Brett Dean

Brett Dean

Composer • Viola • Conductor

• Born 1961


Brett Dean is an Australian composer and violist. He has strong ties with the Berlin Philharmonic and has composed for and performed with many large orchestras worldwide. His music is championed by leading conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Markus Stenz and Daniel Harding.

Dean was born in Brisbane in 1961 and moved to Berlin in 1984 after studying viola in his hometown, Brisbane at the Queensland Conservatorium. While there he also followed courses in 20th century compositional techniques. Dean obtained his Bachelor of Music in 1982 and moved to Berlin in 1984, where he studied viola with Wolfram Christ, the principal viola of the Berlin Philharmonic at the time. In 1985, at the end of the Karajan era, Dean also joined the viola section of the Berlin Philharmonic, where he stayed until 2000, under Claudio Abbado.

Dean began composing in 1988. As an autodidact, aside from the minimal compositional training he received during his Bachelor studies, Dean received no formal training in composition. Some of his earliest work includes partially improvised soundtracks for experimental films and radio projects in collaboration with Simon Hunt. Together, the two released several albums, includingFrame Cut Frame: Night of Short Lives (1994).

Dean’s first original composition was Turning Points (Wendezeit) (1988) for five violas, which he recorded and performed much later with the use of multi-tracking. In 1992, the first public performance of his work took place with hissome birthday (1992) for two violas and cello. The success of this work encouraged Dean to continue writing, and at the insistence of his brother Paul, a clarinettist, he composed his first large chamber work,Night Window (1993). Dean also wrote a clarinet concerto for his brother,Ariel’s Music (1995), which won an award from UNESCO. This breakthrough work was written as a memorial to a young girl who died after contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion from her mother.

Due to the strenuous orchestral schedule, he was only able to write one or two pieces per year until 2000, when he left the orchestra and returned to Australia to focus on composition.

Dean describes his works as layers of sounds, similar to the layers of paint that a painter would use. Most of Dean’s compositions have a second title which signals his inspiration, often literary, political or visual, for the work. ‘Music for Orchestra’Beggars and Angels (1999), commissioned by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for instance, references to a picture taken by his wife, Heather Betts.

A prime example of Dean’s use of layering can be seen in one of his most well-known worksCarlo (1997) for string orchestra and sample. The work is based on the life and music of the murderous madrigal composer, Carlo Gesualdo. The work uses a pre-recorded choir singing one of Gesualdo’s most intriguing songs Moro, lasso, al mio duolo. This composition has been very well received and has had more than 50 performances.

Dean also finds inspiration in films, such as in his Twelve Angry Men (1996), a miniature symphonic poem for twelve cellos, inspired by the Sindey Lumet film.

In the same year, his work Voices of Angels (1996)  signalled his ‘coming of age as a composer’. This piano quintet was inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duineser Elegien while ‘Scene for Orchestra’, Amphitheatre (2000) was inspired by the depiction of ampitheatre ruins in the novelMomo by Michael Ende.

Often inspired by words, it was not until 2000, that Dean first set text to music. In the song cycle,Winter Songs (2000), he set text by E.E. Cummings to music.  For this work, he won the Paul Lowin Song Cycle Prize in 2001.

A commission in 2001 prompted his first opera, Bliss (2010), based on Peter Carey’s novel of the same name, with a libretto by Amanda Holden. The opera, named ‘the Great Australian Opera’, is by far his most ambitious work to date and was awarded Best Composition at the 2005 Australian Classical Music Awards, though it wasn’t performed until 2010, at the Sydney Opera House. Dean slowly introduced the public to the music from the opera through the orchestral suite Moments of Bliss and Songs of Joy (2004) before the opera was premiered. For the production in Hamburg, also in 2010, Dean added an extra movement, the ‘Hamburg Entr’acte’.

In 2009, Dean won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for his violin concerto The Lost Art of Letter Writing (2006), for violinist Frank Peter Zimmerman, who premiered it in 2007. This work, divided into four movements, was inspired by Dean’s realization that ‘not only is letter writing becoming a lost art, but one could argue that handwriting itself is an endangered skill’. Each movement is preceded by excerpts from letters by Johannes Brahms, Vincent van Gogh, Hugo Wolf and the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.

While the majority of Dean’s works have been widely performed, his Viola Concerto, written for himself to perform, has not enjoyed this same fate, perhaps because other performers do not want to infringe on his work. Dean describes the concerto as ‘a cross-breed of Hindemith and Tom Waits.’ The piece is unique in that it is one of the only pieces in his output without a more unique title. Dean states that it is “removed from any sense of external programmatic influences or stories which inform so many of my other pieces.” Dean premiered it in London with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He also performed the concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Sydney Symphony, Hamburg Philharmonic, Netherlands Philharmonic and Orchestre National de Lyon.

Some of his other notable works include the Pastoral Symphony (2001) for the Ensemble Modern,Eclipse (2003) for the Auryn String Quartet and commissioned by the Kölner Philharmonie,Komarov’s Fall (2006) premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic,Vexations and Devotions (2005) for choirs, orchestra and electronics (2005) andRecollections (2006) for the Kraftwerk Festival in Heimbach.

Dean describes himself as a traditionalist and states, “I like voices to sing, I like long lines and melodic motivic materials.”  He believes that these factors also “help the understanding of a piece for an audience who is confronting it for the first time, without making it necessarily ‘easy’”. His music has also been described as having an anchored but expanded sense of tonality with influences from Alban Berg and John Adams. Dean currently performs and conducts worldwide while continuing to compose. His output consists of more than 30 large works and concertos, symphonic works, cantatas, opera, choral works, chamber music and piano etudes.

Header image courtesy of Limelight Magazine Other images WUOL, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Intermusica and Boosey