Music, Spread Thy Voice
'...Weir has become an established master.'
– Ivan Hewett, BBC Proms
MUSIC, SPREAD THY VOICE
The orchestral music of Judith Weir
Since the late 1970s Chester Music and Novello has published the music of Judith Weir. Over these decades she has been commissioned to write orchestral music by festivals, venues and orchestras across the globe. Weir's contribution to the repertoire is of strong significance within the contemporary classical genre. Her music can be programmed happily alongside works from the classical canon, as well as with other recent repertoire. In addition her activities in the area of music education and within the music world in general over the years has had an undeniably positive impact.
Many programmers at festivals, venues and performing groups will include repertoire by Weir in their 2024 season and beyond, especially as Weir will celebrate her 70th birthday in May next year. This same anniversary reminds us that her catalogue includes nearly five decades of repertoire written for various occasions and performing groups, from the amateur through to the most highly regarded professional performers.
We have selected pieces for this feature in conjunction with Weir herself. These are works that are considered important from the catalogue by Weir - some are available to be programmed as a territory premiere, and all are selected here because of their noteworthiness within Weir’s output.
As well as the content in this article, there are plenty of further resources which you can find on our website, including online scores, playlists, press, films and more. Do not hesitate to be in touch with Kate Johnson and Sam Wilcock for more information and to discuss programming possibilities.
Commissioned by The John Feeney Charitable Trust
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Forest was commissioned during the time that Weir was Composer in Association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Simon Rattle conducted the premiere performance. This work from 1995 has also been performed by the likes of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, Manchester University Music Society and Orchestra Philharmonique de Radio France. Most recently Ed Gardner conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra in an evocative performance at London’s Southbank Centre. As the title suggests the listener is taken on an aural journey through a forest, gradually going deeper and deeper into the trees…
‘Weir’s 13-minute, quasi-Romantic tone poem Forest was satisfying,
its dense tuttis and thick, reiterated harmony genuinely allowing one
to imagine the large and necessarily wood-dominated orchestra
as the entity of the title’.
– Paul Driver, The Sunday Times
The welcome arrival of rain (2001)
Commissioned by The Minnesota Orchestra on the occasion of the orchestra’s centennial
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This outstanding orchestral work is a challenging and extremely gratifying journey for all those involved - musicians and audience alike. The piece is based on two ideas: a scale motif and a melodic line carried by a powerful symphonic architecture. In three parts an audience discovers the many meanings of the arriving monsoon for nature and mankind: from exuberant life to overwhelming, uncontrollable energy that ends with the peaceful atmosphere after hefty rainfall. The music’s title was inspired by a passage from the 18,000 verse Hindu text, the Bhagavata Purana. The welcome arrival of rain was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra on the occasion of the orchestra’s centennial and written during 2001-1. It was first performed in January 2003 by the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vanska.
‘… the downpour is some time in coming, but you certainly know when it does: the violins suggest the plop of raindrops by hitting the strings with the bow, while drums recreate rolls of thunder. The ending to this piece, in part inspired by a Hindu text about the monsoon, has a sweet freshness to it…The music is certainly written with a virtuoso flourish, with plenty of instrumental colour and atmosphere.’
– Geoffrey Norris, The Telegraph on The Welcome Arrival of Rain
New Every Morning (2021)
Commissioned by the New Edinburgh Orchestra in celebration of Buzzy Murray
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New Edinburgh Orchestra's conductor, Tim Paxton, contacted Weir in May 2020 to explore the possibility of creating a new orchestral piece as a celebration and tribute to Buzzy Murray, a violinist in the orchestra who had died the previous year. It was an unusually ambitious project. Everything that Weir learned about Buzzy was inspirational; she was adventurous, inventive, a passionate musician, and encouraged her fellow human beings to be the same way.
In fact a passing remark about her socially minded outlook - "she made a point of introducing members of the orchestra to each other" – gave Weir the idea for New Every Morning. Throughout the piece, melodic material is shared by constantly changing large groupings within the orchestra, crossing the usual boundaries of strings, woodwind, brass – Weir’s way of “introducing the orchestra to each other”, via music.
