Sally Beamish: ‘My first language was music’

In April 2021 the double concerto Distans by Sally Beamish was scheduled to be premiered by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, but the concert was postponed due to corona*. She composed it for the Dutch violinist Janine Jansen and the Swedish clarinettist Martin Fröst. I interviewed the composer for Preludium, the magazine of Concertgebouw, and translated it at the request of Norsk Musikforlagene. Beamish: ‘I was inspired by the music of Scotland, Sweden and Holland.’

Double concertos for violin and clarinet are not very common, nor are solo concertos for alto saxophone, accordion or percussion. British composer Sally Beamish (1956) does not shy away from these, as her extensive list of works testifies. This is not a conscious choice, though, she says: ‘I work largely on commission and have also written concertos for more conventional instruments such as piano and flute. It is a pleasant challenge to compose for a line-up for which there is not yet much repertoire. I love the concerto form anyway, because you get to know an instrument – and its player – so well. Their personality will always find its way into the music.’

Although she considered herself a composer from the start, Beamish first made a career as a viola player before dedicating herself full time to composing. ‘I simply lacked female role models, I only knew Clara Schumann. – But she earned her living as a pianist.’

Sally Beamish (Ashley Coombes)

Musical family

Beamish grew up in a musical family. ‘My mother was a professional violinist, my father was a good amateur singer and flautist, and his mother again was a gifted pianist. Father worked for Philips and brought home records of classical music. That’s how I developed a love for composers such as Malcolm Arnold and William Walton, whose influence can be heard in my work. My brother is an excellent trumpet player and as a family we often gave concerts in local care homes and churches.’

Her mother taught her music notation. ‘I could read notes before I could read words. I used it to express myself. I made up stories and even wrote an ‘Opra’ at age 7; actually it was more a collection of songs than a real opera.’ Her grandmother taught her to play the piano and to sight-read: ‘We practised duets together, but if I couldn’t keep up with her she refused to wait for me. I had to keep playing, even if I only managed to hit a single note every bar. Granny had a great influence on me. She died when I was 13, but piano remained my most important instrument until I was 15.’

However, Beamish found the continuous training ‘difficult and lonely’. When Nicholas Kraemer became music teacher at her secondary school, she exchanged the piano for the harpsichord. ‘I blossomed musically. Especially when Kraemer asked me to play the viola in a youth orchestra, for I enjoyed the social contacts. I ended up in a circle of London strings and became a viola player in the National Youth Orchestra. Eventually I decided to become a professional viola player, so that I would always have enough work to support my composing.’

Oliver Knussen

While studying viola at the Royal Northern College of Music, the director advised her to enrol in Anthony Gilbert’s composition class. ‘I only had a few lessons with him, though. He felt that my style was developing in its own way and advised me not to study composition full time. For then I would have to conform to the complex atonal music that was in vogue at the time and which indeed did not appeal to me much. Looking back, I am grateful to Gilbert, because I learned so much from playing together with other musicians. It was the best ever composer-networking opportunity!

For ten years she freelanced as a violist in ensembles, several of which were specialised in contemporary repertoire. ‘Thus I got to know many composers and conductors who were generous enough to look at my own scores. The only real “composition course” I ever received was from Oliver Knussen, when he conducted a series of concerts with London Sinfonietta. For a week we jointly travelled cross-country by train. We discussed my work, but also his and that of colleagues such as Mark-Anthony Turnage and Luciano Berio. He showed me it is possible to find a language that is individual and expressive without alienating the listener.’

“Oliver Knussen showed me you can find a language that is individual & expressive without alienating the listener.”

When her precious viola was stolen in 1989, this acted as a catalyst: ‘It was so traumatic that I decided to give it a positive spin. I stopped playing and moved to Scotland with my husband, it was his homeland. This was a good decision, as I was already finding it difficult to combine my performance practice with caring for a baby and a second on the way.

Music bubbles up

Although she has composed many successful works since then, she is still not overly confident. ‘As soon as I receive a commission, ideas start bubbling up, but when I finally start composing, all those beautiful ideas suddenly seem cheap and predictable. But as I work, I regain my self-confidence and begin to enjoy it. By now I recognise the pattern and am less bothered by it.’

When she received the commission for a double concerto for Janine Jansen and Martin Fröst she immediately heard music. ‘That is always a good sign. Sometimes I ask the performers if they have certain wishes, but this time I decided immediately to incorporate traditional music from the Netherlands, Scotland and Sweden. In preparation I wrote a piece for violin and clarinet, The Flittin’. I had just moved back to England and the title refers to the Scottish word for moving house, which is related to the Swedish flytta. In this short duo I express my emotions about leaving Scotland, where I had lived for thirty years’.

She did not know either of the soloists personally: ‘I had heard Janine Jansen play live in Sweden once and went to see her in Amsterdam. It was great to exchange ideas with her – in fact it was her idea to ask Martin Fröst as second soloist. That was a golden tip. Janine’s playing is commanding, sensitive and delicate, Martin inspires with his physicality and rhythmic drive.’

Separation from loved ones

‘Dance lies at the heart of folk music’, Beamish continues. ‘Certainly in Scotland, where it is an integral part of everyday life. Two of my children live in Sweden: my daughter studies world music in Gothenburg and my eldest son lives in Borlänge. My younger son recently moved from Scotland to Denmark, and I myself returned to England two years ago. I felt the separation keenly. During the corona lockdown I learned Swedish, in order to feel closer to my “Swedish” children and grandson.’

She named her concerto after the Swedish word for distance, Distans. The theme of reaching out to loved ones is reflected in the structure: ‘At the beginning, the two soloists call out to each other from a great distance in a kind of kulning, the shrill cries with which cowherds used to rally their cattle. There are also cadenzas and duets and passages where violin and clarinet almost operate as one single instrument. At other times players from the orchestra step forward and the soloists take on a more accompanying role.’

Music voices emotions

In her orchestration, Beamish draws on the sound of folk instruments, such as the Swedish lur (wooden horn) and nyckelharpa (a violin with keys, related to the hurdy-gurdy) and the bagpipes, fiddle and Celtic harp that are so characteristic of Scotland. She also incorporated references to early Dutch dance rhythms and recorder music.

All this is strongly reflected in the title Distans, says Beamish. ‘Composing is my first language, which I use when words fail me. By translating difficult experiences into music, I learn to understand my emotions. That is what I want to share with the audience. The three-stage chemistry between composer, performer and listener is very important to me. I hope the music becomes more than notes on a piece of paper and will take on a life of its own.’

*Distans was a joint commission from London Symphony Orchestra, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Swedish Radio Orchestra. It was premiered on 21 May by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Berwald Hallen, Stockholm.

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About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
This entry was posted in Interview, news, women composers and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sally Beamish: ‘My first language was music’

  1. Clare Shore says:

    Thank you so much for this insightful article on Sally Beamish and her music. I have been aware of her importance as a composer, but hadn’t a clue as to her background in music, her compositional method and meaning, nor the places she has lived. I’m eager to hear her ‘Distans.’ Thank you again!


  2. Patricia Goodson says:

    What a wonderful article. Makes me want to get to know her music. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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