Judith Bingham. A Fiftieth Birthday interview with
Judith Bingham is that seemingly rare thing in contemporary music. A
composer whose music has the ability to connect and communicate with
its audience on an immediate and direct level. One needs to look no
further than her 1997 Piano Trio "Chapmanís Pool" for
evidence. In an age where second performances are often more crucial
to composers than the first there can be few recent works to have received
over eighty performances in four years, a feat to make many composers
(and publishers!) green with envy.
The secret of this success can be seen on several levels.
A glance through Binghamís catalogue reveals a considerable struggle
to find any piece that does not have a strongly visual or literary theme
behind its title, giving the listener an immediate window to access
the unique world of each work. The stimuli can be wide ranging, from
Errol Flynn to ancient Egypt yet there are certain recurring subjects
that continue to provide inspiration, amongst them a fascination for
alpine and winter scenery, the sea, mythology and the writing of Shelley.
This is not to say that her work is not without itís darker side. Bingham
is not afraid to unsettle her listener where appropriate, with a good
number of pieces exhibiting what the composer describes in her own words
as a "painful kind of beauty". The music itself, whilst often
chromatic with a strictly controlled use of dissonance where it serves
the music, does so within a framework that always exhibits structural
unity through a strong sense of melodic, harmonic and often rhythmic
direction. A clue to Binghamís practicality as a composer lies in her
background as a professional singer, having spent around twelve years
as a member of the BBC Singers. It is no surprise therefore that choral
music forms a central thread through her entire output, singing having
been a part of her life from very early on.
"Singing was always there. My father was musical
although my upbringing was in a very ordinary lower middle class family,
father was a tax inspector and my mother was an auxiliary nurse. My
father played the piano and did a certain amount of amateur playing
and I was one of these kids that crawled up on the piano but there was
always music around. I grew up on the big symphonic repertoire that
my father liked, standard stuff, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and I had
all the records that every child still has, Carnival of the Animals,
Sorcerers Apprentice and the like".
Composition started relatively early although like
many composers memories of the initial attempts are hazy.
"I can remember playing a piece that I had written
to my father when I was about eight although I think I was writing before
that but I never wrote anything down. It was all very secretive though
and nobody really gave me any encouragement or help".
By her mid-teens singing was becoming a major part
of her life and joining the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus brought an
opportunity to experience music making on a new level.
"My claim to fame was taking part in Barbirolliís
last Messiah but there were concerts with the Hallé and all sorts of
people came in like Barenboim and Antal Dorati. I also started to take
an interest in the theatre but there was never any question that music
would be my vocation. By this time I was writing quite big pieces, but
very much on my own, nobody was taking any interest. I thought of myself
as a bit freaky because I did not even know there were women composers.
I had no real role models although I adored Berlioz. There was little
contemporary music but when I came up to London and went to the academy
I remember Maxwell Davies and the Fires of London and that was very
Amongst her colleagues at the academy were such luminaries
as Felicity Lott, Graham Johnson and Simon Rattle, yet the path was
not always easy with little encouragement from her parents and teachers
who felt that she should be concentrating her studies on the oboe, "which
I played at school and hated". Having works looked at by others
for the first time proved difficult.
"At first it was pretty disastrous, I was very
difficult to deal with and would not accept criticism at all. I had
Malcolm Macdonald at first, Eric Fenby for a while and then I went to
Alan Bush for about a year and eventually John Hall. Nobody seemed to
get the measure of me but I thought I was Berlioz. I had absolutely
no practicality or idea as to how I was going to achieve what I wanted,
I just knew I was going to do it. When I left I still thought of myself
as this romantic Berlioz figure but I was lucky to be getting commissions
right from the start although I was only charging about twenty pounds.
I remember one person paying me in cash from his wallet! Many of the
people I knew well at college became successful very quickly including
Graham Johnson who formed the Songmakerís Almanac and I wrote four pieces
specifically for them, including Playing with Words, Cocaine Lil
and A Little Act upon the Blood".
It was during the year after leaving college, that
a friend suggested sending a score to the BBC New Music Panel. This
proved to be a fateful suggestion for it brought the young composer
into contact with Hans Keller, who was to become not only the first
but also the most lasting influence on Bingham to this day.
"I sent him a pile of scores and he wrote me this
wonderful letter that I took complete umbrage at, saying that I had
the same problem as Beethoven, too many ideas and that I needed to be
more disciplined. I wrote back to him and so started our correspondence
until one day I said if you are so clever why donít you give me lessons
to which he replied alright but you wonít like it. We used to meet in
the old BBC club in Langham House and he would chain smoke and drink
vodka whilst really looking at my scores in detail. I was so innocent
that it never occurred to me that this famous teacher would usually
charge a lot of money for lessons and he never mentioned it. I saw him
for two or three years and he was wonderful, a real father figure to
me. When we stopped seeing each other he wrote me a long letter saying
that I was the only pupil he had never charged for lessons. I was just
so naïve, but he got me some commissions including one for Peter
Pears, which was wonderful. I just wish he were still alive, as I never
had the opportunity to thank him. Unlike the teachers at the Academy
he would never say you canít do that. Instead he would ask what I thought
of a piece and act as an analyst. I had this thing about spontaneity
and not revising pieces and I always remember him asking me what made
me think the spontaneous idea was the first one. I just couldnít see
what he was driving at. It was years later before I understood that
Beethoven filled notebooks before he came up with his spontaneous idea
for the opening of his fifth symphony".
