influenced technically, and partially aesthetically, by Elisabeth Lutyens, my teacher for four years (aged 16 -20). In a wider sense, I have been influenced by my ‘dual’ background/heritage: east European Jewish and English C of E, particularly Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Bartok, and  the visionary tradition stretching from Piers Plowman, via late Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets of the 16th century, to Vaughan Williams, Tippett and painters such as Stanley Spencer. I have also been influenced by many discussions with my opera singer wife, Teresa Cahill, relating both to interpretation and musical ‘meaning’.

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

Teaching as well as possible and trying to put the right notes ijn the right place when composing!

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble? 

Learning from players and, as I get older, finding how much young(er) performers play/sing and interpret my music profoundly and with an ease which i find both amazing and refreshing.

Which recordings are you most proud of?  

The Circles of Light and Concerto for Orchestra with Oliver Knussen and the BBCSO/London Sinfonietta on EMI, Leon Fleisher (Sony Classical)  and John McCabe’s(NMC) recordings of Chacony for piano left-hand, Caritas (NMC), Eloge with Christopher Austin, the Brunel Ensemble and Teresa Cahill (NMC), Five Motets with Edward Wickham and The Clerks (Signum) and The Wandering Jew with the BBCSO, BBC Singers and soloists (NMC).

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

No, but I prefer anywhere to purpose-built concert halls. Possibly churches/cathedrals.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to? 

It depends on the weather!

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

Continual work on technique in relation to intention/concept and idea.

What are you working on at the moment? 

String Quartet No 4

Your new work for trumpet, Shakespeare Scenes, is premiered this month. Please say a little more about it

The work is for solo trumpet and strings, and was commissioned by Simon Desbruslais, to whom it is dedicated, with funding from the Britten/ears Foundation and the RVW Trust. The Orchestra of the Swan and their founder/music director, David Curtis, being the ensemble giving the premiere and making a commercial recording of the work, it seemed appropriate to pay tribute to Stratford-upon-Avon’s greatest son. There are five pieces/movements whose tonal centres outline the musical letters of Shakespeare’s name, so that the latter forms the structural basis of the whole.

The first piece, ‘The Magic Wood’, refers to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the strings representing the magic wood/the fairy kingdom, the trumpet Puck. In the second piece, ‘Falstaff’, the trumpet plays the role of Falstaff, the three linked episodes depicting the fat knight waking, the Gad’s Hill episode (with clashing swords) and, closes with the death of Falstaff. The third piece, ‘The Storm on the Heath’, casts the trumpet as the mad, raving King Lear, with a solo violin as his Fool/Jester. ‘Masque’, the fourth piece, rather than referring to a specific play, pays tribute to the Masque as a genre (there are masques in various Shakespeare plays, The Winter’s Tale and A Midsummer Night’s Dream being well-known examples); the upper strings and ‘basses represent the dancers/the courtly crowd, the trumpet playing a Pavane followed by a Galliard, with the cellos accompanying. Although there  are no quotations from Tudor/Jacobean music, the trumpet’s music makes reference to music of the period. In the closing piece, ‘The Magic Island’ (The Tempest), we hear the chastened Prospero (trumpet) and the now-tamed Caliban (solo viola) reconciled against a background of sustained ‘ringing’ string music.

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


What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Being with my wife and at peace.

Robert Saxton’s Shakespeare Scenes receives its world premiere by Simon Desbruslais and the Orchestra of the Swan on Friday 24th May. Further information and tickets here

Robert Saxton (b.1953) studied with Elizabeth Lutyens, Robin Holloway, Robert Sherlaw Johnson and Luciano Berio following guidance from Benjamin Britten. He won the Gaudeamus International Composers prize in 1975 and a Fulbright Arts Fellowship to the USA in 1986.  

Robert Saxton has written major works for orchestras, choirs and chamber groups including the BBC (TV, Proms and Radio), LSO and London Sinfonietta; festivals including Huddersfield, Three Choirs and Cheltenham; and soloists including Teresa Cahill, Steven Isserlis and Mstislav Rostropovich. Recordings have appeared on Sony Classical, Hyperion, Metier, EMI, NMC and Divine Art. 

He is currently Professor of Composition and Tutorial Fellow in Music at Worcester College at the University of Oxford. He has been a regular member of the BBC TV 4 (digital) Proms broadcasting commentary team and was a member of the Southbank Centre board for nine years.  

The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Singers premiered Saxton’s radio opera, The Wandering Jew, in 2010; the recording was released on NMC. The Arditti Quartet premiered Saxton’s Quartet No. 3 in May 2011, commissioned by the Southbank Centre. Premieres in 2013 include a song cycle for baritone Roderick Williams at the Oxford Lieder Festival and a piano cycle for pianist Clare Hammond at the City of London Festival.  


Simon Desbruslais

Who or what inspired you to take up the trumpet and make it your career? 

