In conversation: George Benjamin

George Benjamin smiling portrait credit Matthew Lloyd

Born in 1960, George Benjamin began composing from a young age. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Olivier Messiaen (composition) and Yvonne Loriod (piano), continuing his education at King’s College Cambridge with Alexander Goehr. His first orchestral work, Ringed by the Flat Horizon, was performed at the BBC Proms when he was just 20. His first operatic work, Into the Little Hill (2006) was followed by a larger project, Written on Skin (2012), both collaborations with the playwright Martin Crimp. Alongside composing, Benjamin conducts some of the world’s leading ensembles, and holds the post of Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King’s College, London. In June 2010 he was awarded a C.B.E. in the Queen’s birthday honours, and he was made an Honorary Member of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2011. His works are published by Faber Music and are recorded on Nimbus Records.

Written on Skin has been referred to as a landmark in British opera. Were you conscious of a weight of tradition when you were writing?
Not really. I mean, I’d been preparing to write a large-scale opera almost since my childhood. I was very aware of the weight of tradition, and had much studied that tradition. I had looked into the few operas that are my favourite operas in great depth not only for myself but also for my students over the last 30 years. But when I got down to writing it, I didn’t close my ears entirely. Basically, I just wanted to attack the libretto – the text – and remain as faithful to the wonderful words created for me by Martin Crimp, and just subsume myself within the drama and serve the drama as best as I could in the music. I didn’t find the weight of tradition an issue while writing at all. The world of opera is a lot younger than the world of music, and I do believe there’s space for more works there for a long time to come. I did try to do something different from any other opera that had been written, and I took what I loved from the operas that I love, and I also avoided quite a few of the things that I’m critical about in the history of opera. In a sense, yes, I was guided by tradition in a positive and negative way, but it didn’t create any untold problems for me while writing it.

What were the aspects you were trying to avoid?
Well, I’d rather keep those to myself! I’d much rather answer through my piece than through words or polemics. But if you were to look at the relationship between the vocal parts and the tissue of orchestral sound around them, I think you’d find a different approach from many recent modern composers, above all in the harmonic sense. And also, though the narrative style of the piece is strange and unusual. Its storytelling is – I hope – very direct and very transparent. That’s not always the case in contemporary opera. Plus, there’s no talking, and there’s lots of singing. That’s also something that I was adamant about – that opera is something you sing. I’m not embarrassed by that, or trying to hide that: on the contrary. I wanted to proclaim that.

Martin Crimp’s libretto balances personal and self-conscious narrative styles. Did you find it a challenge reconciling the two?
No, that facet of the text – Martin Crimp prefers that word to libretto – is what enabled me to write the piece. If it were just a simple, completely ‘normal’ exchange of conversation in everyday speaking with no sense of artifice or of no sense of the strangeness of the medium being acknowledged, then I wouldn’t be able to write a note of music. It’s a very brilliant, clear but also strange construction that Martin invents – it’s what inspires me.
I had to consider all sorts of means of what I represent, what I don’t represent, what the attitude of music towards the narrative moments is, and of course how to mix it all together – how to blend it all and maintain tension. But those are problems facing any theatrical work, whatever the style, I suspect. Some people find this narrative style irritating. Quite a lot of people – more than I was expecting – find it beguiling and hypnotic. It turns the whole work into a dream-like object, which is at the same time I hope red-hot in emotional temperature but withdrawn from reality. Music is not so good at representing reality. It’s not for that I think: it’s beckoned by the drama.

How did you find the transition from Into the Little Hill to Written on Skin? Were you conscious of a big step up of scale?
Yes, and a big challenge. Not only is it scored for an orchestra which is four times bigger, but the cast is two-and-a-half times bigger, and the length of the work is two-and-a-half times bigger! It was a very big challenge – it was a real inflation of everything that I’d tried to do up to that point. But in the end you have to plunge yourself in and see what comes out. I did quite a lot of plotting, trying to find ways of expansion and filling a large canvas. But in some ways, the subconscious decides an awful lot. Once I was well immersed in the drama, the music came much quicker than I was expecting. And continuously – it flowed much more than normal.

At what stage in the process did you decide upon the scale of Written on Skin?
When we’d finished Into the Little Hill at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, Bernard Foccroulle approached Martin and I. We had a choice in front of us: whether to write another small-scale chamber opera like Little Hill, or to go for something bigger. We decided we’d take up the more difficult challenge – a full evening. He [Martin Crimp] must have calculated the rough pace at which I set the words in Into the Little Hill, and magnified that by two-and-a-half to three times! The libretto was about 14 pages for Into the Little Hill, and the current one is about 40 pages.
When I say I immerse myself in writing, I really do immerse myself. I concentrate hugely on the constructive elements, but an awful lot happens behind the scenes in one’s subconscious. I don’t remember it being a huge problem of expanding onto the scale. I won’t say I found it easy, but it was less fraught than I could have expected, maybe.

You tested the voices of the singers from Written on Skin. What were you trying to find?
It’s not that I tested them. With Into the Little Hill, the two singers had inspired me: Hilary Summers, and Anu Komsi. They both came to me and sang to me, and I took lots of notes. I just thought that seemed to work for me: writing for a specific instrument (the human voice) seemed to be an inspiration, it seemed to help. Rather than as it were working with the most perfect piece of concrete, working with a bit of marble which has its own contours: its own flaws, its own characteristics. I just continued with that same approach. In a way, I was auditioning the singers. Martin Crimp was there often when we met them for the first time. But they came back to me afterwards, and I wrote ten to twenty pages of notes on their voices. I discovered what they couldn’t do; what they don’t like doing; what they did like doing; the differences in register; where their voices have the break between head voice and chest voice (the passagio); whether they were good at large intervals; questions of vibrato; problems that they have; things that they love to do. I took notes, and occasionally – more than occasionally, frequently – I would refer to them and think about them while writing. That gave me inspiration because of the beauty of their voices and their dramatic capacities, which are considerable (as with all the people that sang in the premiere) but also the limitations. For instance, a certain singer may have a weak patch in a certain register – at a strong moment, I would definitely avoid that. At moments of climax and emotional intensity, I would go for the strong area of their voice, and so on and so forth. I would consider that each individual role has a form, has a structural trajectory across the whole work, which plays with the qualities of the voices, and in many ways is beckoned by the voices.
Mozart, apparently – I didn’t know this when I began to do this – but he wrote for specific singers.

And Caccini wrote for the tenor Francesco Rasi.
It seems quite natural, in a way. But it has gone out of fashion.

