Benjamin Britten in Pittville Park Gardens at the Cheltenham Festival 1949

Photography credit: Desmond Tripp

Of Britten & Beyond - the finished piece

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In a three part blog, London-based composer Michael Zev Gordon guides us through the process of writing a commissioned piece for Cheltenham Music Festival.

Composing a piece is a strange mixture of public and private. Long, long hours alone wrestling with the material – improvising, constructing, honing, editing, doubting, discovering, and much more. And then – and especially as the piece nears its conclusion and the deadline comes – conversations with performers, agents, festival directors, librarians, who are interested in just one thing: where is it? – and why wasn’t it with me yesterday? And I surface from my poetic dream-world of creation into the necessarily hard pragmatic realities of life.

In fact for me these realities can be as – and sometimes even more – stimulating to creation than my private world. A deadline is a necessity for me. Drawing things to a close speeds up my musical choices – and can sharpen the expressive vitality of a work too.

And a conversation with the conductor – as I had with Stephen Layton last Sunday –even at this late stage can also help to clarify essential practical points in a score, so communicating things unequivocally to the players: mark the contrasts in louds and softs even more widely so there’s no chance of ambiguity; think through the speeds once more – subtle shifts can have such big effects; consider a final time if all the necessary articulation marks are present.

Talking to Stephen was also about trying to explain the poetry of the piece to him – what it expresses, what lies behind it, And in a few days I’ll be having the same conversations with the tenor Toby Spence and the horn player Richard Watkins.
And this is a strange moment – for here I really feel I am handing over my piece, and have to work hard to find the right words, so that I am doing it justice, and not diminishing it.

And yet in these public pronouncements things are fully coming alive too. The piece may cease to be private notes on the page; my solitary intimacy with the piece will be lost for ever. But as the music becomes a public thing – first with the performers, and then even more with the audience – I’m keenly reminded once again how much music is not only a thing in itself: it is also a thing of relationship.

I can’t wait to feel that fully on a July Sunday evening in Cheltenham.

The finished piece will be premiered in the final concert of the Cheltenham Music Festival, Sunday 14th July, featuring tenor Toby Spence, horn player Richard Watkins, the City of London Sinfonia and conductor Stephen Layton.

Read parts 1 & 2 of Michael’s blog for Cheltenham Festivals here:
Part 1
Part 2