The commissions continued to come in and a steady flow
of mainly chamber pieces were produced in response, one notable success
being the BBC Young Composer of the Year award in 1977 for the harpsichord
piece, A Fourth Universe, together with a work for harpsichord and soprano,
The Divine Image. "I remember singing in the concert, I still have
a tape of it in fact". In spite of these early successes it was
not all plain sailing.
"There was a time in my late twenties where I
kind of lost hope for a while, my music had sunk into this turgid, awful
rut and I just lost interest. I suppose what brought it all about was
my opera about the life of Errol Flynn, which with the libretto and
the music took two years to write. I spent a long time trying to put
it on myself but the whole thing was disastrous and I ended up shelving
it. It threw me into a very depressed state for two or three years but
then a series of things happened. I met my future husband, joined the
BBC Singers which gave me a salary, and I also had some therapy, which
helped a lot. I was a lot more emotionally stable and got myself over
the kind of writers block that I had, so things just took off again".
The work that was to prove crucial in this reversal
was Binghamís first orchestral score, Chartres, inspired by the
overwhelming impact of a visit to the great cathedral. In some ways
it was a long time in coming, written without the aid of a commission
and occupying over a year in its creation.
"Itís the only big piece that was not written
to commission. A huge work, thirty five minutes and of course although
everyone said it was very interesting no one wanted to do it. I finished
the score in 1987 but it was 1993 before the BBC Philharmonic took a
flyer at it. By that time, as with Flynn, I had given up on it. It was
Jane Glover who asked me if I had any chamber orchestra pieces suitable
for the London Mozart Players, to which I replied no but I have got
an orchestral piece! It was a huge turning point in my career. There
was a big reaction to it and virtually the first week it was performed
I got four other big commissions including another orchestral piece
for the BBC. It was wonderful".
The years since 1993 have seen a succession of major
works, both orchestral and chamber, although there are still the ever-present
choral pieces. Many of these works seem to be written with astonishing
speed, indeed there are few contemporary composers as prolific with
ten works written in 2001 alone (the composer modestly points out that
some of these works are relatively short!). The success of Chartres
opened the gates to some prestigious commissions including Beyond
Redemption, the work commissioned by the BBC in the wake of the
first performance of Chartres, The Temple at Karnak for
the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra which has since been toured extensively
including a performance at the Vienna Musikverein and Otherworld,
a large scale cantata for the Three Choirs Festival. There are also
a good number of earlier works that have been "discovered"
and taken up by artists some years after their composition.
"It was quite a breakthrough when Mark Bebbington
did my piano piece Chopin. It was years since I had heard it
and although he was enthusing about it I was really quite sceptical.
Yet it went down really well and two other pianists immediately played
it straight away. Even with early works there is virtually nothing that
I have withdrawn or revised. If you write a crap piece history will
judge it and it will just disappear so I have tended to just let things
Brass bands have also been a source of inspiration,
perhaps not surprisingly for a Yorkshire-born composer, with a succession
of substantial works for the medium throughout the 1990s.
"I was approached by Bram Gay of Novelloís to
write a band piece in the late 1980s and came up with a piece called
Brazil. I thought it was pretty lousy and unusually for me, withdrew
it. I had made all the classic mistakes, it was bottom heavy and I just
didnít rate it but I immediately received two commissions on the back
of it and wrote Four Minute Mile for Leyland Daf Band and The
Stars above, the Earth below, for The Royal Northern College of
Music Band. After that I thought thatís it, I am not doing anymore brass
band music but immediately got the commission for Prague in 1995
and in spite of vowing once again that I was finished with bands wrote
These are our Footsteps in 2000. The thing is itís such hard
work producing them but when you hear the way the bands play it is just
So what does the future hold? There are no shortage
of works waiting for suitable commissions and one major ongoing project
that is going to occupy much of the next year or so.
"Iím keen to do a string quartet and having done
a Piano Trio and String Trio would like to do all the standard chamber
forms, piano quartet, piano quintet etc. At the moment Iím writing a
piece for the cathedral at Bury St. Edmonds which is going to be a huge
sacred music drama, a kind of church opera for performance in 2004 which
is to celebrate all of the new building work which has been done there.
It will involve all kinds of dance elements, the cathedral choir and
solo singers and is based around a twelfth century ivory cross which
was allegedly carved for the cathedral and depicts scenes from the gospels,
with a strong element to do with tolerance as there was a lot of anti-Semitic
feeling in Bury St. Edmunds at the time. Itís really exciting and right
up my street".
In the year that Judith Bingham celebrates her fiftieth
birthday there seems to be no halting the flow of music or inspiration.
One cannot help but feel that with the major successes of the last decade
behind her, the new millennium is likely to bring yet greater anticipation
from her expectant audiences.
© Christopher Thomas 2002
used for the Young Musician of the year 2000
Photo credit © Gerald Place