So how did you come to choose those singers in particular?
I’d heard a lot about Barbara Hannigan. I was in residence at the Lucerne Summer Festival in 2008, and she came onstage in the huge main orchestral concert hall and sang a monody by Nono lasting about 3 minutes, and within 30 seconds I knew she was the woman for me in this opera. She commanded this huge space so easily, and her voice was so pure, and so beautiful and lyrical. I sensed huge character and a huge personality. So that was easy.
I’d been told by several people that Bejun Mehta was the best countertenor in the world, and I had the feeling when we met that he was really interested in having something written for him and doing something new – leaving the Baroque world and the few roles of twentieth-century music that exist. And again, when I met him, I found this beauty of tone – this huge character, a huge driving sense of personality.
That was the case with all the characters. Christopher Purves: enormous character, magnificent voice and unbelievable dramatic capacity. And the two angels: Victoria Simmonds, and Allan Clayton. They immediately thrilled me. What often happened is that they would come to my home and they would bring music with them – Debussy, Schumann, Mussorgsky, Berg, Schoenberg, whatever – and I would accompany them, sight-reading at the piano. Most of the decisions were made extremely quickly – it was obvious to me immediately that these people were wonderful.
One of the quickest ways of searching now is YouTube. You can find clips of people singing, sometimes many. And it’s usually very, very easy for me to sense a voice and a musical character that I like. I can usually do it in less than 30 seconds. It’s an intuitive thing. The tone of sound, the personality – it grabs me, just like that.

Did you take into account Barbara Hannigan’s physicality of performance?
No. I couldn’t see that when she was singing this Nono piece, although I was aware that she was extraordinary. People from Paris were telling me about performances where she leapt around like a dancer, that she was fearless on stage. But no, I couldn’t see that in a three minute monody. But I did sense enormous dramatic potential. Her fearlessness on stage, alone, in this vast concert hall – every eye went to her, and stayed with her. I did sense a huge force. It’s not exactly what you’re asking, but I think I did sense a kind of magnetic strength.

How do you find the experience of conducting your own works – is it terrifying, or reassuring in a way?
It’s not reassuring, on the contrary – it’s a tremendous challenge. The last thing I want to do is to damage my own piece. The last thing I want to do while conducting is damage anybody’s piece, but especially my own (and particularly at the world premiere!). I did slightly hesitate to accept the offers to conduct at the first performances, but many people did ask me for the first tour that it’s doing around and I will have conducted about half of the productions within the first two years.
I actually adored being involved with the production, and not just sitting around. In London, we began rehearsals last June – May and June. Firstly at my house, just with music; then at Covent Garden for two weeks with the early staging; and then for another month’s work in Aix-en-Provence. I loved watching Katie Mitchell – wonderful Katie Mitchell – assemble her image of the work with the cast. I found it all fascinating, and sometimes surprising; sometimes hilarious, and often full of drama as well – real drama. I found that absolutely fascinating. I had the luck of having every aspect looked after as I wanted it by the Aix Festival – they were wonderful commissioners.
We had in the pit the incomparable Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which is as good an orchestra as the Berlin, or the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, or the Concertgebouw, except somewhat smaller and younger (they’re all about 35 or younger). They are a dream to work with, they played so marvellously. They make life so easy for a conductor! Passages which are difficult to conduct they make easy, simply through their superb intelligence and their effortless virtuosity. I’ve also felt tremendous (and at times, rather moving) support from them, and from the cast. And so I was buoyed up, and surrounded by people who were heading towards the premiere in the most positive way, trying their utmost best.
I remember the cellos having a half-an-hour sectional without me, to work out how to play one particularly difficult passage, and the trumpets doing the same, having half-an-hour on the climactic interlude in Act 3. Before the last performance to be recorded, the orchestra offered me half an hour free, simply to alter any details or update anything for the final recording. We did some incredibly useful small passages which are difficult to carry off very precisely because what’s happening on stage is so complex, or there’s a lot of stage noise. We were able to use those for the recording. In other words, I was very much spoilt by having the best musicians one could have with the very best attitude. It was an enormous pleasure to do it myself. That’s not to say that others wouldn’t do it better, or do it in a different way, but I still loved the experience.

One thing that struck me about Written on Skin was your use of sonority, and the sheer range of colours. I was wondering how that was influenced by your time at IRCAM?
Of course it was – my ear was changed by investigating how sound works; how the ear hears it. But also my time at IRCAM dealing with synthetic sound brought back to me how much I value live sound, performed sound, and actually I haven’t returned to synthetic sound since those days. I think that my music became more transparent after working at IRCAM. It became more critically aware of the quality of sound, and that meant making more specific choices, and maybe less combination and less generic combinations than perhaps one or two of my early pieces had used. I don’t know about that. Yes, it influenced me, but not a huge amount. In no way was I trying most of the time to evoke electronic sound, although I suppose the glass harmonica is like a human electronic instrument because it’s very volatile, very unpredictable, full of friction and of mystery in the sound, but the sonority itself does suggest a tiny bit of electronic sound because it’s so pure.

Did your contact with the spectralists have an impact upon your formal structures?
The spectralists are very concerned with the transformation of sound over time, and sound in motion. It’s that essential thing: timing is everything in the opera house. The timing of surprises; the timing of the way things change; the timing of contrast; the length of sections; the proportions of fast and slow music; the control of harmonic rate; the use of registers; use of dynamics – everything! Everything has a structure on a piece of this scale, and my job is to balance those and to keep it surprising. My desire was that every time the page turns, something new is around the corner, and the ear is constantly being surprised without really knowing it. Constantly being surprised that you haven’t heard the flutes in a high register for an hour; that maybe you’ve never heard a staccato oboe solo until scene 10; the harmonic richness of the glass harmonica saved up for the last scene; and various other things. I was obsessed with the timing, and the proportion, and the evolution of the musical material both in small scale and on the larger scale. And I’m aware that if you make a serious mistake in pacing – potentially trivial things, like the change of register, or the rate of timbral change across the orchestra, things that people don’t think about – that if they’re too flat for too long, the ear will get bored, and the sense of tension will be potentially ruined. You can’t rest until you’ve written the last note, to make sure that the constant juggling act of surprise, suspense, tension and symmetry are well-judged. That’s a big issue.

It’s a constant process of adjustment, then?
It’s just being aware of what the reality is going to be, and to judge it with the imagination and a critical sense. That’s the ambition anyway – I’m not saying I’ve succeeded. But that’s the task.