The two movements represent two successive days. These two 'days' are structured in the same way, but have contrasting content, hence the title New Every Morning. Both begin with broad melodies which Weir refers to as 'ragas' - though they're her own invention, not taken from Indian music. These tunes then develop in the hands of the changing orchestral groups, before finishing in quite different ways. Day One closes with the music quickly sliding into the ground - like the sun into the horizon - while the end of Day Two seems gradually to evaporate and disappear in the clear air.
Brighter Visions Shine Afar (2023)
Commissioned by King Charles III for the Coronation
This short overture was composed by Weir in her role of Master of The King’s Music for the occasion of the Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla. Brighter Visions Shine Afar was performed by the specially formed Coronation Orchestra conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano. Speaking about the significance of the composition, Weir said: ‘The opening passage highlights the horns, an instrument historically associated in music and art with nobility. The title borrowed from the Christmas hymn 'Angels from the Realms of Glory' and the optimistic rising scales of the music suggest renewal and hope for the future.’
This work was composed in between Weir writing the new work Begin Afresh, for premiere at the BBC Proms in August 2024.
Music, Spread Thy Voice (2022)
Commissioned by the Royal Orchestral Society
Music, Spread Thy Voice is a three-minute fanfare-overture, which spreads from the mysterious deep bass of the orchestra to a mighty conclusion. The title quotes an aria from Handel's oratorio Solomon - "Music, spread thy voice around / Sweetly flow the lulling sound" - in which King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba agree that music is the greatest of all treasures.
This overture is Weir’s gift to the Royal Orchestral Society in their 2022-23 season, celebrating 150 years of orchestral playing since their foundation in 1872 by Prince Alfred, the music-loving second son of Queen Victoria.
Begin Afresh (2023)
Commissioned by BBC Radio 3
On August 24 2023, the world premiere of Begin Afresh, a BBC commission for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo, celebrates new beginnings, inspired by Philip Larkin’s great poem ‘The Trees’.
Weir says, ‘Begin Afresh is a kind of diary, an almost continuous survey of musical reflections about the trees and plants I observed, in a very urban setting, over the period of a year. During my year of writing, starting in the spring, I had to break off twice, in early autumn and at the start of the new year; so I titled the three parts of this composition with the name of the month in which I started or restarted it - April, October and February.
My first impression, inviting me to begin the piece, was simply the sound in April of new leaves on branches moving in the wind; I realised I was hearing the repeated “afresh” sound at the end of Philip Larkin’s poem, The Trees;
"Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh."
I. April often refers to this refreshing aural moment. Big textures suddenly cut away to reveal very quiet, almost inaudible movement.
II. October observes the heaviness of trees still in leaf amidst increasing darkness.
III. February begins by considering the depth and strength of tree roots, despite the opposition of cold and darkness.
These impressions may seem generic – they’re tree events I look forward to every year. But I should add that the year 2022 contained a horrible event I hadn’t seen before: leaves falling in August after the extreme heat and drought of that summer.
Begin Afresh is dedicated to the BBC Symphony Orchestra.’
Still, Glowing (2008)
View the score
Still, Glowing, for an orchestra of strings, flutes, clarinets and keyboard percussion, is Weir’s one and (so far) only attempt at writing 'ambient music'. It is based on a chord sequence from her opera The Vanishing Bridegroom and was written at the invitation of conductor André de Ridder for Sinfonia VIVA, an orchestra based in Nottingham, England.
Heroic Strokes of the Bow (1992)
Commissioned by the Sekretariat fur gemeinsame Kulturarbeit in Nordheim-Westfalen for the Westdeutsche Sinfonie
This is the most often programmed instrumental work by Weir. It is a challenge and perhaps a little difficult for more amateur players. Its sheer popularity will however hopefully prove an encouragement for others to take the plunge. Heroic Strokes of the Bow is inspired by Paul Klee’s painting Heroische Bogenstriche. Performances are already programmed for 2024 by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Augsburger Philharmoniker.
