Gary Higginson, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing and pursue a career in music?

No one especially inspired me to take up music or to compose. I sang from an early age, joined a large all-male church choir when I was 7, was ‘put’ to the piano at 8 and I fudged my first three years and failed to practice. My father threatened to stop my lessons, which were with the church choirmaster/organist. This sparked me into musical life. I wrote my first piano piece ‘The Sea’ in February 1964 and became very excited because I felt I was writing chords and sounds that no-one else had ever thought of.

My teacher suggested that I write a new piece each week e to play him, which I did for the next five years or so. It meant that I became very fluent. Then, by chance I was given a recording of Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ and from that point I was hooked.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

First, church music and Stravinsky as mentioned and then once training at the Guildhall my two main teachers Edmund Rubbra and Patric Standford. But from an early age I discovered and loved Medieval and Renaissance music.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Trying to get recognition as a composer especially when people around me either knew me as a singer – I was a first-study counter-tenor at the Guildhall or as teacher – I have spent over 30 years in schools.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The knowledge that you know it will be performed and that you will have some sort of audience. If the parameters are specified (programme or length etc.) it also becomes almost a collegiate affair and the commissioning body will probably enjoy being kept in touch with the work’s progress and development.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Quite simply you must know their strengths and weaknesses, you should know what sort of thing they enjoy and you should be willing, within reason, to make changes if there are passages or technical issues, which prove problematic to them. I will normally compromise or find a way round any problems, which might emerge.

Of which works are you most proud?

Many might think of me as a choral composer primarily and indeed half of my output has been written for choir. There is also a CD devoted to some of my choral works but I am especially proud of my Five String Quartets, my large-scale orchestral work ‘Stations of the Cross’ and my song-cycle ‘Messages of Hope’ which is on this new Sheva CD.

How would you characterise your compositional language?


How do you work?

I have no set way but much of the time I prefer to compose at the piano feeling the music under my fingers. For me composing is a physical and emotional experience and always begins with improvisation at the keyboard. I may write for an extended period, I may just do two minutes here and there. I have probably already thought out the next few bars and just add them or I may just play over what I’ve done and then add a little more. But if the piece is more complex or orchestral then I just compose away from the piano. For example my ‘Concerto for Viola and Double String Orchestra’ from in 2012 was written entirely at the desk.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Having favourite musicians and composers is never a strong feeling for me as the music I want to listen to may depend, if not on work considerations (for example I write CD reviews) then on my mood. However the music I turn to most often is ancient, from plainchant through Landini, Dufay, Josquin and Monteverdi. Then I love Debussy, Ravel and Manuel de Falla. But of contemporaries I had a great admiration for the late Oliver Knussen, a fine conductor and very clever and sensitive composer. My own teachers, for example Edmund Rubbra and John Joubert have been a great inspiration to me. I have come to realise for example that Joubert’s Second Quartet has been a big influence on my own 3rd Quartet although but it is not immediately apparent. The development and control of fast music is something I have learned by studying his music and other contemporary composers like Magnus Lindberg. And, by chance really, Rubbra’s remark that composing is akin to a controlled improvisation is exactly how I feel.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I want to feel that I have given the listeners an uplifting, hopefully mostly joyous experience and have been able to open a new world for them which they might feel they could explore further.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

You will have to work hard and persevere. Always trust your instincts but also listen to criticism. You should continuously learn from composers and performers, soak up that learning and grow in understanding.

What is your idea of perfect happiness

Spending quality time with my wife and family

What do you enjoy doing the most

Being a tourist and seeing wonderful historic sites.

Gary Higginson, born 1952, is a composer, singer and writer on music, with special interest in the medieval and renaissance periods and 20th-century music.

Gary trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama under Edmund Rubbra, Patric Standford, Buxton Orr and Alfred Nieman. Later, whilst a student at Birmingham University, he continued composition studies under John Joubert.

He was Director of Music at Our Lady’s Chetwynde School in Cumbria from 1996 to 2008, when he retired to become a freelance musician. He is also a Music examiner for Trinity College, London. He moved back to Herefordshire in 2011.

Gary has written over 170 compositions. These include several orchestral works, two operas for young people, three string quartets, a great deal of church and Christmas music, a piano quartet, solo sonatas for every standard woodwind and string instrument, songs and song cycles, educational music – for voices, piano solo, flute, etc – pieces for brass band and a great deal more. His music has recently been heard in South America, France and Ireland.

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