You were taught by Messiaen and Alexander Goehr, two very different personalities! How have their teaching styles affected your own? Messiaen was not a very philosophical teacher: he was directly involved with the sensual, immediate feeling of sound. He was a little bit more theoretical when looking at rhythm and time – he did have his own very specific, quite idiosyncratic and esoteric theories. But he also (particularly when discussing orchestration and harmony) had an immensely direct sensual approach to the glory of sound, as he saw it. He would transmit that with effortless vitality and joie de vivre. It was intoxicating and wonderful. Goehr (who had been his student 30 years before me) was much more philosophical, and much more influenced by the Second Viennese School. We would discuss and argue very simple but very profound points during lessons.
On the one side – perhaps strange for a Frenchman, an attribute we usually relate to English thinking – empirical approach to sound by Messiaen, and the more theoretical and philosophical approach to structure, and to combination, and to form from Goehr. And so, when I’m dealing with my students, I suppose I try to have a combination of both. We discuss philosophical issues, and combinatorial compositional structural things, sometimes in quite considerable depth. At the same time I remain absolutely open to, and beguiled continuously by the sheer beauty of sound, and the colour of sound (not in Messiaen’s sense, but in just a general sense). And also how to orchestrate the best way – how to make things sound and ring off the page. I can be very critical while always trying to be encouraging of my students’ harmony, or their orchestration, or their combinations of sounds. I suppose I’ve tried!
Messiaen was incredibly joyous while teaching and exuded a great sense of joy in music. I don’t know if I’m able to do that, but I hope I would be able to as well. That was incredibly useful to me as a young composer.

How many composition students do you have?
It depends on the year. When I was writing this opera, I withdrew from all teaching, all conducting, everything: except for two very gifted British students, Edward Nesbit and Christian Mason, both of whom are beginning to do very well. Now, I’m in between large compositional projects. I’m conducting a lot: I just returned from a tour with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra only two days ago. But I also have more one-to-one composition students at King’s College, London than I ever have before – I have six at the moment. I’m doing my series of lectures more frequently than I ever have before: in five days, I’ll be giving a talk about Wozzeck. I’m analysing a scene that I’ve never done, and never looked at before in detail. Teaching this year is particularly important to me.

Illumina: Oxford’s new choral ensemble

Illumina Mass in B Minor
Founded in January 2013, Illumina is an Oxford-based choral ensemble which will perform works by young composers alongside more established repertoire. The group will donate concert proceeds to charity. I spoke to their President, Jake Barlow.

Oxford is already a thriving centre for choral music – what do you add to the scene?
I believe that we add a few things. First, there is the fact that we will be making a contribution to charity from every single one of our concerts. The second is our emphasis on community and being inclusive – our performers are made up of people from all over the university, not just the usual people that make up a lot of the musical projects around Oxford. We
also have members from the local community and beyond. One of the most important things we add to the scene is our commitment to new compositions and up and coming composers. We want to present programmes of new music interspersed with established works of the classical repertoire in order to make them more memorable.

How do you intend to support contemporary composers?
We want to provide student composers with a platform for their choral compositions, and we are looking to build relationships with a number of established composers. I wish I could reveal more details, but the negotiations with these composers are currently ongoing and nothing is set in stone yet!

What are your plans for future projects?
We already have another concert in the pipeline – a concert at St. Giles church after an invite from their Director of Music, Nicholas Prozillo. We will be performing a programme of renaissance masterpieces interspersed with première performances of new works. We would like to keep our other plans quiet for now, so watch this space!

How will you expand the group?
We will be holding auditions after our performance of the Mass in B Minor. Instead of having a set group of people, Illumina will work in a flexible way by having a rotating roster of singers. Town, gown or location, it doesn’t matter – if a singer has the talent and skill, they can sing with us. Our roster already includes singers from Oxford, London and Lincoln. Our auditions will happen periodically to ensure that we are keeping the roster fresh and recruiting the best singers we can.

What will happen to the group next year?
We will start next year with a new Musical Director. The group’s Manager will be staying on in Oxford and will be able to assist in running the group as normal. Our plans to expand and grow include plans to ensure the long-term survival of the group. We should have a significant enough roster of singers to ensure our continued activity in Oxford.

The majority of your concert proceeds will be going to charity. How did you decide where the money will go?
We are choosing local charities that we feel are making a difference to everyday life in Oxford. We thought that since homelessness is such a prevalent concern in Oxford that we should contribute to the effort to end homelessness. We believe Crisis was the perfect choice for our first concert, as it is a charity that seeks to help the homeless and vulnerably homed by providing qualifications, skills, on-the-job experience and employment opportunities to help end homelessness for good.

What have been the main challenges in setting up the group?
There have been several challenges, and the biggest of them is easily this – Oxford is already a brilliant hub for choral ensembles, so we are entering into a very competitive market where we will need to make our mark. I believe we are meeting this challenge by performing a challenging work, implementing a wide-reaching publicity campaign and making long term plans to ensure our survival.

Illumina will be performing Bach’s Mass in B Minor in aid of Crisis Skylight Oxford on Saturday 16th February. The performance will take place in St Peter’s College Chapel at 7.30 pm. To find out more, visit