Oboe Concerto (2018)
Co-commissioned by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and West Australian Symphony Orchestra
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The Oboe Concerto will be performed in Perth, Australia this November by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra – one of the co-commissioners of the work. The two-movement twenty-minute recently released digitally on Artaria, presents the live world premiere recording with Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Celia Craig. Weir composed this work for Craig, who gave the first performance in October 2018, conducted by Douglas Boyd. Weir studied the oboe in her youth and says of the work: ‘Having played the oboe myself as a young person, the composition of an Oboe Concerto had an almost autobiographical significance for me. It was also a memory exercise, as I recalled in detail some of the music I had learned so carefully during those years. One important work, the Strauss Concerto, was helpful with my choice of accompanying instruments; just a wind octet plus strings.’
Listen to the Oboe Concerto via your preferred music service here.
I give you the end of a golden string (2013)
str (min. 126.96.36.199.2)
Commissioned by the Britten-Pears Foundation and the Royal Philharmonic Society
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Weir’s aim when writing I give you the end of a golden string was to ‘create a long length of string music out of a single strand of melody’. William Blake’s lines provided inspiration:
I give you the end of a golden string;
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,
Built in Jerusalem's wall.
Weir takes a single tune and winds it around itself so that it gradually forms itself into a much richer and more complex texture. The process happens three times, producing the equivalent of a continuous three movement concerto. This work requires generous rehearsal time and often works best with bigger string sections.
‘…as always with Weir, the score's directness of expression and technical skill matched neatly’.
– George Hall, The Guardian
ORCHESTRA & CHORUS
Moon and Star (1995)
SSAATTBB chorus; 3(3pic).2+ca.3.3/4.3+Dtpt.3.1/3perc/pf/str
Commissioned by the BBC Proms
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‘In my music, I have frequently tried to portray the sky, stars and planets'. says Weir. 'For instance, Airs from another Planet is a suite of 'traditional music from outer space'; Ascending in to Heaven describes a staircase into the sky, on the way to the Celestial City; and Isti mirant Stella is a picture of Haley's Comet…When I began a new work to be performed under the immense dome of the Albert Hall, it seemed time to return to this subject again. With the 'aura' of the piece in my head, I began to search for a text which could be in the background of the piece, as a kind of motto or caption for what I then heard as a series of spacious orchestral tableaux. Many texts were considered and rejected (very often poems about the universe come attached to some specific piece of religious baggage) until I discovered Emily Dickinson's Ah, Moon and Star!’
Moon and Star is not simply a setting of a favourite poem. Weir’s intention was to write an orchestral piece with a small chorus included as part of the available sound. The text acts as a philosophical motto to the music (rather as an abstract painting has a caption) but the sung poem is not always heard in the foreground of the composition. The idea of using a vocal group as an orchestral colour has been round a long time but - for obvious logistic reasons - instances of its use are comparatively rare. In this piece, the voices are most used as a source of textural richness, in wide harmonic paragraphs. The orchestra is likewise designed to portray the idea of musical height and distance. There is a preponderance of high instruments; triple woodwind (including three piccolos), four trumpets, high violins, bell-like percussion.
SSAA + children's chorus; 3fl(2pic,afl)/3perc/3vc
Commissioned by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
This commission is one of the many works written during the fruitful period when Weir was Composer in Association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Simon Rattle has long championed Weir’s work – the London Symphony Orchestra recently opened their 2021 season with Natural History conducted by Rattle at the Barbican, London.
The important thing to mention here is that Storm requires a great deal of percussion – so if this is your forte then this could be the work for you to programme – along with the necessity for an upper voice chorus and children’s choir.
The text set in Storm chosen – edited and annotated by Weir – is from Shakespeare’s the Tempest, with added narration.
