Saturday 17 July 2021

She loves writing whatever she is writing at the time: I chat to composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad about being associate-composer of the Oxford Lieder Festival

Cheryl Frances Hoad rehearsing at St Johns Waterloo 2018 (Photo Maxie Gedge)
Cheryl Frances-Hoad rehearsing at St Johns Waterloo 2018 (Photo Maxie Gedge)

When I spoke to composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad last month she had been visiting Fellow at Merton College, Oxford since January but was about to make her first visit to the college having been working remotely thanks to the current restrictions. The events of 2020 placed a similar damper on Cheryl's period as associate composer with the Oxford Lieder Festival as last year's festival (which included the premiere of Cheryl's song-cycle Six Songs of Melmoth performed by Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton, see my review) took place online. But this year's Oxford Lieder Festival, Cheryl's final one as associate composer, will feature the premiere of a new song cycle along with performances of several existing works.

Cheryl was Oxford Lieder Festival's first associate composer (the first of many, she comments). It was artistic director Sholto Kynoch's idea to embed Cheryl in the festival for three years, commissioning her for a short work the first year, a fifteen-minute one the second year and a more substantial piece for this, final year. Whilst plans to perform a lot of her vocal music were reduced owing to last year's lockdown, her music is still a constant thread running through the three festivals.

Her 2021 festival commission is a song cycle celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Oxford Botanic Garden, on which she is working with poet Kate Wakeling and Cheryl comments that working on the cycle 'stops me going mad over the Summer'. It will celebrate the garden's fantastic history which poet Kate Wakeling has been exploring. The garden was started in 1621 on land which had once been a Jewish cemetery, and its former gardeners included a prominent female one in the 17th century, the Duchess of Beaufort, who is celebrated in one of Wakeling's poems in the cycle, based on the Duchess' letters. Other poems introduce the mandrake and a cactus which only ever flowers for a single night.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Tamsin Collison, Marcus Farnsworth, Martyn Brabbins, BBC Symphony Orchestra after the premiere of Last Man Standing at Barbican Hall, 2018 ( Photo BBC/Mark Allan)
Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Tamsin Collison, Marcus Farnsworth, Martyn Brabbins, BBC Symphony Orchestra after the premiere of Last Man Standing at Barbican Hall, 2018 ( Photo BBC/Mark Allan)

Cheryl is excited to be working on the project and keen to work with baritone Marcus Farnsworth again (he performed in Cheryl's Armistice piece Last Man Standing in 2018, see my review ) along with pianist Libby Burgess, and she finds it lovely to be able to write a piece already knowing the singer's voice.

The project draws on the festival's existing relationship with the Oxford Botanic Garden, which has hosted talks and concerts. The new commemorative piece is part of her role as associate composer, although she was nervous at first of the idea of writing an occasional work which might be so specific that it never got performed again. She feels that Kate Wakeling has come up with a series of wonderful poems, a cycle about plants, gardens and their well-being which will transcend the original focus.
Cheryl's 2020 commission from the festival, Six Songs of Melmoth also featured texts by a contemporary poet, Sophie Rashbrook, and Cheryl likes working with living poets, for a start it means that she can ask them questions. When we spoke she was planning a trip around Oxford Botanic Garden with Kate Wakeling which she anticipated would add so much to the composition process. Also, for bigger works, it is nice not to be working all alone. She has also been working on a big orchestral song-cycle for the City of London Sinfonia's 50th anniversary. This has a text by Amanda Holden, and Cheryl has been able to bounce questions of Amanda during the composition process.

