Composer Ryan Wigglesworth: ‘Technique is a tool for expression’

Ryan Wigglesworth (Sheffield, 1979) is considered one of the most important British musicians of his generation. He is composer in residence at the English National Opera and first guest conductor of the Hallé Orchestra. On 11 and 12 May he makes his debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with his own Clocks from a Winter’s Tale, commissioned by the orchestra. The two programmes also feature works by Oliver Knussen, Benjamin Britten and Edward Elgar.

Like many Britons, Wigglesworth (not related to the conductor Mark Wigglesworth) began his musical career as a chorister. He grew up in Wincobank, a rather poor district in Sheffield where his parents owned a butcher’s shop. They were no musicians themselves, but had some classic elpees, from composers like Beethoven and Berlioz. The young Ryan eagerly listened to their music, and as a six-year-old sang the anthem of his elementary school with such ‘embarrassing fervour’ that the board made him audition at Sheffield Cathedral. He was immediately engaged to sing in the boys choir.


‘I was a boy from the wrong side of the city’, says Wigglesworth, ‘but music became my world. I was lucky that Graham Matthews, the organist of the Cathedral, took me under his wing.’ After primary school, he travelled daily to King Edward’s School on the other side of the city, where he became ‘obsessed with the music we performed’.

Soon he started composing his own pieces and at fifteen he was admitted to the prestigious Charterhouse School in Surrey, an age-old boarding school that devotes a lot of attention to culture. After this he studied piano, composition and conducting at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the University of Oxford. There he was also Organ Scholar for some time, in which function he gained practical experience as accompanist and conductor of choral music services.

In 2008, Wigglesworth drew nationwide attention conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in his own Sternenfall, commissioned by the BBC. Soon assignments flooded in, and he started dividing his attention between playing the piano, conducting and composing. This combination is not burdensome: ‘When I conduct or play the piano, I learn to become a better composer: how to work out an idea clearly, how to best communicate my message to the performer, how to balance a chord. Everything I do helps me in my core business, composing.’

Secrets and shadows

About his influences he says: ‘Any music that moves you will be part of your DNA in one way or another. Thus, the extremely efficient and strict music of William Byrd can have a huge emotional impact; Berlioz shapes his ideas into incredibly electrifying, driving rhythms. Beethoven is like Shakespeare: a universe in itself. But what you eventually learn from the great masters is technique, not style. Technique gives you the tools to express what you wish to express.’

His greatest inspiration, however, comes from Oliver Knussen, both as conductor and composer: ‘His music is the best proof that you must write what you always wanted to hear yourself, not what you think you should compose. The Horn Concerto is one of his best works: though relatively short, it feels like a long journey. It is very solid, characteristic and colourful, with some whiffs of a night’s atmosphere. But above all it’s very beautiful.’


Wigglesworth is conducting this Horn Concerto alongside works by Britten and Elgar, and his own Clocks from a Winter’s Tale. While composing he drew inspiration from his opera The Winter’s Tale, that was premièred at the English National Opera in February 2017. ‘Time plays an important role in my piece, both realistic time and psychological time’, he says in an interview in Preludium, the magazine of Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Concertgebouw.

Clocks from a Winter’s Tale has three movements, each different in character. The first movement is dark and intense, the second is rather more light-hearted, while in the last movement the initial material returns, though this time ‘as in a dream’. Wigglesworth was fascinated by an exhibition of ancient English clocks he saw some years ago. ‘Every clock has its own personality. They are made to show the time objectively, and at the same time the complex mechanisms are of enormous beauty. To me, clocks embody the purest form of intelligence.’


The composer is happy to conduct the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra: ‘I hope my music gives the musicians the chance to display their particular sound. It’s incredibly enchanting to hear your music performed with the same intensity and personality the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra puts into Mahler and Bruckner.

I grew up with their records and know them from concerts in London and in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Their sophisticated sound is unique, their way of music making is always lively. I really look forward to our cooperation.’

Thursday 11, Friday 12 May, Concertgebouw Amsterdam
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Ryan Wigglesworth, conductor
Britten (only on Friday): Four Sea Interludes
Wigglesworth: Cocks from a Winter’s Tale (commissioned by Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, world première)
Knussen: Horn Concerto
Elgar: Enigma Variations
Photograph Ryan Wigglesworth: Benjamin Ealovega

About theaderks

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, who studied musicology at Amsterdam University. She' specialized in contemporary music and always has an eye open for women composers. In 2014 she wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw and in 2018 she published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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