In conversation: Imogen Cooper

Imogen Cooper has forged an international career as a concert pianist. She has performed as soloist with a number of major orchestras (including the New York Philharmonic and the Dresden Staatskapelle), and frequently plays and directs Mozart Concerti with the Northern Sinfonia. Imogen has given recitals at concert halls around the world, and is an active chamber musician. Her CD releases include works by Schubert, Schumann, Mozart, Beethoven and Wolf, but Imogen also is also a keen performer of new music.
Imogen has recently been appointed Humanitas Visiting Professor in Classical Music and Music Education. I spoke to her the day after her inaugural recital (a programme of Schubert).
What was it about Schubert’s Lieder that first attracted you to his music?
It was the Lieder sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He was in my growing up years a dominant figure in Lieder: very powerful and beguiling, and he told the story so wonderfully. Schubert’s music is all about telling stories, actually: whether it’s Lieder or solo music, it’s all about telling his story. I would listen in my teenage student years in my hostel just outside Paris, and I had access to the old gramophone – not wind up, I’m not quite that old! – but LP. For some reason, the hostel had lots of recordings of Lieder, and I would go in and immerse myself in it. The solo music did not come so soon. I didn’t really know the big works, but I knew they existed and I could hear such a scope of emotion in the Lieder.
So, what attracted me? Well, partly just the humanity of the man. There was something so direct about his utterance, be it tenderness or love or fear, terror, a feeling of death…He always had this black beast on his shoulder, even from before he was ill. I think it was in his temperament: he was very melancholic, but also a great lover of life and he would swing between the two. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t bipolar, but I think he might have had SAD [Seasonal Affective Disorder]. It was often in the winter that he would plunge down. In the summer he would get out and walk in the countryside. There was something immensely appealing about that, and he just wrote the most incredible tunes! Tunes that just haunt you and you think, “Where did you come from?” There were so many of them.
The connection between the violent and calm has particularly struck me in your Schubert interpretations: it seems almost inevitable that one will emerge from the other.
I think it was part of his psyche that everything is completely intermingled. Schubert had this particular capacity (rather more than Beethoven, who would have used a stepping-stone to get you somewhere) to switch you around from one bar to the next. You can be in the most violent thunderstorm, and suddenly he shows you what’s happening in the field next door where the sun has come out. I’m fascinated by those immediate swings, and I’m also fascinated by how to convey that on the piano, and particularly on the modern piano.
He had a particular pedal on the piano of his time which was called the moderator, which is what I’m sure he had in mind when he marked pianissimo and triple pianissimo. A band of felt went down over all the strings, and you had this ghostly, unearthly sound. I’m always struggling as to know how to get that. I have to say, that piano last night particularly has it, because the instrument has to help you too! Some instruments simply haven’t got it. I’m fascinated finding that sound that happens over there.
Have your experiments on period instruments changed your approach to Schubert’s music?
It’s been quite useful for things like tremolos – like at the beginning of the A minor sonata [D784], a slow trill or a tremolo. If you do that on a period piano, it’s firstly much easier to do and secondly you also have a much clearer idea of what he would have heard, and therefore what you’ve got to try and convey. At the same time you have to keep in mind that you’re sometimes in a large hall, and sometimes you have to go for something slightly different. After all, you’re not playing in the Schwarzenberg Palace in Vienna, or in a domestic surrounding: you’re playing in a big, modern hall, and you yet have to convey the same things. Sometimes you have to cheat a little bit on his markings. But you have to keep in mind that which you can learn from a period piano. The feel of it is very different: it’s much lighter. It’s quite interesting for things like dances: they dance more easily by themselves. You don’t have to coax it out of the instrument: it’s just there, a particular lightness. I’m not a period piano player: I love the range a modern concert grand can bring. I was brought up on it, and I never had a period piano time really. I was interested at one time, but it was all quite academic for me really. The sound that I love getting is the sound from the modern concert grand.
Besides Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, which Schubert interpreters have influenced you the most?
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau amongst singers, but there has been some wonderful singers since. My dear colleague Wolfgang Holzmair, who I’m going to hear in London tonight. That’s a long musical relationship – 20 years or so. I’ve learnt so much through him. He’s one of the rare interpreters of nowadays who really does start from the word, and the music follows the story he’s telling. He’s got very fine diction (it is of course his own language, which helps). Before going on the platform, we spit on each other’s shoulders and say “erzähl die Geschichte” (“tell the story”). I say that to myself before I go on.
Among pianists, Alfred Brendel was obviously a huge influence. It was through him that I got to know and learnt the big solo piano works of the 6 years, which is what I really concentrate on. I was lucky, because when I went to work with him I was just 20 and he must have been rising 40. He (rather belatedly) was just beginning to work on these works himself, so often we’d learn something together. His process of discovery was far faster and far deeper than mine was, but there were not too many set ideas at that stage. He was searching, which helped me to search. He was an enormous influence, especially with regards to sound. I remember the first lesson I had with him was on the A minor Sonata [D784]. I started the slow movement with the F major four-note chord. We stayed on it for twenty minutes! I played it quite confident that I could produce a good sound, but he’d shake his head and say that it wasn’t good enough. He paced around the room listening like a hawk: “too much bass! Too loud! The sounds are not quite together! Not the right atmosphere! A little bit more thumb in the right hand!” It just went on, and I thought I’d never get it. Then I started hearing what he was aiming at, and I also started hearing what I could do. He knew that I could do it, otherwise he wouldn’t have bullied me like that! I just kept going, and kept going. He told me to imagine hearing yourself as a person in the back row: would you be content with what you’ve heard? The answer was no. Suddenly I played one chord, and I thought, “Ooh, maybe!” He turned around and said, “Thank you”! That was a great moment. And then, poor me – I had to play the next chord, and string them both together! That was an hour gone. That was a real learning curve. His Schubert is fantastic.
Otherwise, I adore Radu Lupu. I wouldn’t play anything like him, or very little. The last thing I heard him play was the G major sonata, which was just heavenly. I don’t always see it that way, but what he did was so convincing. It was wonderful. Also, the modern-day performers (such as Paul Lewis). I’m glad to say that there are more of us about than when Alfred was starting to learn the sonatas. They were not so played then. One or two famous ones, but the others were left on one side: quite wrongly, because they’re wonderful.
Is there anything that’s surprised you as you’ve returned to Schubert’s music over the years?
It sounds such a trite thing to say, but I’m always surprised. It’s wonderful coming back each time, because they’re in my fingers. I don’t have to struggle with thinking, “How do I play this?” I have a theory that things cook inside you, whether you’re paying attention or not. Probably because of the other work and the other composers you’re doing. You somehow (subtly, in a way I can’t explain because I don’t really understand it) learn something about the composers you’ve put on the back-burner. You also learn something different from each piano you play on. I could come back to a work and play it on a piano I haven’t played on before, even if it’s imperfect (and precisely because it’s imperfect). Maybe the bass is a bit growly, but you think that it sounds wonderful. I look at the score and think, “Is that justified? Yes, he put that marking there. I’ve never quite been able to quite interpret it. It works on this piano; it’s got to be able to work on other pianos.” Such little tiny details can make all the difference.
