An interview with composer Judith Weir

The Master of the Queen's Music talks about her work, the importance of commissions and what it's like to write for BBC ensembles

Judith Weir

On our October cover CD, we present a collection of modern British masterworks commissioned by BBC Radio 3. The disc includes recordings of music by Jonathan Harvey, Malcolm Arnold, Judith Weir and Colin Matthews, as well as two works by recent winners of the BBC Inspire competition, both aged 17.


We spoke to Judith Weir about her featured pieces, collaborating with BBC ensembles and why she thinks commissions are so important for composers.

Two of your works are featured on this CD. Did you originally write Stars, Night, Music and Light for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus?

I did. It was specifically written for the First Night of the Proms and was the first thing in the Proms in 2011. For several years, they asked composers to write short pieces for the beginning of the concert, using everything that was in the hall, the organ as well as the orchestra and chorus, which I think was a nice idea.

Where does the work’s name come from?

It’s from the middle of a poem by George Herbert called Man, a cosmic little couplet: ‘Night draws the curtain, which the sun withdraws. Music and light attend our head.’ I liked the idea of the night coming and also, as they always say about the Proms, that the large part of the audience is listening on the radio, or possibly watching it on TV.

Were you there for the performance?

I wasn’t! I had an opera premiere in Austria and I tried to hear it on the internet, but just did not have very good signal over there. So it’s going to be fantastic for me to hear it as a CD, which I haven’t ever done.

Could you tell me a bit about the other piece, All the Ends of the Earth, which the BBC Singers are performing?

This was for a festival just at the end of 1999; in fact, I think it had to be broadcast on the first day of the new millennium. It was part of a lovely concert in Westminster Cathedral, which was trying to track 1,000 years of musical history. My work is based on a piece by Pérotin (c. 1200) called Viderunt Omnes, which is a very famous bit of musical history. Some chords from the Pérotin run underneath, and above those, I’ve freely composed music for the female singers. There are also little bell-like sounds from the percussion.

You write quite a lot for choirs. What is special about writing for this type of ensemble?

Well, the use of words gives a particular direction to the composition. I also really enjoy working with amateur and school choirs because it’s such a social, communal event. But then of course that makes it all the more of a pleasure to go and see the BBC Singers sometimes because of their super skills! A choir is a very different thing from an orchestra because singers have to embody the music, project it from their own voices and bodies. There are some orchestras who can be seen to be hiding behind their stands and they’re playing very well, but they’re just doing their job. But that would never, never be possible with a choir. 

Why are commissions important to composers?

I think they give composers a deadline, which is very important because it means that we do block off some space. Nearly all the composers I know are madly multi-tasking all the time and it’s really good to have that commission and say, ‘I’ve agreed to do this, I will find the time to do it, it’s important.’

Another important part of the commission is that it’s been asked for, either by performers themselves or people close to those performers. So it’s a piece that’s been communally conceived. Writing a piece that people have said they need or would like says good things for the future possibilities of the piece.

What do you think is important about BBC commissions in particular?

I think there’s one really important thing that the BBC does: it always involves a recording. That’s so important for the future of the piece because people have to be able to hear it in the future to be able to play it again or just to know that it happened. What worries me a bit is that I don’t think that aspect of recording or documenting a commission always happens in other places and I really think it should. So that is always a double plus for me about having a BBC commission.

This recording also features many of the BBC ensembles. Have you written for other BBC ensembles?

Many of them. I’m associate composer for the BBC Singers, so have a very close relationship with them. I’ve also written for the BBC Symphony and BBC Scottish orchestras, and although I’ve never written for the BBC Concert Orchestra, they’ve recently given several really good performances of my works. So I think of them as groups I feel very close to.

Do you think they all have different characters?

Yes definitely they do! The BBC Concert Orchestra are really interesting because they do such a wide range of music, so you’re bound to get people in that orchestra who like that situation. The BBC Scottish is a very big factor in Scottish music and they do fantastically interesting festivals up there.

Lastly, we have two teenage composers featuring on the disc. What do you think about this opportunity for them?

I actually know these guys because I worked with them on their pieces for the BBC Singers. And when I heard what was going to happen, not only as a result of the Inspire scheme – the winners of that competition get a commission next year, so that’s already quite a big thing – but the fact that it’s going to be recorded and on a CD, I did say to them, ‘Well, no pressure!’ To have anything as big as that happen to you at that age is amazing. I’m thrilled that this is happening; it’s a huge opportunity for me, so likewise for these chaps still at school. 


This disc is included with the latest issue of BBC Music Magazine. For more information, and to get your copy of the magazine, click here.