On 21 May, British composer Joseph Phibbs’s new work Partita for Orchestra will be premiered in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s last concert of the season. The piece, which is loosely based on a dance suite form popular in the Baroque period, is dedicated to the late American composer Steven Stucky, who was Phibbs’s mentor and friend. Here, Phibbs tells us about the influence Stucky had on his work, the challenges involved in using Baroque form, and how it feels to have his composition premiered under the baton of Sakari Oramo.
What was it about the partita format that made you want to use it in a contemporary composition?
I’m always interested in how one can use old forms in a modern way – hopefully in a new way. I am quite self-consciously building on the past. Britten notably did a similar thing, but lots of other composers from the last century have also been interested in these old forms
In this particular case I thought it would be interesting to see if I could structure a fairly large-scale work, in this case a 20 minute work, using the frame of a Baroque suite. Typically this would include six movements.
It doesn’t follow the exact model of a suite by Bach. The four movements associated with that format – Prelude, Courante, Sarabande and Ground base – do follow the traditional shape of those dances. In the sarabande, for instance, I use a fairly traditional triple time, with the stress on the second beat: it is a rather slow stately dance.
Did you find writing with the constraint of a form limiting?
No, I found it quite freeing. Form is always a challenge – you have to think how you are going to structure the whole work as a whole. I found it quite useful to think of these miniature forms as self-contained units within the whole, but also a useful way of introducing contrast to the piece.
Vocalises were a Romantic period invention, so why did you decide to add one to a Baroque-inspired suite?
It was originally going to be a passacaglia and fugue, to relate even more precisely to the partita model. However, around the beginning of the year I got the news that my former teacher Steven Stucky had died very suddenly. It was a great blow. Apart from being my former teacher, he’d become a very dear friend.
I was going to dedicate the piece to Steven anyway, but the news of his death had a big impact on me. It did change the course of this piece. The vocalise is the most elegiac element of the work. I wanted a more lyrical opening to the second half of the work that I could use to express some of my feelings about him.
How did you first meet Steven Stucky?
He was the reason I went to study at Cornell University. He was a wonderful teacher on so many levels – hugely generous with his time, very encouraging. He also nurtured my enthusiasm for a number of composers I hadn’t really experienced before.
I respected his music while I was studying with him, but it was after I’d left the US that I really started to listen to him regularly. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he was the biggest musical influence on my writing. When he died I lost a wonderful friend, but also my favourite living composer.
Unfortunately, he is not that well known in England, though in the US he is considered a key figure in contemporary music. It is music I can say, hand on heart, I really love listening to.
What was it like writing for the BBC Symphony Orchestra?
It is such a privilege to write for such a supremely talented orchestra. It is a lovely thing to know that you are almost guaranteed a superb performance of your work. It wonderful as well that Sakari Oramo is conducting the work. He seems to really care about, and take care of, new music.
The world premiere of Joseph Phibbs’s Partita for Orchestra will be on 21 May at the Barbican, London.