Tempi can change, whether it’s to do with heartbeat, or younger or older. Not necessarily, because some of my tempi have got faster. The secret is to keep the long line going while honouring the importance of the small detail therein. That just takes many years of coming back to it. I’m always learning.
The idea of putting the music on the back-burner is particularly apt in Schubert because his music seems to be full of his life experience.
The bizarre thing is that I have under my belt roughly twice the life experience he did. As far as life is concerned (and that is what his music is about), I’ve sort of overstepped him. But then I’m not a genius and he was, so it takes a long time to catch up! And also he had these really dark things sitting on him.
I think he would have known when he was diagnosed – he was already in the second stages of syphilis. If I understand rightly, the second stage is the longest of the three. He would probably have known that he wouldn’t die straight away, and that he had a good span of life ahead of him. Indeed, for the D major sonata (D850), he was really in rather good shape. Obviously he went up and down, but he did have his good moments. I don’t see that there were moments when he could have forgotten it, but he could certainly live some sort of a life. And a pretty rumbustious life! I don’t think he looked after himself very well: he drank too much, he smoked, and he took opium. He was probably a pretty unsavoury person to meet!
I read the other day a lovely story about how one of friends went to pick him up to take him out, and found him looking for some socks. The socks he had in his hands had holes in. He was looking in a draw and saying, “It’s ridiculous! They don’t make socks with holes in them anymore, I can’t find them!” I think that’s a lovely sense of humour, just what I would have imagined of him.
Whether it’s planned from on high or elsewhere or deep inside, it seems if there is to be a short lifespan that everything is packed into it. Those that say, “Think of what he could have done if he’d gone on!” I’m quite happy with what he did already. Yes, it would have been fascinating to see, but there isn’t greater.
His life and his music would have been completely different.
Yes, they would. His music would have been more dispersed. What is most extraordinary about those last three months is how much he packed into them. I mean, finishing the last three sonatas in about three weeks. The String Quintet, the F minor Fantasie, finishing off Winterreise… I’d have to look again, but there’s an unbelievable amount. Hardly time to write it down!
I don’t think it was valedictory, either. I think he got so exhausted composing that it made him ill. He didn’t die of syphilis, but he died of typhoid fever. He went to live with his brother, and his brother’s house was new. The plaster on the walls was still damp (which was not healthy for him), and he was near where all the effluence of Vienna went out. He picked up the most disgusting something and turned his face to the wall. He turned to his brother and said, “Brother, I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” He must have been exhausted working that much.
I really love him. I really love him as a person. I feel I’ve got to know him really. It’s a very bizarre feeling.
What you plan to bring to the subsequent events of your Humanitas Visiting Professorship?
When I got the email, I was on holiday in France. I read it, and I thought it had been sent to the wrong person! I called my partner Christoph (who’s a Balliol man, he knows how Oxford works) and said, “Look at this! I think they’ve sent it to the wrong person!” He read it and with all his Balliol wisdom he said, “I think they’ve sent it to the right person!” I wondered why me. I’m almost completely academically untrained. I left school aged eleven and went to live in Paris by myself without my family. I studied at the Paris Conservatoire all the subjects you can name, but all to do with music. I learnt about the Hundred Years’ War from what I had seen from the other side, and I learnt how to become bilingual in French because I had to speak it the whole time. But otherwise, no training at all. However, if you consider the acquisition of knowledge necessary to play an instrument at the top level a discipline: boy, it is! A discipline of the mind: mentally, physically, spiritually, everything. There was of course a huge formation in that way.
I had to think why I had been asked. I thought that it was not to be academic, because that’s the one thing I don’t have in my makeup. It must be something to do with what I can bring to my playing. I found myself asking myself what happens in a great performance. What happens for the perfomer; what happens for the audience; what happens with the audience, between the performer and audience. This was very rich food for thought. I’d been reading (and always do, on and off) Anthony Storr, who was a Jungian psychotherapist in Oxford – a wonderful man. He was passionate about music, and functioned somewhere between music and Jungian psychotherapy (which is an area which fascinates me). There were rich pickings there. The moment I got the email and accepted I started writing, because I knew that this would take me a very long time! I’m still tinkering with it. I was fascinated by that aspect of having to dig deep into myself to put words to something that I myself have not had to put words to, and that not many people choose to do. I probably have colleagues that would rather keep off the subject, who don’t want to name something that they consider better off unnamed.
It opens a can of worms.
Yes, it opens a can of worms. Or, rather, it shuts a door. If you name something, you can shut something off as opposed to leaving it to live just by itself. But I thought that I’d take the risk. The symposium around that is going to be very interesting. It’s still in the making. I’m also fascinated by the difference of performance art which is wordless, and the performance art which has words. It seems to me that the words pin you down much more than the non-word performance art does. I want to get an actor of either sex involved. There are some wonderful possibilities: I’m keeping all fingers crossed. Actors have filming schedules and they don’t know when they will be available. St John’s [College, Oxford] is being very patient!
I hope to open up this area of the source that you tap into within yourself when you make music and convey it, and in what way that source is different if you are without words or if you are with them. That has been a very attractive part of it. I’ve loved the past two days, playing on that magnificent piano for such an attentive audience was wonderful in itself.
I’ve just done a masterclass I’ve really enjoyed, where there were a couple of really good people. I love teaching in that way. I can’t really do one-to-one regularly because I’m travelling too much and I can’t take on that responsibility. A masterclass is like two birds whose wings touch as they pass. They take the information away, throw some away and keep some, and understand some more in five years’ time. That interests me a lot. I’ve loved that bit. I’ve also been spoilt with two fantastic dinners!
I’m astounded and honoured to be asked, and I just hope I can do it justice. If you see the list of people who have taken up Humanitas Visiting Professorships before, it’s just mind-boggling!
Who has particularly influenced your thinking about music?
There is a book on Schubert by Elizabeth Norman McKay who wrote a wonderful book about Schubert. It gets you so much in the picture of what his life was, and she approaches the medical side in a much more detailed way than some.
I don’t read an awful lot of other people about music. Why is this? I’ve only come belatedly to reading more about composer’s lives, and I do find that enriching. Reading about analysis doesn’t really interest me at all. I (rightly or wrongly) go with my own instinct. When I’m not flat out I try and do what is necessary to try and get myself back in touch with that source from where this inner energy comes. I could be listening to world music very easily. There are some things that really spark me off: a Janáček opera, or something like that.
I am very interested in any forms of union psychotherapy: how we survive our lives, and how we benefit from events or don’t benefit them. I do a certain amount of reading about that, and then I go back to the great classics! I’m absolutely hooked on Charlotte Brontë all over again. I also read The Mayor of Casterbridge again the other day and thought, “This dark tale really is extraordinary!” That’s really what fuels and fires me.
I’ve read relatively little of somebody like Charles Rosen. I might in future years. I haven’t read all of Alfred’s books. There’s a need for so much other that it just doesn’t quite get in!

