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Julie Williams


After the Christmas festivities have subsided, a British music lover’s thoughts may well turn to the BBC Composer Weekend held annually in January at the Barbican Centre in London. (Jan 18-20 2008 Barbican) This year’s event is a very promising weekend, devoted to the Scottish composer Judith Weir. Its title is ‘Telling the Tale’, which links to the composer’s strongly narrative work and her interest in a wide range of mythology and folklore.

Born in 1954, from a Scottish family, Judith Weir grew up in Buckinghamshire in the Home Counties. Whilst still at school, she took lessons from John Tavener - who was based not far away. She also played the oboe in the National Youth Orchestra. Her musical education then continued at Cambridge University.

Judith Weir’s Celtic origins have been a strong influence on her work and are one of the sources of the material she has drawn on. However, the piece which first brought her to prominence was entitled ‘A Night at the Chinese Opera’ (1987) - to be revived in Scottish Opera’s 2008 season. For this she wrote not only the music but also the libretto. This had been preceded by two other musical dramas ‘The Consolation of Scholarship’ (1985), also with a theme from Chinese mythology, and ‘King Harald’s Saga’ (1979), occasionally known irreverently as ‘1066 in 10 minutes’!

Her writing for the voice is clear and direct, with a simplicity reminiscent occasionally of plainchant. Its style is ideally suited to the setting of poetry, such as in the song-cycle ‘’, a kind of modern-day version of Schubert’s similarly themed work, where the texts are by Maya Angelou, Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Tony Morrison. It also works well in opera and musical drama, where a clear narrative accompanied by occasional dramatic orchestral moments is particularly effective. Her work has been widely praised for its accessible style, which has also found favour in community and educational projects.

In the following year, 1988, another musical drama followed, ‘Missa del Cid’ which uses the format of the Mass but is based on the bloodthirsty legend of El Cid. Weir’s considerable talent for this form has been expressed in two more full-length operas, both inspired by folk tales: ‘The Vanishing Bridegroom’, based on three tales from her native Scotland, and ‘Blonde Eckbert’, which has German sources.

Her compositional talents extend beyond this form. During the 1990s, she was appointed Resident Composer with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. This produced ‘We Are Shadows’ and ‘Forest’. Commissions were also placed with her by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (‘Music Untangled’ and ‘Natural History’ – a Taoist bestiary); the Minnesota Orchestra (‘The Welcome Arrival of Rain’) and Carnegie Hall (the song-cycle ‘’ for Jessye Norman, also performed at the 2000 Proms).

She has also composed purely instrumental pieces for various combinations of chamber players. A good survey of these is collected on the NMC disc D090. The first disc concentrates on piano music – a small scale concerto (a particularly enjoyable piece); a piano trio; a piano quartet and a piece for violin and piano entitled ‘Music for 247 Strings’ - reflecting a more even balance between the instruments than the classic violin sonata with piano accompaniment. Material from folk-song is used effectively, ‘The Sweet Primroses’ in the second movement of the piano concerto, and ‘Blanche comme la Neige’ in the Piano Quartet.

The second disc offers earlier works (1988–1993) in recordings released previously on Collins Classics. In this selection piano music remains prominent, but there is a String Trio as well as pieces for both piano and strings. The works are predominantly thematic rather than abstract. A wide variety of material inspires them – Scottish, Croatian, the work of Couperin, the work of Schubert. It concludes with a Sephardic theme, set both for string ensemble and then for piano. Perhaps the best known of them is ‘I Broke off a Golden Branch’, which shares the instrumentation of Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet.

Judith Weir writes of her chamber pieces: ‘Nearly all the music on this disc was written for personal friends of mine. Out of all the pieces I have written, these are the ones I like to listen to the most’. Again this has echoes of Schubert’s chamber music and its origins.

Judith Weir’s writing for the voice includes solo as well as larger works, and a well-received collection of her songs has also been recorded.

If there is one word I would use to sum up Judith Weir’s music, it has to be ‘enjoyable’. It is pleasant, likeable and accessible but never banal. It has a simple, clean sound which is modern without ever being difficult or obscure.

Julie Williams

Judith Weir on MusicWeb


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