Mark-Anthony Turnage

Born 1960

Mark-Anthony Turnage



The British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage has formed a distinctive voice for himself, by juxtaposing the contemporary classical with elements of jazz and popular music, to form an energetic and visceral whole. Not afraid to approach his compositions with a political eye, a sense of his style can already be gleaned from evocative titles such asFrom the Wreckage and Three Screaming Popes. Turnage is one of the most internationally performed composers of his generation, and has produced a large number of works as a composer in residence at orchestras such as theBBC Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, and theChicago Symphony Orchestra.

Turnage was born in Grays, Essex, into a house full of books and music, and describes his upbringing as very ordinary. Alongside a lifelong passion for football, he became engrossed in classical music from an early age, spending hours a day absorbed in programmes on BBC Radio 3.  According to his own account, he would make league tables of his favourite composers, learning their dates and bumpingNielsen down a rank when  he discovered Shostakovich. This thirst for listening material accompanied a zealous interest in composition – as a nine-year-old he was already writing symphonies and concertos, albeit with “the wrong number of crotchets in a bar”.

Turnage attended the Royal College of Music junior school from age fourteen – a welcome refuge from normal secondary school, that did little to address his talents. In this manner he met Oliver Knussen, who was tutoring at the school. Knussen became a long-standing teacher and mentor for the young composer. He noted that Turnage was composing in a very traditional style, and set him on a path to composing more contemporary music, more in line with his forward-thinking listening tastes.

Jazz and soul music were popular in Essex when Turnage was growing up, and he played keyboard in a funk band as a teenager. Indeed, his wide taste in music has been an influence and a distinguishing feature of his work throughout his career, and remains evident in the output of the composer today. One of his first pieces that he wrote under the tutelage of Knussen wasNight Dances (1991), and contained a jazz-influenced middle movement as a sort of homage to Miles Davis.  Throughout his career, he has since broadened this interest in the genre into an integral part of his compositional style, not least by realising that he needed to learn more, and to work with jazz professionals. He has included improvised sections in his music, for example in later workBlood on the Floor(1993-6).

Turnage won the Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1983, and used this to study at Tanglewood with Gunther Schuller andHans Werner Henze.  The latter had a profound effect on the young composer. He helped to bring his more political ideas to the fore and give them artistic shape – namely, a dissatisfaction with the elitism of classical music, that it is only for ‘the select few’. Turnage’s works have since  attempted to bridge the gap between the audience and classical music by dealing with personally and currently relevant topics such as drug abuse, celebrity and the media.

This affinity for affecting subjects, coupled with a strong sense of theatre, was noted by Henze. He encouraged Turnage to write his first opera,Greek (1988), which was premiered at the Munich Biennale and won him critical acclaim. He has since written two other full operas:The Silver Tassie (2000), which won the South Bank Show Award and an Olivier Award, and his latest,Anna Nicole (2008-10).

After the success of Greek, Turnage was Composer in Association at the CBSO, producing such as works asThree Screaming Popes (1988-9), inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon,Momentum (1990-1), Leaving (1990, rev. 1992), Drowned Out (1992-3) and Kai (1989-90). Here followed a period as Composer in Association  at the English National Opera, where we wroteThe Silver Tassie. He also produced chamber operasTwice through the Heart and The Country of the Blind, which both premiered at the 50th Aldeburgh Festival in 1997.

Turnage went on to be composer in residence for the London Philharmonic from 2005-10, as well as for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 2006-10. In these posts, he worked with eminent composers such asEsa-Pekka Salonen and Bernard Haitink.  

His colourful and striking style has ensured his continued popularity amongst audiences, and his prolific output shows a composer who is not afraid to change or to take risks. His works have displayed influences fromBritten to William Golding,Stravinsky to Prince. He has a sense of humour, and astute listeners can hear snippets of Beyoncé’sSingle Ladies (Put a ring on it) and Led Zeppelin’sStairway to Heaven amongst the contemporary classical strains. Aside from a busy commission schedule, Turnage is research fellow in composition at the Royal College of Music. This composer is described as “approaching the mid-point of his career”, and we can expect much from his ‘propulsive energy’ in the years to come.

Photo courtesy of Lizzie-Coombes

From 2000, he went on to take up a post as the first ever Composer in Association at theBBC Symphony Orchestra. His direct and lyrical yet aggressive style translated well for the BBC, and he has since featured heavily at the annual Proms. In 2003, the Barbican centre hosted a Turnage Weekend dedicated to his works.  

In 2002, Sir Simon Rattle conducted Blood on the Floor for the Berlin Philharmonic. This was part of the first education project run by the orchestra, and brought his work to a wide audience of young people. Rattle also commissioned a new workCeres, to act as an ‘asteroid’ piece to Holst’s The Planets.

Around this time, Turnage produced his violin concerto On Opened Ground (2000-1) for soloist Yuri Bashmet. He has always preferred to write concertos for specific soloists, for example trumpet concertoFrom the Wreckage (2005) for Håkan Hardenberger, and violin concertoMambo, Blues and Tarantella (2007) for Christian Tetzlaff