The Man behind the Myth: John Suchet on Beethoven

John Suchet

“Beethoven’s deafness is the key to understanding his life and his music.”

I am talking to John Suchet in the green room of the Holywell Music Room. John is in Oxford to promote his latest book (“Beethoven: The Man Revealed”), giving a talk as part of an evening themed around the great composer. With a small recital by Oxford Lieder Young Artists Lucy Hall and Gavin Roberts first on the programme, there is still a while before the evening begins for John to talk to me about his musical passion.

“To begin with, a long time ago, all I knew of Beethoven was the angry stuff: the man with the permanent scowl on his face and the hair flying everywhere.” But the discovery of Beethoven’s slow movements completely changed things. “Over the years I discovered this whole body of gentle, lyrical music. I thought to myself, hang on a minute: he went deaf, didn’t he? He was always angry, wasn’t he? So how did he write that?”

Beethoven’s music has become something of an obsession for John, and he describes how the composer accompanied him wherever work took him. “The greatest boy’s toy invention for me was the Walkman. I’d just become an ITN reporter in 1976 when it came out. Suddenly I could take a cassette of Beethoven with me anywhere I went. A moment I’ll never forget is when I took a ferry which left from Limassol in Cyprus at midnight for Beirut in Lebanon at the height of the Lebanese civil war. I was the only passenger on board, and we were steaming towards a red glow. I had in my pocket Beethoven’s Eroica and a battered Walkman, so I put it on. Every time I listen to that piece, I think of that moment. There’s something about Beethoven which puts your mind in the right place.”

“Beethoven: The Man Revealed” arrives at Beethoven’s music through the life of the composer. “Even if you listen to his music without knowing anything about his life, it’s amazing. But if you listen to it knowing what was going on in his life when he wrote a piece, you listen with completely different ears. Beethoven’s music is his autobiography.” He names Beethoven’s piano sonatas as a prime example of this, drawing upon the penultimate sonata (Op. 110) to illustrate this. “He sounds a chord, and he repeats it no fewer than 9 times, getting louder and louder. I think he is saying, ‘I have the one problem that a musician cannot live with (deafness), and I overcame it. That’s my message to you of future generations: you can overcome your problems.’ I know that’s a romanticised view, but that’s how I see it. I believe that Beethoven really did pour his life into his music.”

The choice of this particular piece is no coincidence: John tells me that it is “the one piece of Beethoven which I couldn’t live without”. His favourite recording of the piece is by the German pianist Jörg Demus made on Beethoven’s last piano in 1969. “After this recording was made, they covered the keys with a Perspex cover because it was now too delicate. When I bought the recording of this in the Beethoven House in Bonn, the woman who sold it to me said, ‘This is the last time Beethoven’s voice was heard’.”

I ask if any of his research had surprised him. “Yes, definitely. He’s a more ‘human’ human than most people and most books give him credit for.” He describes the layers of myth which surround the composer. “If you go and see statues of Beethoven in Europe, there are massive bronze statues and massive marble busts. He wasn’t like that at all. In fact, he was about 5 foot 6, ugly – the first girl he proposed marriage to turned him down because (in her words) he was ugly and crazy! Pock-marked face, and ill-fitting clothes that needed repair. He grew up and lived in a city at war. He had to pay his rent. He had to eat and drink. He had to buy his clothes. That’s the Beethoven that fascinates me, not the God-like creature that is normally portrayed in biographies of him.”

The process of writing the book was much shorter than anticipated. “When I started, the publisher asked how long it would take, and I said a year. He asked if I could do it in 10 months, and I said it would be impossible. I did it in 5. It was all in my head.” John tells me that there was only one new piece of research which he undertook for the book. “I found out that as a young man he took a boat trip up the Rhine with the rest of the court orchestra. Because he was the youngest member (he was 19), he was appointed kitchen scullion. Can you believe that? The great God Beethoven was kitchen scullion. Because he did so well, he was promoted to waiter. That fascinates me.” John’s trip recreated Beethoven’s journey down the Rhine, onto the River Main and down the Tauber and another little river to get to Mergentheim, where Beethoven and the rest of his orchestra played for a meeting of the Teutonic Order. “I sailed past the great rocks in the Rhine that he would have sailed past: like the Lorelei, like the Drachenfels and I saw what he would have seen because these rocks are unchanged for thousands of years. That brought me really close to the man.”

It is this quest to uncover the human side of Beethoven which underpins the talk later in the evening. John’s speech is markedly free from musicological jargon, an approach echoing that of his latest publication. “There are millions of Beethoven fans across the world who can’t read a note of music, and have no intention of doing so and don’t want to do so, but still adore his music. This book is for them.”

In conversation: Giles Underwood

“What’s missing from our performance is physicality,” says Giles Underwood. Although the “nuts and bolts” of a performance must be there, it is the communicative aspect which is the most important.

After all, Giles certainly has the experience to make such a statement. Not only has he sung with a range of ensembles (from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), but he has sung a range of operatic roles and performs regularly in recital. Alongside his international career as a bass-baritone, Giles is in great demand as a vocal teacher (with students at both Oxford and Cambridge).

Giles’ introduction to singing was a chance one. “I think I was being troublesome at school, and my Mum saw an advert in the parish magazine for chorister positions in Westminster Abbey, and it all started from there.” Although his experience as a chorister provided a useful grounding for his later career, Giles moved away from singing after his voice broke. “I felt like I’d had enough,” he admits. “It wasn’t until I was about 17 that I wanted to know what voice I had.” It was his experience of an Eton Choral Course which really cemented his passion for singing, prompting him to apply for a choral scholarship at Magdalen College, Oxford.

I ask Giles about his experience of Oxford’s music scene. “The Magdalen choral scholarship was pretty full-time. I did a few gala operas and things – we did a production of The Beggar’s Opera, which was one of my first experiences. I did quite a lot of extra-curricular stuff. I ran two groups – one of them was secular part-songs, and the other I roped friends in to sing some outrageous stuff!” It was only halfway through his time at Oxford that Giles decided to push his singing even further. “I’d been having lessons during my time at Magdalen and it went from there. I started doing stuff for New Chamber Opera as well.” The link with New Chamber Opera is one which has prevailed to this day: “The last few years I’ve been doing a couple of their summer shows – last year they did Salieri’s Falstaff.” Although he admits that it’s not on the same level as Mozart, “there are some genuinely funny moments and some genuinely beautiful moments in there. But there are too many arias, and some rather overstay their welcome!”

Another important experience was a performance of Puccini’s La bohème while at school. “They got professionals in to sing the big roles, and I sang Colline – the bass role. I thought, “This is amazing! Why haven’t I come across this before?” I think that’s what made me do more with my singing. I’m sure I sang it terribly, but I have very fond memories of it.”

Alongside Puccini, Giles names Mozart and Britten as the opera composers who he feels the most connection with. After leaving Magdalen, he took postgraduate and opera courses at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, studying with Susan McCulloch and winning prizes for English and Contemporary Song. While at Guildhall, he was given the opportunity to sing the roles of Count Almaviva in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Tarquinius in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. “They were both operas that I knew really well, and the opportunity to sing major roles was fantastic. Quite often you find that music colleges avoid mainstream operas because they don’t want to be unfavourably compared with singers at the top of their game.”

Giles has been an enthusiastic exponent of contemporary music for some time, although part of the course while at Guildhall was of particular interest. “I did a course called Creative Voices, which was run by Sarah Walker. It paired few singers from the postgraduate course with a few postgraduate composers. It was a really good collaborative thing, and a few of the composers I worked with on that course are now doing rather well. It was nice to get a different view of how the music was put together.”