I began learning the trumpet in year five in primary school – so I would have been around the age of nine – with a local peripatetic teacher. Funnily enough, I actually wanted to take up the trombone, but there was no option! I took my music very seriously, although I did not decide to pursue it professionally until I was around the age of sixteen. This was after filling out, but never sending, an application to university to study physics. I found that music was the only path where I could express myself, which was brought on by a typically challenging adolescence. I also had a very strong focus on composition, which is an avenue I will return to one day.

Important pedagogical influences upon me included early lessons with Brendan Ball as a teenager, and then Iaan Wilson, who taught me to expect standards that I did not realise were possible. Paul Archibald, Andrew Crowley and Neil Brough also did wonders for my playing at the Royal College of Music.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

Wynton Marsalis’ ‘Carnival’ album had a tremendous influence on me as a young teenager. I love the way that the music excites the audiences, through a combination of physical and musical virtuosity. Apart from the trumpet, the canonical Romantic piano repertoire – from late Beethoven through to Scriabin – will always affect me in a way few other genres can. I am also a massive fan of Gesualdo and JS Bach’s fugue writing.

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

Adapting to ‘Classical’ pitch (A=430). While Baroque pitch can be understood as a semitone below modern pitch, the Classical version is somewhere in between. This can really affect intonation, and something I had to acclimatise to on stage in Covent Garden!

The other big challenge for me is balancing performing with academia. I take both very seriously, and I am just about to complete my doctorate in musicology at Oxford. The two areas are mutually beneficial, and despite the extra work commitment, I am always surprised by how few people try to tackle both. For me, it comes down to a matter of motivation and time management.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble? 

As a solo performer, there is a great deal of freedom; the ensemble follows you. This comes with some obvious artistic satisfaction. In an ensemble, however, the freedom is much less – you can shape the musical lines in a personal way, but the degree of precision must be very high, otherwise you can let down your fellow ensemble musicians. You rely on them, and they rely on you – this is quite a special bond, and a very different reward from solo performance.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

Johann Wilhelm Hertel’s Third Trumpet Concerto – I recorded this piece on the natural trumpet aged 26, and it has received some very positive international reviews. It was my first commercial recording, so it will always hold special memories for me. I also recorded David Bednall’s Christmas Cantata a few months ago, which is a very special piece for solo trumpet, choir and organ, of around one hour in length.

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

The Barbican – it is just such a pity that there is no built-in organ!

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Wynton Marsalis, Hakan Hardenberger, Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

On the 15th June, I performed three trumpet concertos in one concert: Robert Saxton’s ‘Psalm: A Song of Ascents’, John McCabe’s ‘La Primavera’ and Deborah Pritchard’s ‘Skyspace’. The last two were also world premieres. I had been recording these concertos for around four and a half hours on the same day for Signum Classics, so getting through them in concert was the biggest challenge to stamina and concentration that I have ever faced. The Orchestra of The Swan, conducted by Kenneth Woods, were so wonderful and supportive throughout – I do not know what I would have done without them.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to? 

I love playing the natural trumpet, but Arban’s theme and variations on the cornet/modern trumpet are always a joy. I also use them frequently in educational workshops. I have recently been enjoying Messiaen, particularly his Vingt Regards for piano solo, which combines an extraordinary, advanced sound world with a clear theoretical compositional technique. After obtaining a flugelhorn to play the second movement of John McCabe’s new trumpet concerto, I am also considering a foray into jazz – watch this space!

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

Music stems from desire. If you want something enough you will always achieve it. Likewise, if you do not reach your goals, chances are you did not want them enough. So, to achieve in life, simply isolate that thing you want the most, and follow it with all the energy that you can muster.

What are you working on at the moment? 

Following on from my recent work on British trumpet concertos, I am focusing on a brand new repertoire for the combination of trumpet and string quartet – more about this another time! I am also preparing Robin Holloway’s solo trumpet sonata for what may be the first ever complete live performance – the work is generally performed only a single movement at a time, due to the intense stamina demands on the performer. Other works on my practice pile at the moment include concertos by Peter Maxwell Davies and James MacMillan.

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

A critically recognised international trumpet soloist and a university lecturer. I also hope to have at least a couple of books published by then, the first of which will be on the music theory of Paul Hindemith.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Looking back on my life and feeling no regrets about the difficult choices, and sacrifices, I have had to make. You only get one chance in life, and I intend to make it count.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Spending the day with my wife and daughter, perhaps including a visit to the river Thames. I proposed to my wife on Waterloo Bridge after dinner at the Savoy – that whole area of London will always be the most perfect place in the world to me. It is also just round the corner from King’s College London, my Alma Mater.

I am also a massive football fan – Arsenal, of course (!!) – and an avid brewer of beer. I grow hops in my back garden, although I am yet to have a suitable harvest! Close friends like to offer names for my home-brew, the daftest solution as a play on my surname, ‘De-Brew’…