Judith Weir

Born 1954

Judith Weir

Composer

Biography

Judith Weir is a Scottish composer based in England. She became the first female Master of the Queen’s Music in 2014, a position she will hold until 2024. Her music features expanded tonality and many folk influences; it also demonstrates her rejection of the avant-garde techniques. The simplicity of Weir’s makes it very approachable for performers and audiences alike. Weir is also an advocate for music education in schools and for the accessibility of music for everyone.

Weir was born in 1954 to Scottish parents, but grew up around London. She was a talented oboe player and a member of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. While still attending school, she began studying composition with John Tavener before entering Cambridge University, where she studied with Robin Holloway. Weir came into contact with Gunther Schuller in 1975 at Tanglewood after being awarded a Koussevitzky Fellowship.

After finishing her studies in 1976, Weir was appointed composer-in-residence at the Southern Arts Association until 1979. She then went on to hold several fellowships, one at the Glasgow University (1979-82) and another at Trinity College, Cambridge (1983-5). Weir’s next appointments include Guinness composer-in-residence at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow (1988-91) and Fairbairn Composer in Association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO, 1995-8). While with the CBSO, Weir composed works such asForest, Storm and We are Shadows, which were premiered under the direction of the music director Sir Simon Rattle.

Weir held the position of Hambro Visiting Professor in Opera Studies at Oxford University in 1999 and became an Honorary Fellow at St Hilda’s College in Oxford in 2000. She was the artistic director of the Spitalfields Festival in London from 1995 to 2000.

In 2014, Judith Weir succeeded Sir Peter Maxwell Davies as Master of the Queen’s Music, to which she responded, ‘It is a great honour to take up the position…in succession to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who has given his musical and personal gifts so freely to this unusual national role’. She also expressed her excitement about the position, exclaiming, ‘The Queen is a fantastic 88-year-old woman of incredible energy. I just have great admiration for her and it is an honour to do something in her name’. This manner of modesty and praising others is standard for the new Master of the Queen’s Music.

While in her post, Weir hopes ‘to encourage everyone in the UK who sings, plays or writes music, and to hear as many of them as possible’. She also made it clear that she believes children deserve a quality music education and access to live music. In addition, she wants to change the role of contemporary music in society, challenging composers to compose ‘in a simpler mode, without changing their style’.

In 2015, Weir was appointed associate composer for the BBC Singers, a position that will last until 2018.

Weir’s compositional output is vast and covers many genres including orchestral, small and large chamber ensembles, solo works, a cappella choral works, chorus with orchestra or other ensemble, solo and chamber vocal music, soloist and large ensemble, operas and musical theatre.

A quality that is present in all of Weir’s works, vocal and instrumental alike, is a narrative. Weir always has a story to communicate in her music, which is subtle yet dramatic. In her instrumental works, the title often depicts the scene. Other characteristics of her works are heterophonic techniques and ostinato patterns used for jump-cutting between sections. In general, Weir’s work relies heavily on treble textures, giving it a lighter feel.

From 1984 on, after the composition of Sketches from a Bagpiper’s Album (1984), Weir’s compositions feature a trait she adopted from the Scottish piobaireachd, which uses an extended variation form based on a particular interval set.

Also evident in the works of Judith Weir is the direct influence of other composers, in the form of quotation, parody and reaction. Evidence of Janáček and Britten can be found inBlond Eckbert, which relies on the orchestra’s commentary to intensify the psychological drama, a technique that is also used inPeter Grimes. Other specific examples include the influence of Perotinus in Sederunt principes(1987), Mozart (Il sogno di Scipione) in Scipios Dream (1991) and Schubert (‘Trout’ Quintet) in the piano quintetI Broke off a Golden Branch (1991).

She is probably most well-known for her series of operas, which include King Harold’s Saga(1979), The Black Spider (1984), A Night at the Chinese Opera (1987), The Vanishing Bridegroom (1990), Blond Eckbert (1993, pocket version 2006) andMiss Fortune (2011). Weir’s operas have been performed throughout Europe and in the USA and have received much praise;A Night at the Chinese Opera has been described byThe Guardian as, ‘luminous, brilliant, one of the essential recent(ish) British operas’.

Weir’s newest opera, Miss Fortune, was premiered in 2011 at Bregenz and staged at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2012. The opera, based on a Sardinian folk tale, received mixed reviews; some critics complained about the simplicity of the work, while others really appreciated the clarity.

This simplicity was already evident in her first opera, King Harold, which she wrote in her 20s.King Harold tells the story of the king’s unsuccessful invasion of England in 1066 and is considered an epic historical opera. It consists of three acts and just one vocalist, a soprano, who sings all the parts. The entire opera lasts just 12 minutes.

In addition to her standard opera works, Weir also composed a television opera, Armida(2005), which explores the conflicts that were taking place the Middle East.

Weir has written for singers such as Jane Manning, Dawn Upshaw, Jessye Norman, Alice Coote and Sarah Connolly.

Some of Weir’s most notable instrumental works include the Piano Concerto, ‘a quietly shimmering gem of a piece’ which, just likeKing Harold, is a ‘pocket-sized compression of a big classical form’. About the piano concerto form, Weir explained, ‘Ever since the modern piano was born… piano concertos…[are] a musical form associated with the crashingly loud sound of music, which is not the kind of music I generally like to write’.

The Welcome Arrival of Rain for orchestra (commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, 2001) is also a remarkable work which can be described as ‘more than musical onomatopoeia, a dazzling orchestral evocation’, while showing her love for the Indian culture. Weir makes use of basic scales, string melodies and fanfare. Other notable commissions includeMusic Untangled (1992) and Natural History (1998)for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tiger under the Table (2002) for the London Sinfonietta.

Her most recent works include The Tree of Peace (2016) for organ, Three Chorales (2016) for cello and piano,A few words of thanks (2016) for small ensemble and several choral works:Leaf from leaf Christ knows (2016) for choir and organ,I Love all beauteous things (2016) for choir and organ and Holy Innocents(2016) for two-part soprano chorus and organ.

The majority of Weir’s music has been recorded and is available on the NMC, Delphian and Signum labels.

Judith Weir has been the recipient of many awards and honours including the Critics’ Circle, South Bank Show, Elise L. Stoeger and Ivor Novello awards, a CBE and the Queen’s Medal for Music. She currently resides in London.

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