I ask him how audiences have reacted to contemporary music which he has performed. “It really does depend on the music.” He quotes James MacMillan’s one-act opera Parthenogenesis as an example. Although he thinks that it is brilliant, he admits that it is not the easiest piece to listen to. “I think that’s the problem with contemporary music– if it’s really cutting edge, the first time audiences listen might well be the only time. If you don’t grab them, it’s hard for them to understand.” Giles suggests that many contemporary works need repeated listening in order to be understood. “Some operas you listen to and think “It looks great, it sounds amazing, but I don’t get it.” And then halfway through the second half it clicks and you wish you could listen to Act 1 again!”

A particularly moving experience was when Giles performed Adam Gorb’s cantata Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank wall (which incorporates words by John McCarthy about his kidnapping). “I found it difficult to make music out of it. It wasn’t until the first performance when John McCarthy was three rows in front of me and I was singing it to him that I really understood.” Giles suggests that many performers are too concerned with perfecting the notes that they neglect the expressive aspect of music. “To worry about the nuts and bolts you need to be making music – imparting information and communicating with your audience. If you never get past the nuts and bolts stage, you’ve failed at your mission.”

Many rehearsals are rushed due to the economic system which underpins music. “Partly that’s a logistical thing – you can’t pay singers to be in a room if you haven’t got that money, and there’s just about time to get the notes right. There are some groups who barely do that.” He doesn’t view this as a satisfying system. “I don’t think you can realistically put together something on a three-hour rehearsal, and I’m speaking as someone who’s done that for my whole career.”

This is especially the case in the recording process. Giles argues that the best recordings are live ones. “All you have to do is look at the live opera recordings. They might not have all the right notes, but there’s a sense of direction to the music. The recording industry is just concerned with getting things right. The attention to details and perfectionism has taken a lot out of the music. I like accuracy, but I prefer a sense of communication over note perfection.”

This changes the subject to that of opera. Over the course of his career, Giles has performed in a wide range of operas (from Berlioz to Purcell). “One of the most interesting productions I’ve been in was a contemporary opera where there was a stage-on-a-stage, so we could dissemble it and rearrange it however we wanted it to go. Just before the first show, the designer decided to polish this mirror-like surface. It was like an ice rink! How we didn’t fall off, I have no idea!”

When I met Giles (through a choral masterclass), he named African music as a crucial influence upon his singing. He tells me about the collaboration between I Fagiolini and the SDASA Chorale (from Soweto), enthusing “the way of singing in Africa is so visceral. My idea of what music is for changed because of that.” It is this physical aspect of singing which Giles sees as absent from much performance. “Most of the music we’re involved in is too cerebral. It’s a rush to get the notes right, and that is your function. But it should be about more than that, making the right sound. It’s rare that you get time in rehearsal to explore the physical side to the sound.”

Another project with I Fagiolini which allowed Giles to explore the physical side to the sound was their staged version of Monteverdi’s Madrigals (perhaps most famous in the form of the 2007 film The Full Monteverdi). “It was life-changing for all of us involved – we did 88 performances over a couple of years. It made you plumb the depths of your own emotional experiences. That was a real eye-opener about the amount of emotional involvement you need to put in to singing.”

It is the communicative power of music which Giles sees as its most important asset. It is a value which has clearly worked for him. He leaves me with the idea of each singer taking responsibility for this communication: “then you stand a chance of having something which lifts the music slightly further off the page”.

In conversation: The King’s Singers

The King’s Singers are two-time Grammy Award-winning a capella group founded in 1968. Today the ensemble travels worldwide, appearing in over 125 concerts each year in some of the world’s most famous concert halls. They have a discography of over 150 recordings, ranging from Bach to Bublé. Alongside their numerous concerts, The King’s Singers also run education projects and currently have over 2 million items of sheet music in circulation through their publisher, Hal Leonard.

I was lucky enough to speak with two members of The King’s Singers after their talk at the Oxford Union. David Hurley is the longest-serving current member (having joined in February 1990), and Christopher Bruerton is the group’s latest addition (February 2012). They sing countertenor and baritone respectively.

Do you approach each genre in a different way?

DH: We approach everything as a piece of music. Inevitably there are some differences between Renaissance, Classical and Pop pieces, but there is a cross-over of sound between the styles. We tend to use more of a breathy sound in the pop stuff than in the classical repertoire, but we don’t have a different sound for different pieces.

How often do you introduce new repertoire?

DH: There’s always stuff that we’re introducing. Sometimes it’s introducing it for everybody, and sometimes it’s introducing it to some of the group. We did a concert last night in Christ Church, Spitalfields. The second half was by request: people bought a raffle ticket, and the money went to the King’s Singers Foundation. If their number was drawn, they were given the opportunity to pick what we would sing next from a list of about 40 songs. For me it was relatively easy, but for Chris Bruerton (our newest member) there was an awful lot of stuff that he’d had to learn especially.

Current recording projects are a very fertile area when it comes to enhancing the repertoire. We’ve just recorded some Renaissance French music (including Josquin and Jacquet de Mantua), and very little of that music was in the group’s repertoire. We have a studio album that we’re recording at the moment, and basically every piece on the album has been especially written for this particular recording. That will be an hour’s worth of new repertoire, but generally it’s a piece here and a piece there. Sometimes you’re looking for a piece to fill a gap in a concert programme, so you look beyond the group’s current repertoire. People come into the group with ideas and people who’ve been in the group for a long time have ideas. People outside of the group offer us ideas, some of which we take up. We probably introduce a new piece every month.

CB: I remember that each of the first 5 concerts after Easter was a different programme. There were 100 pieces in the space of a week. I did find that a bit overwhelming!

How did you fit in learning them all?

CB: I spent as much of the Easter holidays learning them. Some of the guys use travel as a chance to catch up on sleep or do some of the other jobs that they have responsibility for. I feel that up until now every other waking hour on tour (if not at home) has been spent learning the music. I don’t feel that I can go for a nice stroll out around Prague, for example. It feels weird to go to a city and people often say, “Wow, you’ve been here and here!” but really I’ve just been to the concert hall, the train station and the hotel, but I haven’t actually been to Prague. It gives you a flavour of what these places are like, and I’ve drawn up a list of places I’d like to go to.

DH: A lot of the programmes that first Easter were very familiar to the rest of us. One of the disadvantages to joining the group is having to learn all this music that everybody else knows backwards because they’re not so inclined to spend hours rehearsing it jointly! It’s always a fantastic moment (I remember this when I was new in the group) when something that’s new to everybody appears and the playing field is suddenly levelled. That is a joyous moment!

CB: The project that David just talked about was the first time that I felt on a level playing field. It was a real relief to think, “Yeah, I can do this”. The rest of the time I felt I was playing catch-up.

