Peter Fribbins, composer

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

I have wide interests in music but a key influence has always been J.S. Bach – I love the counterpoint, the musical logic and structure, Bach’s eminent practicality and adaptability – also the music’s humanity and spirituality, which speaks to so many people. That ‘metaphysical’ sense of music is important to me, what casts above and beyond the utilisation of sound. Perhaps rather unfashionably for a composer, I also admire the music of Brahms, for its passion and taut focus, the impressive and satisfying balance of these two things. I am endlessly fascinated by medieval music (the new Oboe Quartet which is premiered on May 15 draws upon the music of 14th-century composer Matheus de Sancto Johanne), not only for its more elemental nature but the powerful ‘metaphysic’ of its age. Earlier British composers are strong influences, as well as Hans Werner Henze, with whom I studied for two years, at the RAM in London and in Italy. But my enthusiasms regularly change – at the moment I’m really enjoying Handel and have had his complete keyboard works on my piano at home for months.

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

For me, one of the particular challenges compositionally has been the ability to conceive and write longer, more sustained musical structures, across movements. I only really felt I could begin to do that after the age of about 35. I remember saying to John McCabe, at a performance of his ballet Edward II, that I thought I would never be able to do write music with such impressive structural span. Rather drolly he commented ‘Oh, you will!’.

Of the broader ongoing challenges we all face is a general lack of funding for classical music in England, and consequently the terrifying lack of rehearsal time for new orchestral works. It always seems more relaxed working in other countries on orchestral projects, I suppose the culture tends to be different.

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

Working with particular musicians or ensembles is a real pleasure since you know who you’re writing for, their personalities and particular sound, and this can also influence the direction of a piece. It’s also helpful to have their feedback on a final draft, to have the luxury of making minor changes which really helps the performance and also the future life of the piece if it’s to be published. It’s nice to develop those sorts of relationships and to build upon them; for instance, in 2008 the violinist Philippe Graffin commissioned ‘Dances & Laments’ for Violin and Cello for his Festival in France, and the creative relationship we developed eventually produced my Violin Concerto (2016).

Of which works are you most proud?

At the moment, I think it would be my Violin Concerto – Philippe Graffin has performed it in several countries and recorded it with the RSNO. On another scale, I’m also pleased with the three ‘Soliloquies’ for Trumpet & Strings – I was lucky they were premiered at the Philharmonie in Berlin and they’re increasingly being performed and people seem to like them. From a different perspective, someone wrote to me in 2021 to say they found my Fantasias for Viola and Piano very beautiful and that listening to them had greatly helped them during lockdown in the Pandemic. In some ways that feels like the best review I’ll ever get! I also think it’s interesting that composers sometimes have a different sense of their most successful pieces. Holst always felt ‘Egdon Heath’ was one of his best works, not the ‘Planets’ – that’s surely intriguing.

Violin Concerto (2nd movement) Philippe Graffin (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Robertas Šervenikas (Resonus, 2017):

Soliloquies for Trumpet & Strings (1st movement) – Chris Hart (trumpet), Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Robertas Šervenikas (Resonus, 2017):

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Melody and harmony are important to me, almost always in the context of prevailing diatonic tonality, either directly or indirectly, and also strong personality and individuality of expression and purpose, otherwise I think there is probably no point in writing a piece – there is surely enough music in the world if you have little to say! I also like the ‘extramusical’ and drawing upon that – it seems to me that music is seldom ‘about’ music, however abstract it may seem, there is always something else going on – from the dance, nature, poetry, movement, light, history, etc. That’s what makes music so endlessly fascinating – so much more than the sum of its parts.

How do you work?

I tend to compose in the mornings, from about 9 to 2, then take a break. I seem to be less creatively effective later in the day, but it’s not always the case, and there have been times when I’ve been up at 3 or 4 in the morning to work on something that’s on my mind. I can compose in this way for up to about 3 days but then I tend to need to have a change of activity before returning to the task, otherwise it becomes stale and I can’t go any further. I find my university work [Peter is Professor of Music at Middlesex University] a helpful contrast, either working with students or dealing with university business, which feels as though I’m using different parts of my brain. Then when I return to creative work again I feel somehow refreshed and now able to further progress the piece I’m working on.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I think I would define success as managing to write something that feels natural and right and that you actually like whilst also being pleasing and satisfying to other people, so ultimately being useful. That balance is important to me.

Slow movement of String Quartet No.1 ‘I Have the Serpent Brought’ – Brother Tree Sound (2021):

What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

This may sound unrealistic, but if you can, write only what you want to and at a pace that works for you. What you write will tend to hang around for a long time, so you need to like the results! I think we should also try to remember that there’s no one model, or way of working, or of being a composer – in that way, we don’t compare ourselves negatively to others.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I think there needs to be more classical music available in schools, more instrumental tuition for children, and also wider access to classical music concerts, so the opportunity to attend concerts becomes a more organic part of a young person’s life. Part of the problem is of course public money, but the other one is of our making, that somehow classical music is elitist and not inclusive – ultimately, there is nothing non-inclusive about the transformative, enriching and even healing effects of classical music.

What is your most treasured possession?

I’m never sure that anyone can ever ‘possess’ anything, but one of the things for which I’m at least ‘temporary custodian’ and that I gain great enjoyment from is an old Bechstein grand piano, built in 1888. It was owned from the 1930s by Dr John Horder, famous physician and also doctor to the poet Sylvia Plath in north London in the early 1960s. He generously gave it to me towards the end of his life and I then used it to write a piano concerto that was subsequently premiered by the RPO. When literary friends learn about its background they often get excited!

Riley RMWhat do you enjoy doing most?

One of my pleasures is old cars and aeroplanes – I have a 1954 Riley RM and enjoy driving it in the Chilterns where I live.

Peter Fribbins’ new Oboe Quartet receives its world premiere in a concert given by Philippe Graffin and friends at Kings Place on Sunday 15th May (part of the London Chamber Music Society Sunday Concerts series). More information here

Peter Fribbins is a composer whose music is performed, broadcast and recorded internationally. He studied with the German composer Hans Werner Henze and at the Royal Academy London, Royal Holloway and Nottingham universities. He has produced more than thirty concert works for a range of ensembles and orchestras, much of it widely performed and recorded, and principally published by Music Haven. Peter Fribbins is Artistic Director of the London Chamber Music Society.

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