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 singer friends were happy to have new pieces tried out on them and this latter led to the creation of my ensemble FifteenB.

Writing my first opera, Garrett, was a big leap of faith and I am grateful to everyone involved for believing in it, and I learned a lot from conductor David Roblou and director Ian Caddy when we staged my second opera When a Man Knows.

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.

More recently, a casual conversation with composer Ian Venables had a strong influence on the two new cantatas that we are performing as part of Out of the Shadows on 3 February. I interviewed Ian in 2019, to talk about the first recording of his new Requiem, but we got chatting more generally about song writing. One of the topics was the difficulty of setting Walt Whitman, and how Ian had returned to setting the composer recently, and another topic was the way Ian structured song cycles. Whitman’s poetry found its way into both my new cantatas, whilst in Out of the Shadows I took a far more structured approach to the setting than I usually do.

What have been the greatest challenges 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. For my larger scale works, cantatas and operas, I have tended to have a somewhat idiosyncratic approach to subject matter. The things that appeal to me and that urge me to create music are not necessarily an easy sell, so I have written operas about a giraffe who wanted to be a rhinoceros, two people shut in a deserted warehouse, and a family looking after a Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, and the two new cantatas have similar quirky themes. Out of the Shadows was inspired by re-reading a history of the lives of gay men in the 19th century whilst Et expecto resurrectionem explores different attitudes to the search for life beyond death from Cryonics to body snatching and Frankenstein’s monster.

Of which works are you most proud?

Probably the most recent ones. At the moment, my two cantatas Out of the Shadows and Et expecto resurrectionem, both of which stretched me in various ways, and I look forward to hearing them live. We are in talks to present the programme abroad next year, which is exciting. Looking ahead, I am chatting to Joanna Wyld, librettist of my 2019 opera, The Gardeners, about a new opera which will again be on a quirky subject.

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 and aim to fit the music to the performers. The challenge can be to make something which is accessible yet interesting. I recently had the privilege of writing a new song for tenor Ronald Samm, and he premiered my Paul Laurence Dunbar setting, We Wear the Mask with Nigel Foster at the London Song Festival; a wonderful challenge to create a short piece of musical drama for such a terrific voice.

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. And with newer, more experimental works, the reaction of the performers has often been a wonderful encouragement and support. Following a concert performance of my opera When a Man Knows, it was the enthusiasm not just of the audience but of the soloists and instrumentalists that encouraged me to stage the opera, and similarly, with The Gardeners the positive reactions from everyone were supposed to lead to staging though this was rather confounded by COVID

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.

My recent writing has veered more towards complexity and but earlier this year I wrote a new operetta, Ademdai, with Dario Salvi. Dario is a conductor and musicologist who specialises in 19th-century operetta and so the work was structured entirely traditionally, albeit with my own modern, modal take on the music. It was a delight to find that, 30 years or so after writing my last cabaret song, that I could still write good tunes as well as writing songs that have clear beginning, middle and end. All we need to do now is arrange a performance!

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. Sometimes, as with We Wear the Mask, the text gives rise to a musical shape for the accompaniment which kick starts the song. I am very bad a following a pre-structured plan so if I write a fugue then the music is certain to unravel structurally at some point. My writing is usually instinctive, which is what made writing Out of the Shadows to a pre-planned structure such an interesting and rewarding challenge.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Having people perform, appreciate and understand your music.

What advice would you give to young or aspiring musicians/composers?

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. With an event like Out of the Shadows on 3 February there is also the unnerving aspects of promoting concerts yourself, will we get an audience at all!

Out of the Shadows and Et expecto resurrectionem, two new cantatas by Robert Hugill, receive their premiere on 3 February in a concert as part of the LGBT History Month.  Alongside these two works will be a selection of Hugill’s songs, from love songs and settings of Michaelangelo’s sonnets to a depiction of an AIDS candlelit memorial in Memorare.

Full details/tickets

Robert Hugill runs the highly regarded classical music blog, Planet Hugill, reviews for 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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