She feels that she has been lucky with the contemporary poets that she has worked with, but also admits that she picks the poet having done her research. But she can find poetry hard to understand and has gone back to some of her early works and thought 'I didn't get that, did I?' And whilst many poets have been positive and supportive about the results, Cheryl thinks that some have been pretty non-plussed about her settings of their texts. But then whilst she might love the poets work, that doesn't mean that that particular poet is into music. Cheryl feels that she is lucky with Kate Wakeling who is not only musical but writes reviews for BBC Music Magazine and her texts really leave space for the music.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad with Sholto Kynoch, Jess Dandy and Helen Abbott after the premiere of Une Charogne at the Oxford Lieder Festival, 2019
Cheryl Frances-Hoad with Sholto Kynoch, Jess Dandy and Helen Abbott after the premiere of Une Charogne at the Oxford Lieder Festival, 2019

Cheryl sang in the choir at school ('but no-one took it seriously') and has not sung in a choir since, yet she is very much associated with vocal and choral music and she sings when writing the music. It was at university (she studied at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge) that Geoffrey Webber, then director of the college choir, championed her work and encouraged her writing for choir. She has found her time at the Oxford Lieder Festival profitable in many ways as during the festivals she has been able to subsume herself in lieder.

She describes some of her songs as 'frustrated operas' and when writing a song cycle often finds a story she likes and tells it. She describes this as fitting an opera into a song cycle. She is proud of some of her larger works such as Beowulf, which sets an abbreviated version of the Anglo-Saxon poem and which was premiered in 2011 by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston and pianist Alisdair Hogarth (and performed at the 2019 Oxford Lieder Festival by Jess Dandy and Dylan Perez). But it being such a massive piece has mitigated against the work getting performances. More recently she has written several single songs and has been enjoying creating short, concentrated atmospheres. This focus on songs came about partly with the realisation that two of her most performed works were her shortest ones and partly through her exposure to lieder and song at the festival.

Cheryl's comment about frustrated operas prompts me to ask about her interest in writing a full-scale opera. In fact, she has done one, this is a 90-minute work Amy's Last Dive based on the life of flight pioneer Amy Johnson. It was written for the Cultural Olympiad in 2012 whilst Cheryl was resident at the University of Leeds and Opera North. She would love to write another opera and had aspirations to write a grand opera for many years, but the fact that Amy's Last Dive has community involvement means that she wonders whether the opera will be done again and her focus now is on the idea of another smaller-scale opera.

The majority of Cheryl's work is written to commission and she is lucky to be able to live as a working composer, but I wonder whether she ever thought about writing a work because she wanted to rather than because she was asked. She feels that it is getting that way, and she admits that she would love to write some purely orchestral music, there is no ten-minute orchestral piece in her catalogue, no violin concerto and no cello concerto. She would love to remedy this lack, but she would also like to give herself plenty of time to write the pieces.  

So she is trying to be strategic and engineer commissions, but then there is the simple fact that she is thrilled to be asked for a commission, whatever it is for. And she has been lucky to be asked for a wide variety of types of work. She loves writing whatever she is writing at the time and finds it easy to be inspired. Recently she had a commission for a short violin piece and ended up writing about her first sea swim of the year which had taken place the previous day, finding inspiration flowed easily.

She enjoys writing choral music and last year wrote quite a lot of short choral pieces and perhaps because of this focus on short works she found that she did not have any work cancelled in 2020.

Cheryl's mother was a flute teacher and the young Cheryl wanted to learn to play the cello. She was started on flute and recorder before graduating to cello and was soon writing her own pieces for the instrument's open strings. At the age of eight, she went to study cello at the Yehudi Menuhin School and the intention was to go off and be a concert artist. But she was always composing, and whilst at the Menuhin School, Cheryl started writing pieces for friends, solos, trios and other chamber pieces, and this rather spread across a grapevine of performers. Then at the age of fourteen a work for cello, piano, percussion and orchestra won a BBC Young Composer prize and she realised that his was what she wanted to do. Cellist Ralph Kirshbaum even rang to ask for a piece.

