A guide to the music of Judith Weir
Our introduction to works by the new Master of the Queen’s Music
Scottish composer Judith Weir has been announced as the new Master of the Queen’s music. After several weeks of speculation, a statement has been released to confirm that Her Majesty will receive Weir as she takes up her appointment later today. The composer, 60, will be appointed for a ten-year term, taking over from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies who has held the post since 2004.
In an official statement Weir has described the appointment as ‘a great honour’ and she says she hopes to ‘encourage everyone in the UK who sings, plays or writes music’ to do so.
Weir studied composition with Robin Holloway at Cambridge University and with the late John Tavener among others, and received a CBE for her services to music in 1995. Known widely for her operas, she has also composed several choral works, orchestral pieces and chamber music. For those who aren’t already familiar with her music, and in honour of her appointment, we present a brief guide to her works.
The old Norse saga recounting Harald Hardrada’s expedition to the East before his demise on English soil lends itself to the most grandiose of stage works. Weir’s intimate setting, however, is for a single unaccompanied solo soprano, playing all eight roles. King Harold’s Saga has become one of the composer’s most performed works of music-theatre.
Her early triumph with A Night at the Chinese Opera led to a prominent string of operatic works, from the Ludwig Tieck-inspired Blond Eckbert to eerie Scottish folk stories in The Vanishing Bridegroom (see video below).
Where next: Weir recently began work on Count Öderland, a music-theatre piece based on a play by Max Frisch with a new libretto by Ben Power.
Weir’s concert repertory has been somewhat eclipsed by the success of her operas. Nonetheless, it is a field of her output that shouldn’t go ignored. The world premiere of Stars, Night, Music and Light, performed at the 2011 BBC Proms by the BBC Singers, Symphony Chorus and Orchestra under Jiří Bělohlávek (see video below), shows off her luminous orchestral language.
Where next: Take a listen to the neatly presented Piano Concerto, and if you would like to hear Weir as you’ve never heard her before – ‘edgy and urban’ – have a listen to Concrete, an exhilarating ‘motet about London’ for speaker, mixed chorus and orchestra.
Innovative and versatile works for choir have been the backbone to Weir’s output since the 1980s. Her strikingly original tonal direction kicks into touch any qualms about inaccessibility in choral music today.
Weir’s setting of a short text by William Blake, ‘The Angel that presided o'er my birth’ has been craftily transformed by her into a glorious carol. And My Guardian Angel (below) employs a natural sense of community through the use of a repeated audience line. Feel free to join in.
Where next: Weir's 2003 setting of EE Cummings’s 'a blue true dream of sky' and the all-male Madrigal are two more fine examples of her choral output.
Much of Weir’s writing for chamber groups incorporates folkloric lilts and turns, which hark back to the composer’s Celtic ancestry. First performed by the string players of piano quintet Domus in Cambridge in 1985, The Bagpiper’s String Trio (listen below) is beautifully lyrical and atmospheric.
Where next: Another Celtic-inspired piece, Arise, arise! You slumbering sleepers for piano quartet, dances with Scottish rhythms and evolves into a playful fancy.
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