(A Motet about London)
Speaker; SATB chorus; 0+pic.2.2.1/188.8.131.52/timp.4perc/pf/str(no va)
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This work requires technical skill for balancing narrator part, and ideally surtitles. The chorus part is suitable for more advanced choirs. Ivan Hewett describes the work: ‘CONCRETE is what Judith Weir's music always is, in the sense that it offers sharply delineated ideas that lodge in the mind and the memory. But the title here refers, rather surprisingly, to the prosaic and unloved building material that's become synonymous with the worst aspects of the urban landscape. This isn't a sign that Weir has finally signed up to the zeitgeist and become an edgy, urban composer. As always, it's history and memory she's interested in.
'The real subject here is the way a city grows, decays, is rebuilt, burnt down and reborn. The city is London, specifically the area around the Barbican. Weir chose this area for her 'motet about London' partly because it was commissioned for the BBC January Composer Weekend, but also because the Barbican and its neighbouring areas are a microcosm of London's history. The Thames ran nearby in the days before it was confined within the Embankment. In the pre-Christian era it had Greek-inspired temples and a Roman wall, then later a whole clutch of Medieval churches. Periodically there were fires, after which rebuilding would begin again, fueled by the conviction that what rose from the ruins would be better than what existed before. But the old didn't vanish without trace; it was memorialised in poetry and prose, and its fragments were physically incorporated in the new buildings - most notably in St Paul's Cathedral, which contains a brick from the old cathedral bearing the carved word 'Resurgam' – 'I shall rise again'.'
‘…a terrifically accessible and thrilling evocation of the changing history of London, and the Barbican in particular. Vivid, moving and unashamedly lyrical, this was Weir at her glorious, ecstatic best.’
– Stephen Pritchard, The Observer on CONCRETE
Stars, Night, Music and Light (2011)
SATB chorus; 184.108.40.206+cbn/4.2+2 in F.3.1/timp/org/str
Commissioned by BBC Radio 3
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Requiring a large orchestra, Stars, Night, Music and Light this luminous work is uplifting, cheerful and is the perfect opener to a concert – as confirmed by the premiere at the first night of the BBC Proms in 2011, conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek (pictured above).
O Sweet Spontaneous Earth (2022)
SATB chorus; strings (220.127.116.11.2)
Commissioned by the Addison Singers
With string accompaniment this piece could work with both one to a part and a larger string section. Composed for David Wordsworth and the Addison Singers this is a suite for chorus and string orchestra. The three movements set texts, by historical American poets, whose themes Weir has often referred to in earlier compositions. Each poem set in O Sweet Spontaneous Earth is about the Earth, and our experience of living on it.
This October the BBC Singers conducted by Sofi Jeannin will perform the work at the Barbican’s Milton Court. They will also perform the work again in 2024.
The Big Picture (2017)
SATB choir; unison voices; clarinet; percussion; keyboard
Co-commissioned by Aberdeen Art Gallery and sound for the re-opening of Aberdeen Art Gallery
In The Big Picture Weir sets text by King Henry VIII, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, John Boyle O’Reilly and Christina Rossetti and focuses on the concept of colour. As the commission was written to celebrate the completion of a major redevelopment and refurbishment to Aberdeen Art Gallery, Weir decided to examine a subject important, in different ways, to both the visual arts and music – Colour. Strictly speaking this is not an orchestral work as it is only scored with clarinet, percussion and keyboard, however it is an interesting work worth exploring.
‘Pursuing the relationship between music and colour to its logical conclusion, composers have often discussed whether musical tones and keys can be related to particular colours; the extreme form of this phenomenon is ‘synaesthesia’ where listeners experience musical sound visually, in colour’, says Weir. ‘Although I have never sensed music this way, I realised after long reflection that I had certain clear ideas about certain keys ‘belonging’ to certain colours; and I have explored these personal perceptions in The Big Picture, a cantata for two choral groups and small instrumental ensemble, in five colour-themed movement.’
Each movement is titled with a different colour – Green; Blue; Red, White, and Colour. The seventeen-minute work is intended to be performed using three levels of an open gallery/atrium with some separation between the performing groups. Any convenient arrangement is welcome, but an initial suggestion is: Top level/floor – Solo Clarinet; Middle level/floor – Voices and Percussion (One or more players); Bottom level/floor – Choir and Keyboard.