10 Key Works by Michael Nyman

10 Key Works by Michael Nyman
© Fernando Aceves

For just over forty years, his music has been performed all over the world, reaching audiences of all tastes and demographics through the concert hall, theatre, and cinema. Michael Nyman celebrated his 75th birthday on March 23 2019.

Nyman is undoubtedly one of the UK’s most innovative, celebrated, and globally performed composers. His reputation is built upon a substantial body of work written for a wide variety of ensembles, not only for his own band, but also for symphony orchestra, choir, and string quartet. He has been regularly commissioned by some of the world’s leading ensembles including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sentieri Selvaggi, and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, to name just a few.

His contribution to music for the classical concert hall and stage is significant and varied. It is music clearly of the classical tradition, as seen in the ongoing cycle of symphonies, but it is also music of its time, at once both vibrantly rhythmic, harmonically grounded, and melodically memorable. This, combined with Nyman’s aesthetic, which always acknowledges the sources for his musical material, creates a sound world that is unique and always rewards exploration. 

To mark this special birthday, we have listed here ten essential Michael Nyman works, a selection of titles displaying the breadth of his music. Some will be well-known already, others are gems most certainly deserving of more attention. Click on the links below to views the scores and listen along:

Listen through a selection of these works

Key Works

1. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1986) 1hr 20'
Libretto: Christopher Rawlence, based on the case study by Oliver Sacks
Cast: Mrs P (soprano), Dr S (tenor), Dr P (baritone)
Ensemble: hp/2vn.va.2vc/pf

Michael Nyman’s first opera, which unfolds in a series of diagnostic events, places music as the central hero of the story. We delve into the world of a man (Dr P) with visual agnosia (or ‘mental blindness’). Such patients ‘see but do not see’. They see colors, lines, boundaries, simple shapes, patterns, movement – but they are unable to find sense in what they see. They cannot recognize people or places or common objects; their visual world is no longer meaningful or familiar, but strange, abstract, chaotic and mystifying. If a world cannot be organized visually, other organizing principles may be found and used. In the case of Dr P, a gifted performer, his exceptional musical ability allows him, in large measure, to return sense to the world by putting it and his actions into music.


2. Six Celan Songs (1990) 33'
contralto; cl(bcl).2ssx(2asx)barsx(fl,pic)[bsx(fl/pic)]/hn.tpt.btbn/pf/ebgtr/3vn.va.2vc

This cycle of settings of poems by Romanian-born German-language poet Paul Celan was written between May and July 1990 for Ute Lemper. A myriad of texts are taken from several of his collections. The settings of 'Corona' and 'Blume' both introduce an eight-bar chord sequence derived from Chopin's Mazurka in A minor, Op.17 No.4 (the introduction to which was used by Henryk Mikolaj Górecki in his Symphony No.3). An orchestral version is in progress.


3. String Quartet No 3 (1990) 16'
2 violins, viola, cello

Written for a benefit concert for Romania, held at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.

The third quartet is based on an earlier choral work by Nyman about a devastating earthquake in Armenia written the year before, Out of the Ruins (1989). The theme of hope and action in the face of devastation felt equally relevant to Nyman as he witnessed the Romanian revolution on television during the later part of December 1989. Nyman draws on a collection of transcribed folk songs he took down during on a research trip to Romania in 1965.


4. Where the Bee Dances (1992) 21'
soprano saxophone; 1(pic).1+ca.1+bcl.2/2.1.0+btbn.0/pf/str(66432)
Commissioned by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, premiered by John Harle.

Written in one continuous movement with a wide variety of tempi, this work’s title has a double reference: on the one hand to the circular orientation dances which a foraging bee performs to communicate the location of a food source, and on the other hand to his setting of ‘Where the bee sucks’, composed for Peter Greenaway’s film 'Prospero’s Books.'

5. MGV (Musique à Grande Vitesse) (1993) 29'
Main orchestra: 3(3pic).3.3(3bcl).3/4.3.2+btbn.1/3perc/str;
(small orchestra: 2ssx(asx).barsx(pic)/btbn/pf/2vn.vc/bgtr)
Commissioned by the 1993 Festival de Lille to celebrate the inauguration of the Paris-Lille TGV Service

MGV runs continuously but was conceived as five inter-connected, abstract, imaginary journeys; each ending with a slow, mainly stepwise melody distilled to its true form in each movement’s final bars.


6. Concerto for Trombone (1995)  22'
trombone; 4(pic).3+ca.3(Ebcl)+bcl.4/2221/3perc/pf/str
Commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, premiered by Christian Lindberg.

This, Nyman’s fourth concerto, was written to mark the 300th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell and accordingly references the five cadences of his Funeral Music for Queen Mary at three points in the piece. This is just one of three eclectic inspirations behind the work: the other two being an essay on ‘Rough Music’ by Marxist historian E.P. Thompson and a Queen’s Park Rangers football chant.

7. Violin Concerto (2003) 25'
violin; 2+pic.2.2+bcl.2+cbn/4.2(flg,pictpt).1+btbn.1/vib.mba/hp/str
Commissioned by Stiftung Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, premiered by Gidon Kremer

Nyman’s one-movement violin concerto unfolds in a series of strict one-minute sections. Heard throughout is a refrain where the soloist articulates one of the basic harmonic foundations of a number of the one-minute sections (six dominant 7ths: on E, F-sharp, C, A, B, D) in an undisguised Bachian fashion. The slow arpeggios in the later variants of the refrain not unexpectedly find themselves sharing a bed with the opening of Alban Berg's Violin Concerto.


8. Love Counts (2005) 1hr 40'
Libretto: Michael Hastings
Cast: Patsy Blair, a tiring middleweight fighter (bass);
Avril Ainger, a lecturer in mathematics (soprano)
Ensemble: cl.bcl.barsx/hn.tpt/pf.kbd/str
Commissioned by the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe, Germany

Love Counts is a love story between the unlikeliest of couples: Avril, a lecturer in mathematics at a major college who has divorced a man who physically abused her, and Patsy, a middleweight fighter at the end of his career who cannot read or recognize numbers. Nyman uses Riemenschneider's collection of 371 Bach chorale harmonizations to help Patsy find his voice — they are harmonically fragmented, sped up, slowed down, and overlaid with themselves.

9. Something Connected with Energy (2008) 48'
Commissioned by the Festival Della Scienza 2008, Genova.

Composed for the Italian contemporary music group Sentieri Selvaggi, this nine-movement work engages in dialogue with science around the central theme of energy. Nyman's score creates a vigorous, tireless, rhythmic vortex that seems to allude to how all forms of energy feed.

10. Symphony No. 8: Water Dances (2014) 20'
piccolo, flutes, oboes, cor anglais, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, bass trombone, tuba, percussion, piano, strings

To celebrate the chemical company BASF's 150-year anniversary, its employees collected over 1,200 audio recordings worldwide. Water sounds from that acoustic library were Nyman's influence in writing Symphony No. 8: Water Dances for BASF, along with motifs he'd developed before. Its premiere took place in Ludwigshafen, Germany on April 23 2015. BASF released the recording by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Josep Vicent, later that year.

(March 2020)