Brian Elias

b. 1948

British

Summary

Brian Elias was born in Bombay, India, and has lived in the U.K. since he was thirteen years old. After studying at the Royal College of Music he undertook private studies with Elisabeth Lutyens. His first major orchestral work L'Eylah was premiered at the BBC Proms in 1984. He has since had his works performed and recorded extensively by leading orchestras and soloists including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Britten Sinfonia, Psappha Ensemble, Jane Manning, Roderick Williams, Nicholas Daniels, Natalie Clein, Leonard Elschenbroich, and the Jerusalem Quartet. His monumental Five Songs to Poems by Irina Ratushinskya was premiered in 1989 and secured his reputation as one of Britain's preeminent composers. Elias collaborated with Kenneth MacMillan on his final ballet The Judas Tree, premiered in 1992 at the Royal Opera House. The Judas Tree has subsequently been revived on numerous occasions by the Royal Ballet and toured internationally. In 2017 his Cello Concerto was premiered at the BBC Proms by Leonard Elschenbroich and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Elias has won two British Composer Awards - the first for his 2010 work Doubles, and the second for his 2013 work Electra Mourns – and many of his orchestral works, chamber music and songs have been recorded on the NMC label.

Composer website: brianelias.co.uk
Critical Acclaim
Doubles was one of the most impressive pieces of orchestral music I have heard in a long time...  Elias’s paroxysmic orchestral writing packs a punch, with the phenomenal resourcefulness of the scoring provoking gap-jawed astonishment... Intellectually and physically, it’s a white-knuckle ride, a thrilling experience. - Martin Anderson, Tempo

[I]n his music there's a violent rhythmic impulse - thundered out by percussion onslaughts or snarling brass - that is thrilling and quieter passages that radiate an eerie mood. You feel that, beneath the studiously abstract title wild passions and dark tensions are churning. - Richard Morrison, The Times

'...[Electra Mourns] stole the show as a moving study of madness and remorse.' - Geoffrey Norris, The Daily Telegraph

Biography

Bombay was Brian Elias’s first home; he lived there until he was sent to school in England at the age of thirteen. By then he had already composed a fair amount - or rather improvised, as it was not until the need arose to make parts for school performances that Elias began properly writing his ideas down. He still has fond memories of a youthful Flute Sonata and a music-theatre piece based on MR James’ ghost story Lost Hearts. In 1966 he entered the Royal College of Music, officially studying composition under Humphrey Searle and Bernard Stevens, though it was the experience of ‘moonlighting’ with the composer Elisabeth Lutyens he found most stimulating. Under Lutyens’s influence, Elias produced a Webern-like cantata La Chevelure, which made a promisingly positive impression at its first hearing in 1968. After leaving the RCM, Elias spent a few years in New York where he studied briefly at the Juilliard School, New York. 

On his return to England he produced a modest number of small-scale works, culminating in the unaccompanied choral Proverbs of Hell, based on William Blake. This and a revival of La Chevelure gave Elias the confidence to tackle larger-scale structures. The first significant product was Somnia (‘Dreams’, 1979) for tenor and orchestra, based on words by the hedonistic Roman writer Petronius, followed in 1982 by the song cycle At the Edge of Time. Then in L’Eylah (1983), he at last felt free to write a large, abstract orchestral work. L’Eylah was greeted with enthusiasm by audience and critics at its BBC Proms premiere in 1984. By now the broad features of Elias’s mature style were fully in focus. A fastidious and imaginative craftsman, he was also beginning to show the impassioned urgency and capacity for sustained compelling invention that remain evident in his work to this day.

Geranos for chamber ensemble (1985) confirmed his growing confidence and mastery, as did Variations for solo piano of 1987 (composed in homage to Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor) and the vividly atmospheric Pythikos Nomos (‘The Law of the Python’, 1987-8) for alto saxophone and piano. But even these were surpassed by Elias’s next major work, an orchestral song cycle Five Songs to Poems by Irina Ratushinskaya (1989), commissioned by the BBC. The dark intensity and lyrical eloquence of Elias’s settings fully matched the power of the Soviet dissident Ratushinskaya’s poetry. It is an extraordinary demonstration of creative empathy from a composer brought up under very different political conditions, at the same time showing Elias’s exceptional skill in finding and responding to the musical qualities of the Russian language. Five Songs to Poems by Irina Ratushinskaya was such a success at its London premiere that it was toured by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and repeated at the 1991 BBC Proms. Then in 1992 came one of Elias’ greatest successes, The Judas Tree, a riveting forty-minute score written for the Royal Ballet and choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, with designs by Jock MacFadyen. The Judas Tree has remained securely in the Royal Ballet’s repertory, and it has been taken on tour to France, Germany, Russia and the USA. Although written to be danced, The Judas Tree is scarcely less impressive performed purely as an orchestral work. Not only is the material strong and vibrant, the score is proof of Elias’s capacity to sustain a gripping musical narrative over a long time scale. 

For all his achievement as a composer of large-scale works, Elias has not forgotten his early liking for music of a more intimate scale and manner. Two of his most recent successes include Three Songs (2003) on poems by Christina Rossetti for alto voice and harp, and a piece for solo clarinet, Birds Practise Songs in Dreams (2004). 

Elias has never been a prolific composer, and all his work - from ambitious orchestral scores to the tiniest instrumental pieces - is executed with meticulous care. Yet the result is music that never sounds merely ‘careful’. The House That Jack Built is bold, dazzlingly inventive and full of dancing energy. Elias’s basing of much of the material for The House That Jack Built (2001) on perhaps the simplest and most memorable of all playground chants also means that one doesn’t need a degree in musicology to follow its many ingenious developments - the process is clear for anyone who has ears to hear. In 2004 Elias was commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival to write A Talisman, which was performed by the National Youth Orchestra Sinfonietta and Paul Putnins, and scored for bass-baritone and small orchestra. It is based upon Hebrew text inscribed on a silver 19th century amulet which was given to Elias by his late mother.

Elias is the recipient of two British Composer Awards; the first in 2010 for the orchestral work Doubles, which was commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the second in 2013 for Electra Mourns. This piece, a setting of Sophocles in ancient Greek, was written for Susan Bickley (mezzo soprano) and Nicholas Daniel (cor anglais) and first performed with the Britten Sinfonia at the BBC Proms in 2012. Elias’ String Quartet, composed in 2012 for the Jerusalem String Quartet, was premiered at Wake Forest University in North Carolina in 2013. The piece was performed and broadcast by the EBU at the Zeist Festival in Holland in 2014 and received its London premiere at the Wigmore Hall in 2015.

In 2017 the world premiere of Elias' Cello Concerto took place at the BBC Proms, where it was performed by soloist Leonard Elschenbroich and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth. In the same year, The Royal Ballet staged a revival of The Judas Tree as part of its Kenneth MacMillan anniversary celebrations and a recording of Geranos, Electra Mourns and Elias’ vocal music was released on the NMC label. The release coincided with the premiere of his Oboe Quintet by Nicholas Daniel and members of Britten Sinfonia.

© Stephen Johnson - updated by Brian Elias

Composer website: brianelias.co.uk

News

Photos

Discography