An interview with David Bednall

How did you get into composing?
I had done composing at school but did virtually nothing during my time at Oxford other than study techniques of composition. Having composition lessons with David Briggs while I was at Gloucester Cathedral lit the flame, and my first proper piece was Behold, O God our Defender, written on September 12th 2001, in memory of all those who had been killed the previous day.

Are there any composing/musical projects that you’re particularly looking forward to?
I’m very much looking forward to writing this piece for ORA, and other projects coming up include a large work for Tom Williams and Erebus. It’s been a pretty big year, with the release of Stabat Mater and other projects including a large commission from the Finzi Trust for the Three Choirs Festival to write a Nunc dimittis and Gloria to go with Finzi’s own Magnificat, and commissions from Wells Cathedral, Christ Church, Dublin, and The Queen’s College, Oxford. Next year will also see a commission from the BBC for James Gilchrist, Philip Dukes, and Anna Tilbrook for their Tenor, Viola, and Piano Trio. There is also the release of a new CD of choral music by Epiphoni, and a CD of my organ music to look forward to as well.

Have you come across any challenges in writing for vocalists as opposed to instrumentalists?
One of the biggest challenges I think is ensuring that the words are given their proper due and respect. I really hate poor word–setting! The words nearly always came first and I think it is essential that these are considered when making a setting. There are also of course the various considerations about vocal spacing/intervallic writing etc which you improve with (I hope!) over time. It’s a medium in which I feel very at home so am always happy to write for voices. That said, I love writing for instruments as well and am doing more of that as time goes one.

Do you have a particular process that you follow in composing? Are you systematic or sporadic?!
A bit of both! If I am setting a text I write the text out by hand in fountain pen before starting. I find this helps me to consider carefully the text, and start thinking about structure and particular points of interest. I like to be thinking about the words long before writing begins. When I do write, it is always in pencil on manuscript paper (this is something I feel very strongly about as being the right way to do it) as this helps to ensure you are not simply repeating yourself; it also means I feel nearer to the music. Also, if you can’t be bothered to even write it down, why should anyone be bothered to learn it?! The final stage is setting it on Sibelius and making any final adjustments. I love the setting part (I am one of the main originators for the new Elgar Edition and Havergal Brian’s Symphonies) but it is for me the final part of the process.

Are there any artists you particularly admire?
As composers, my personal idols are Howells, Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Wagner, Puccini, Strauss, Beethoven, and Mahler. Herbert von Karajan is probably the conductor I admire most from the past, and some my favourite singers (retired or departed!) include Janet Baker, Christa Ludwig, Hans Hotter, Wolfgang Windgassen, Astrid Varney, Mirella Freni, Birgit Nilsson, and Kirsten Flagstad.

Which composer, alive or dead, would you most like to talk to, and why?
Herbert Howells I think. He has been the biggest influence on me of any composer, and I love his work, not just for its famous qualities of sensuousness and beauty, but for its craft, skill, infinite shading and variety, and the fact that it can always move me. I feel a deeply personal connection to his music (and recently wrote a large organ Triptych in honour of him) and would love to have met him. I would also love to have met RVW, who I think was possibly one of the most wonderful of people as well as composers.

What styles/genres of music do you most enjoy composing for?
Choral is my heartland and I always enjoy writing for voices. Song as well, and also brass, percussion and organ is hard to beat. I love writing from string instruments as well, and have big love affairs with the viola and clarinet.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
When there is spare time… I am a big cryptic crossword fan (I’ve won both the Times and Telegraph Prize Crosswords pens), love the opera, listening to music, and also am a keen fan of the Box Set – The Sopranos being the greatest of all, and am now working through The Wire. Inspector Morse is probably my favourite series of all. I was nearly and Astrophysicist so keep a keen interest in the World of Science as well. And real ale is a big thing….