Monday, 11 June 2018

Mary's Hand: Composer Martin Bussey introduces his new opera

Martin Bussey
Martin Bussey
Composer Martin Bussey has written a new opera, Mary's Hand, on the life of Queen Mary I, to a libretto by Di Sherlock. Prepared for the company McCaldin Arts, the opera has its first performance in Chester on 21 June and then in London on 1 & 2 August as part of the Tete a Tete opera Festival. Martin answered some questions about his work and the piece as an introduction to his music. 

You have a number of strings to your musical bow. What do you consider your principal musical occupation?
Nowadays my principal occupation seems to have become composition. For a long time this sat in the background during years as a singer and a teacher. I wrote for forces at my disposal during that time, for example my piece about Ivor Gurney, Severn Meadows, composed for Chester Bach Singers. Or I wrote works which were rather conceptual, e.g. what I would write if I had a large chorus and symphony orchestra to hand - which I didn’t! Song and choral music have always been the focus of my musical performing life, and they have taken centre stage in my compositional life.

Your work in music is very native, working with English groups on British repertoire, composing your own settings of English texts and helping in the running of a association (The Finzi Friends) whose existence is a component of Englishness. Is it the culture or is it specifically the music?
I have always been captivated equally by the English language and by music.
A small part of me would have loved to have studied English at university rather than music, although I’m glad I made the choice I did. At school I was fortunate in the teaching and encouragement I received in both areas (my performance as Knowledge in The Play of Everyman, dressed in a ginger wig with plaits on a cart outdoors is a permanent memory!) I was introduced to a wide range of styles in both areas also but there’s no doubt that, in the 1970s, musical study in general was very focused on the English tradition and the ‘Classics’ whereas English seemed much broader in scope. This slight narrowness musically could only be heightened by my performing experiences in the English Cathedral tradition – wonderful though those experiences were. I owe much to study with Robin Holloway in the way he broadened my musical horizons. Prophetically, given my association with Finzi Friends, he looked at what he termed my ‘sub-Finzi’ settings of some Gerard Manley Hopkins, which in retrospect were rhythmically strait-jacketed, and set me to work on creating musical realisations of texts by a whole range of authors new to me, such as William Carlos Williams. From this influence sprang a spontaneity in my rhythmic and metrical approaches to setting text which has never left me, I hope. Certainly, Di Sherlock’s words for Mary’s Hand immediately sparked responses where it was often the rhythm which came first and melodic ideas later. So I think it is English language which is my inspiration, then the influence of some English composers and, to a lesser extent, the culture of ‘Englishness’ which, living on the borders of Wales as I now do, I find it increasingly hard to define.

In your biography you don't mention the music of, arguably, the foremost English composer of the previous century, Benjamin Britten. Do you, like other English composers, feel a need to work at a remove from the penumbra of Britten's influence? Is there an English, or British composer you feel that your own music is close to in some way?
If I could name a composer I feel close to I think it would be Vaughan Williams. It’s significant that one can write that now. In the 80s and 90s it would have doomed one to a charge of pastoralism and ‘cow-pat’ music. The recent revival of interest in VW has focused on the sinewy nature of his music and its sheer integrity – he wrote what he felt he needed to. In a small way, I hope I do the same. My musical language began closely aligned to VW’s modality but soon moved to a more gritty harmonic language. This started with the influence of Britten because, as you suggest, he was dominant in so many ways, not all of them healthy perhaps. As an operatic composer he probably changed the landscape for British composers but for me it was equally important how others picked up the opening Britten had made with Peter Grimes. Here I would name Tippett’s King Priam as a significant influence for me. In other genres, the composer who challenged me most was probably Bartok. Coming back full circle to teaching, my experience teaching Bartok as a ‘set composer’ in the early 90s opened my eyes as a composer. (Yes, in those days the study was of the whole composer as well as the set work at A level – and in great detail!) The economy of the first string quartet and the vocal and instrumental drama of Bluebeard’s Castle made me question the ‘fall-back’ conventions I had previously used in my writing, in all genres.

You are about to see the first performance(s) of a significant new piece, Mary's Hand, which is essentially an opera for mezzo-soprano and scored for small ensemble. Is this - either in style or form - a departure or have you felt the composition process an extension of your work to date?
There is, in a drawer, where it will remain, a chamber opera based on Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Withered Arm’. This was composed for a competition soon after I left Cambridge. It was informed by my two years training in opera at the RNCM, but once I altered course toward choral music and teaching, my contact with opera diminished. So, in being an ‘opera’, Mary’s Hand is something of a departure, although I have always had an eye for the dramatic in my song writing. For example my setting of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover (a much later piece than my university attempts) pairs the Baritone with a solo violin which is required to move through the performing space, circle the singer and disappear. In being a work for singer and small ensemble Mary’s Hand follows a series of works using similar forces. Severn Meadows requires a soloist, chamber choir and a group of nine players – a string quartet and wind quartet together with a horn which in many ways represents Gurney himself, in his various moods. My cycle Through a glass darkly (available on Resonus Classics) uses a Baritone with a mixed ensemble where each instrument has a prominent role at some point. For example, one movement sets Blake’s ‘Never seek to tell your love’ for Baritone with solo viola. In a similar texture, the depiction of the to-be-Queen Elizabeth in Mary’s Hand matches the mezzo-soprano voice with a solo trumpet. A fascination of mine is with how pairs of instruments can combine to unexpected effect. Vivaldi identified this in his Gloria a long time ago by pairing a trumpet with an oboe and this pairing is used in both Through a glass darkly and Mary’s Hand. A combination I feel to be particularly moving in Mary’s Hand is that of the Cello playing high with Oboe. Often I write vocally for a solo instrument paired with the singer to create a sense of a vocal duet.

What have you learnt and enjoyed about composing for staged production from Mary's Hand? Would you write for the lyric stage again in future? 
Be ready to cut some of your music! That is the key lesson I learned from my early sketches which explored musical ideas too extensively. I also learned that some moments which I might take almost for granted in my music seem to be picked up by others as particularly effective. The collaborative experience has been a notably enjoyable aspect, not just in the traditional sense of working with a librettist (and one whose poetic sensibility was particularly conducive to me creatively), but also working with the singer from the start. To write for someone who will sing alone for over an hour you have to get inside their voice so that it becomes, in this instance, the voice of Mary. Having managed it once, I’m raring to go again, but in a contrasting field.

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