An interview with composer Philip Venables

We talk to composer Philip Venables about his violin concerto Venables plays Bartók, which was premiered at the 2018 BBC Proms

Composer Philip Venables

Born in Chester in 1979, Philip Venables made his breakthrough in 2016 with 4.48 Psychosis. The award-winning opera has just been revived by the Royal Opera House, where he was also the company’s first composer-in-residence. Venables’s new violin concerto was premiered by Pekka Kuusisto at the BBC Proms on 17 August 2018.

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What was your inspiration for your new concerto?

‘Venables plays Bartók’ is the title of my new concerto. It is about my teacher’s teacher, a Hungarian who fled the revolution in 1956. I met him twice. The first time, I played him a piece of Bartók I was learning for my Grade Six violin exam. The concerto revolves around that moment, then works backwards through his remarkable life. The main protagonist is the violin, but there are two parallel life stories alongside it.

How you plan your compositions?

I’m very keen to have a formal idea for a piece before I start. I’m not the kind of person for whom a piece comes out of the material. I usually try to make a form that I then write into, if you like. Usually I do a lot on paper first, planning and working on the text if there is one, planning structure, thinking about what I want it to achieve. Then I’ll start writing music.

Has your writing changed over time?

My writing changed a lot when I moved to Berlin. Trying to develop a career as a composer when you’re young and living in a city like London is hard, because of the cost of living and all the speculative work you need to do – entering competitions, building up your portfolio, finding your voice. Time is a commodity people don’t often have in London. I found I had more space and time in Berlin.

Was it quite a long process before you had your first major success?

Tenacity is a challenge for composers. I ended up having my big break a few years ago with 4.48 Psychosis. Until that point, I’d been slogging away, with bits of success but not that much, for ten or 15 years. The opera completely changed that. The career span for composers is so slow-moving and long-term. You’ve got to stick at it.

What's next for you?

Music-drama is my niche really. It’s been nice to find that and pursue it. It makes the whole thing far more enjoyable – if the process of writing isn’t fun, then I shouldn’t be doing it. I’m starting my next opera in the autumn. It’s a true story using lots of materials from the internet and found reportage, so it’s a semi-dramatised, semi-documentary opera. It’s a kind of modern-day Romeo and Juliet story.

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This interview was first published in the July 2018 issue of BBC Music Magazine.