She is in awe of composers such as Thomas Ades and Huw Watkins who have managed to keep their composition going alongside their performing (both are fine pianists), but this was something she never managed to do. Yehudi Menuhin even gave her a pep talk asking her not to give up the cello, but she started to develop stage fright and this combined with a busy career as a composer meant that she gave up performing. She has subsequently given the occasional performance on the cello but does not enjoy it (she now much prefers being in the audience) and feels that she has somehow betrayed her cello. That said, the experience has been useful for her composition and she finds she can imagine chords.

Joseph Middleton, Carolyn Sampson performing Cheryl Frances-Hoad's Six Songs of Melmoth at Oxford Lieder Festival 2020 (Photo taken from live stream)
Joseph Middleton, Carolyn Sampson performing Cheryl Frances-Hoad's Six Songs of Melmoth at Oxford Lieder Festival 2020 (Photo taken from live stream)

Musical style is something that Cheryl does not make a conscious effort about, it arises naturally out of the pieces she played when she was younger and how it felt to perform them. She mentions Beethoven, Brahms and Britten and comments that she had been composing for five years before she heard the music of Judith Weir. She feels very connected to the classical and romantic repertoire and learned by doing, focusing on what she liked the sound of. And she feels that she was lucky in that she had teachers who simply let her fill up manuscript books during the holiday. She was chronically shy when young but was confident in what she wrote and her teachers simply let her be, just making the occasional suggestion. She feels that she was lucky that she never had a teacher tell her she had to compose in a certain style and has always had people who valued her music. She also values performers' opinions as well as wanting to communicate with both audience and performers. She admits that whilst she loves the act of creation she finds performances stressful.

When I ask about musical heroes the one that she first thinks of is Benjamin Britten, because his music is well crafted, because of his gift for communication and because he was able to write for all sorts of people. Cheryl would like to be able to emulate this, to write for both grand opera and the village hall. She loves the combination of aspiring to high art and writing for people who come together on a Wednesday evening to rehearse. She loved being the composer in residence with the London Oriana Choir, the idea of challenging yet satisfying people who have professional jobs and come together specifically to rehearse. Judith Weir is another inspiration, as was Yehudi Menuhin particularly his attitude towards music.

Looking ahead, Cheryl's commission from the City of London Sinfonia will be premiered at Southwark Cathedral in November 2021. She has already finished the piece, though the soloist has not been confirmed; this feels strange but she comments 'welcome to COVID land'. It is a large-scale work lasting around 70 minutes and is intended to reflect the orchestra's community work in the areas of dementia and adolescent mental health. She searched for two years to find a suitable subject but kept getting rejected when it came to getting permission as the books had been snapped up for film or theatre, or no-one knew who owned the rights. The work is based on Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty [see the review in The Guardian], a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week which was written by a 14-year-old autistic boy who had been told that he would never write a paragraph. Cheryl calls it a positive uplifting book and its theme of appreciating nature resonated with her during Lockdown. Amanda Holden has arranged the author's words in a fabulously creative way and the result will feature 27 songs.

Other works in the pipeline include a Preces and Responses for Merton College Choir, and she looks forward to getting to know the choir when she is finally able to be in residence at the college. She is also planning an accordion sonata. She wrote a 90-second work for the instrument, one which she knew nothing about, and found it exciting to write for an instrument that was a total mystery to her. So she has applied for funding to write the more extended sonata, as she finds it important to write for an instrument with which you are unfamiliar.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad on Planet Hugill

  • 17 October 2020 - Six Songs of Melmoth: premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad's new song-cycle at Oxford Lieder Festival - concert review
  • 2 December 2018 - Last Man Standing: Cheryl Frances-Hoad premiere at the Barbican - concert review
  • 17 February 2017 - Even You Song: Cheryl Frances-Hoad at Peterborough Cathedral - concert review
  • Cheryl Frances-Hoad: The Whole Earth Dances, chamber music - Champs Hill Records - record review
  • Cheryl Frances-Hoad: Magic Lantern Tales, songs -  Champs Hill Records - record review
  • Cheryl Frances-Hoad: Stolen Rhythm, instrumental music - Champs Hill Records - record review

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