Robert Hugill, composer

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

Directing the gay choir the Pink Singers in the 1980s, and then doing arrangements for cabaret groups, I discovered that I could write music. It took me a lot longer to gain the confidence to believe that I could. A musical lodger encouraged me; Malcolm Cottle of London Concord Singers believed in me and gave early performances of my music, and my choral singers friends were happy to have new pieces tried out on them. This latter led to the creation of my ensemble FifteenB

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

Hearing ‘The Dance of Job’s Comforters’ from Vaughan William’s Job when playing on the back desk of the violas in Grimsby, Cleethorpes & District Youth Orchestra (in 1972) and realising what music could be.

Listening to Kurt Weill (and teaching it to the Pink Singers) and understanding that cabaret did not have to be simple.

Singing Gregorian chant regularly at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Cadogan Street and finding it a new way of expressing music.

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

Turning the music that I hear in my head into something on paper which can re-create those same sounds.

Finding the right text, and then the right music to go with it.

Of which works are you most proud?

Probably the most recent ones. At the moment, my opera The Gardeners which premieres on 18 June 2019, and my song cycle Charon’s Lament (for baritone, bassoon and piano, with words by Tama Matheson) which is just finished and now looking for a home.

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

I always like working with restrictions which become challenges, and like working for a particular set of requirements. Also, the aim to fit the music to the performers. The challenge can be to make something which is accessible yet interesting.

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

If you get to know an ensemble or a particular musician, then you can start to shape the music to suit them.

How would you characterise your compositional/musical language?

Tonal, my music always needs to move from somewhere and to somewhere

Lyrical, I write melodies and find lyricism essential

Whilst my music can be complex, I am not always interested in harmonic complexity and find drones and ground basses rather appealing, but then I often use bitonality as a powerful expressive means too.

How do you work?

Texts give rise to melodies in my head, which need to be written down. Harmonies are initially simply shapes which need to be explored. Initial sketches are usually on paper, then transferred to Finale and the resulting process mixes the computer and the manually sketched music

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Having people perform, appreciate and understand your music.

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

Have the courage to do it

Create the music that means the most to you

Never lose sight of your audience

What is your present state of mind?

Anxious and excited, I always find the first rehearsals of a new piece rather unnerving, when you finally find out whether it ‘works’, and whether the performers actually like what you have written.

The Gardeners by Robert Hugill with libretto by Joanna Wyld has its world premiere at London’s Conway Hall on 18 June 2019. Further information


Robert Hugill runs the highly regarded classical music blog, Planet Hugill, reviews for OperaToday.com and has contributed articles to magazines Classical Music and Opera Magazine. Robert gave his course An Introduction to Opera at The Course in Mayfair in 2016, and lectures regularly to organisations such as the U3A, and he gives pre-concert talks at Conway Hall, where he also writes the programme notes.

Robert Hugill writes attractive, accessible contemporary classical music in a variety of genres, a disc of his songs Quickening: songs to texts by English and Welsh Poets was issued on the Navona Records label in 2018, and his opera The Gardeners premieres at Conway Hall in June 2019.

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(artist photo: Robert Piwko)

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