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Who is Héloïse Werner?

An introduction to the multi-talented soprano, composer and cellist taking the classical music world by storm

Heloise Werner, soprano composer, photographed in her London Brixton Flat for BBC Music Magazine (credit: James Cheadle)

Héloïse Werner is a multi-faceted musician, rising up through the ranks of the classical music world as both a solo performer and as a member of The Hermes Experiment, a quartet specialising in contemporary repertoire.

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The French-born, London-based artist is becoming well known in musical circles thanks to her vivacious, virtuosic performance style – and unerring passion for highly challenging, contemporary music. Often performing her own works as a singer, Werner is set to record her debut album this year, pairing her own music with tracks by Josephine Stephenson, Elaine Mitchener, Nico Muhly and Oliver Leith, as well as a selection of Georges Aperghis’s 14 Récitations. 

Major works

In 2019, Werner gave the premiere of her solo opera The Other Side of the Sea at Kings Place as part of the Venus Unwrapped season, which celebrated the work of female composers.

The opera, written in collaboration with writer and librettist Octavia Bright, focused on themes of language, memory and identity. We recently spoke to Octavia Bright and Héloise Werner for BBC Music Magazine‘s Music to my Ears podcast.

During lockdown, Werner created ‘Coronasolfege’, a series made up of 37 pieces, one of which was written for organist Anna Lapwood. Another was recorded by The Gesualdo Six on their 2021 album, I Hope This Finds You Well in These Strange Times, Vol. 3. 

In these unconventional pieces, Werner uses her own body to create complex rhythms. Explaining the process on her website, she writes: ‘I came up with a simple 30-second composition where my eyes, teeth, voice and hands each go in different but repeated rhythms: eyes in crotchets, teeth in quavers, voice in triplets and hands in semiquavers. I filmed it, posted it on Twitter and Coronasolfege was born.’

During lockdown, Héloise gave us her recommendations of theatre, comedy and podcasts.

Where did she study?

Werner was a choral scholar at Clare College, Cambridge, where she studied composition, before going on to study for an MA at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

When she was growing up in France, Werner studied the cello at the Conservatoire Maurice Ravel and was a member of the Maîtrise de Radio France as a singer.

Shortly after graduating from Trinity, Werner appeared at the 2016 BBC Proms as one of two vocal soloists performing alongside the Multi-Story Orchestra in Steve Reich’s Music for Large Ensemble. The performance took place at Bold Tendencies Car Park in Peckham.

Who is The Hermes Experiment?

Héloïse Werner is the co-director and member of contemporary quartet The Hermes Experiment, an ensemble in which she performs as soprano alongside clarinettist Oliver Pashley, harpist Anne Denholm and double bassist Marianne Schofield. The ensemble was founded in 2013 after graduating from the University of Cambridge, where Werner was a choral scholar.

The ensemble were shortlisted for the 2019 RPS Young Artists Award. ‘The combination of instruments sounds totally mad but it works because we’ve got all the fundamental elements,’ Anne Denholm told BBC Music Magazine‘There’s bass, harmony and then two melody instruments. It’s been an amazing journey of discovery. We’ve worked with over 40 composers. We commission, make our own arrangements of existing works and do totally free, live improvisation as well.’ Denholm served as the official harpist to HRH The Prince of Wales from 2015 to 2019.

Together, the Hermes Experiment has helped initiate more than 50 new commissions. In 2020, the ensemble’s debut album, Here We Are, was released on the Delphian label, to which Werner is now also signed as a solo artist.

A subsequent Hermes Experiment album is slated for release on 22 October 2021. Entitled Song, the album brings together songs commissioned specially for the ensemble by composers including Philip Venables and Ayanna Witter-Johnson. These will be interwoven with new arrangements of works by Strozzi, Clara Schumann and Lili Boulanger.

hermes-experiment-song-cover-second-album-heloise-werner

Other collaborations

Werner recently worked with another multi-talented musician, the violist-violinist Lawrence Power, as part of his lockdown commission series. She wrote Mixed Phrases, a piece exploring identity and language in performance – a common thread through many of her works. Werner is bilingual, with English being her second language, only learnt after she left school – not that you’d know, of course. Werner is more fluent in English than most native speakers.

‘I’ve created two worlds, first the familiar, in which Lawrence plays viola,’ Werner tells Fiona Maddocks in the October 2021 issue of BBC Music Magazine. ‘The text in this section is from Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations. Then the music switches to a strange, unworldly place. Here, Lawrence plays violin, in effect his second language.’

You can see Héloïse Werner and Lawrence Power perform Mixed Phrases below, filmed in Peckham Asylum.

As well as her collaborations with The Hermes Experiment, Werner has also worked with bassoonist Amy Harman, who will appear on Werner’s debut album. Werner wrote Like Words as a duo for voice and basson. ‘Amy is amazing at playing the bassoon as if she’s singing. It is so close to the human voice…’, she told Fiona Maddocks in the October 2021 issue of BBC Music Magazine. 

Image credit: James Cheadle

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Read our interview with Héloïse Werner in the October issue of BBC Music Magazine, on sale now.