DH: The truth is that everybody round you was struggling as hard as you were!

The group has been trying out some concept programmes recently. How have your audiences reacted?

DH: One programme we’ve done this year is called ‘Royal Rhymes & Rounds’, a CD and concert programme which looks at royal music through the ages (particularly in the times of King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria and the present Queen). It ties in quite nicely with this Jubilee year. It’s a lovely programme because it covers a lot of different styles of music. In a sense it’s a standard King’s Singers programme because it has Renaissance, Romantic, contemporary and light music – it has all the elements.

We did another album recently called ‘Pater Noster’, which is a very serious sequence of pieces looking at the different clauses within the Lord’s Prayer. It has a different setting of those words at the beginning of each section. It’s a fantastic programme of amazing music, but it’s not a standard King’s Singers concert because it hasn’t got the variety of repertoire (although you can sing the sequence and then go on to sing spirituals, so you can provide light stuff). Very often, we sing at a festival and we’re told that the festival has a theme. We went to one where they said that the theme was ‘Trees’, and we battle for ages to create programmes which relate to the theme: The Oak and the Ash, The Wishing Tree

CB: Often with very tenuous links!

DH:  You draw these pieces together, and then you arrive to see that people are playing Beethoven and Mozart

You must wonder why you bother!

DH: To an extent it does feel a little bit like that! They say “You’re so good, you really took our theme on board!” and we think that if we’d known we might not have done so much! Sometimes having a linked theme is a great way for the presenter of the concert to sell the programme. Instead of saying that there’s a mixture of Byrd, Stravinsky, Bernstein and all these strangely disparate styles of music, they can say that this links it all together: The King’s Singers and the theme. Ultimately, as a group you’re trying to help them fill the space in order to sing to as many people as possible.

It’s the group’s 45th anniversary next year, so what are your plans for that?

CB: I know we’ve got some pretty exciting trips abroad to places that the group hasn’t been to either for a while or ever! There’s a plan to go to South Africa (where Paul hasn’t been since his first tour abroad 15 years ago!) and it’s looking likely that in May we’ll go to South America for the first time ever! I’ve always wanted to go to South America, so it’s very exciting. I love music that’s Latin-inspired: jazz, or pop or rock or whatever. I was a percussionist before I joined this group so I love that Latin feel. To go to where it all started is great.

DH: Apart from celebrating by continuing to do concerts and tours… We celebrated 25 years, we celebrated 30 years. We had a single concert for 35. We celebrated 40 in a pretty major manner. I think that the idea is not to make too much of 45, but to make 50 really great. We’ll probably have a concert to celebrate.

How did your recent CD (‘High Flight’) come about?

DH: In 2008 we celebrated our 40th anniversary with three commissions: one by Eric Whitacre called The Stolen Child, which we commissioned with the National Youth Choir of Great Britain (who were celebrating their 25th anniversary), which we premiered at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. Our main anniversary concert was in King’s College Chapel on 1st May (which is seen as the actual birthday of the group). We asked our former tenor Bob Chilcott to write a piece. One of the pieces which he was going to set was the Prayer of St Richard, and then he found another piece he wanted to do. That was the poem by John Magee, who became a Spitfire pilot in WWI. He went up really high in his Spitfire and wrote this wonderful poem which has great meaning for pilots and astronauts which talks about touching the face of God. Bob was very moved by this poem and decided that he was going to set it, but he’d already started working on A Thanksgiving. He decided (as the generous man that he is) that he would send both of them. We suddenly had this amazing repertoire which we wanted to record, and there was other stuff by Lauridsen. We thought about choirs in the UK and there were lots of possibilities, but we have very close connections with the brilliant choir of Concordia College in Minnesota and their conductor René Clausen. We decided that they were the best choir to go with, and so the album came into being. It’s got some beautiful music on it by three of the great choral composers of the twentieth century.

To find out more, visit

Just don’t mention Spanish guitar music! Roger Wright talks to Mark Damazer


Earlier this evening I took my seat in the chapel of St Peter’s College, Oxford. The large space (formerly a parish church) was bustling with music-loving fellows and students alike. The reason for this gathering was one of classical music’s most powerful figures: Roger Wright, controller of BBC Radio 3. After an introductory question-and-answer session with Mark Damazer (Master of St Peter’s College and former controller of BBC Radio 4), Wright gave some fascinating insights into his career.

Wright skipped through his posts with the Cleveland Orchestra (as artistic administrator) and Deutsche Grammophon (where he became vice-president) which preceded his role at the BBC. Since his appointment to controller of Radio 3 in 1998, Wright has elevated the status of jazz and world music. He became Director of the BBC Proms in 2007.

It was on the Proms that much of the discussion was focused. Wright spoke of how he viewed them as a festival (not a season), with the balance between large-scale and distinctive crucial in lending the Proms their individuality. Even though some programmes would not be expected to draw big audiences (referencing this year’s Vaughan Williams ‘trilogy’ as an example: symphonies 4, 5 and 6 in one evening), the concert-goers are attracted by the bold and sometimes eclectic programming. Wright exemplifies Howell’s Hymnus Paradisi: although he would by no means rank it among the ‘best’ pieces of music, it deserves to be heard. It is this championing of the lesser-known pieces which gives the Proms their identity: they celebrate a vast range of repertoire.

It is not only the programming which keeps the audience coming back for more, but also the intimacy of the Royal Albert Hall. Despite its gargantuan scale (and less-than-perfect acoustics), Wright describes a full house as lending an intensity to the performance, particularly in late-night chamber recitals.

The conversation turns to the anniversaries of composers, and how Wright is careful in his treatment of the anniversaries of composers. Given their divisive nature, he is careful not to correlate events such as April 2012’s ‘The Spirit of Schubert’ with a commemorative year, thus maintaining the careful balance of the Proms. Wright denies the presence of quotas to maintain certain levels of new pieces, for example: he sees this as unrealistic.

Throughout the discussion, Roger Wright revealed himself to be a thoughtful and devoted music lover, revealing that he attends all of the Proms each year (even concerts including Spanish guitar music, the one type of repertoire he dislikes). His desire to give lesser-known pieces their airtime is clearly a formula that works for the listeners. He rejects any suggestion that Radio 3 competes with Classic FM, arguing that both stations are complementary.

When I arrived home this evening, I scanned the Radio 3 timetable once more. Even though I am a regular listener, the talk with Roger Wright has helped me to appreciate just how lucky we are to have such a resource at our fingertips (as the music critic Alex Ross has acknowledged). As I type, I am listening to Ivo Neame and his Octet: just another world-class piece of music which is but a click away.