Russell Hepplewhite, composer

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

Without any doubt, the time I’ve actually spent in theatres, opera houses and concert halls has been the most signifcant influence. It’s taken me a long time to realise this, but the most profound musical experiences have always come from live performance. After attending a performance of any description I often re-imagine parts of it for days afterwards – particularly if I’ve enjoyed it very strongly. In our insanely digital world, nothing can ever replace the live performance.

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

In music (and most learning) we are shown from a very young age that what others think of our performance is of monumental importance, and as such we learn that we need to please others. In terms of my composing, it has taken me years to learn to let that feeling go, and to understand that in order to be completely true to myself I have to forget about what others think of what I create. A positive reaction or a negative reaction – and I’ve had plenty of both; must not and can not be allowed to change my resolve or my purpose.

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

I only work to commission, so every piece in itself is unique and has a group of performers connected very personally with it. Above all I feel that the challenge is one of responsibility – I want to make sure that the performers are able to take to the stage confident and clear that the music I have given them makes total sense, and that they can genuinely connect with it.

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

The people that I’ve enjoyed working with most are those who understand that music itself is one of the richest joys you can experience, and should always be treated as such. I’ve worked with plenty of such people, and for that I feel lucky. On the other hand there are musicians and conductors I’ve worked with who have forgotten this, and instead brought their ego into the rehearsal room – and concert hall too. That has always been a huge disappoint to me because it forms a barrier to the actual music.

Of which works are you most proud?

I have to start with a plug here. “Herstory” is a three-piece song cycle commissioned by the wonderful Farnham Youth Choir which bring to life the stories of three incredible women from history. I’m deeply proud of the recording, released for International Women’s Day.

“Laika the Spacedog” – an opera for young audiences commissioned by English Touring Opera. To date it has been performed in five different countries by multiple different companies, and next year it even opens in Estonia.

“Symbols” – a short choral piece, that helped me discover the musical style that felt like me.

“Everything” – a collection of 12 songs, written with Michael Rosen and commissioned by Britten Pears Arts for their “Friday Afternoons” songbank. These songs were written in 2019, and their journey became rather remarkable. We had planned a wonderful live launch event with the London Youth Choir singing all 12 songs. As the pandemic took hold the live concert was of course cancelled, and then Michael himself fell deeply unwell with Covid. As Michael gradually recovered so too did our plans as to how to launch the songs. Choirs at that time were still not able to meet in person, and children were still suffering from not being able to attend school. Britten Pears Arts had an inspired idea of inviting applications for choirs from around the UK to learn and record one of the songs. The number of applications was staggering, and alongside London Youth Choir, ten choirs nationwide were selected to take part. The songs were all recorded digitally with the children singing from their homes, and the final outcome was astonishing. We later heard from some of their choir leaders that the Friday Afternoons project had had an enormous effect on helping their children to stay singing during some of the bleakest days of the pandemic. I will always have a very soft spot for this particular piece – and I find the videos of all the children singing from home very moving.

Here is the playlist of songs:

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I write music that spans a large spectrum of styles – I love atonality; I love melodies; I love ultra-simple harmony – and I love being free to use all of these and many more – often within the same piece.

How do you work?

At the piano, with Sibelius, but crucially with a pot of tea on the go – absolutely nothing can be achieved without good tea.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Being able to continue working from one year to the next earning a living as a composer and musician; and working on projects that inspire me.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

Have patience and reslience; never give up; and try to enjoy each step of the journey – no matter how bumpy it becomes.

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

What I write here will sound fanciful, but it is what I honestly believe. What we need is a level of financial investment in the arts on a scale we have never seen in this country. Every single child in the UK should be given a state-funded opportunity to learn an instrument and to sing regularly, and music should be one of the core subjects in every school. From there, I believe we should be investing in new buildings – every town should have at least a decent concert hall and theatre, and every major city an opera house. Build these things, and make music one of the true cornerstones of society, and people will attend. The ethos in so much of the UK media and politics in the UK is dismissive of the Arts and yet they hold a revolutionary power to change, develop, galvanize and strengthen our communities and our society on all levels. I try to remain optimistic that one day a political party will come along who genuinely and completely embraces and believes in the Arts – sadly I see no evidence of any such party at the moment.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about but you think we should be?

We are already talking about Brexit, but we need to get the message out more clearly that British musicians are facing a diminishing arts scene within which to work. This has to be properly addressed very quickly, while at the same time we also need to prepare our young musicians to think ever more globally to give themselves the very best prospects. I’m not saying we should encourage them to take their skills abroad; but if the UK can’t give enough of them a decently-paid career then it is only right that we equip them with every conceivable skill (such as languages) to make the most of their careers. As an example, I now receive some of my biggest commissions in France and Germany, and although I work extremely hard to bring my French up to a good level, my life would be so much easier if I was truly fluent in one or both of these languages!

What is your most treasured possession?

I try not to get too attached to possessions. People; other living things; and the environment are ultimately all that truly matter. Objects are useful along the way, but they are nothing more.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Spending time with the people I love. Can there honestly be anything more wonderful? If there is then I don’t know what it could be.

‘Herstory’, composed by Russell Hepplewhite with writer and lyricist Helen Eastman, is a unique new project aimed at teaching children through song to celebrate notable female figures throughout history. Featuring the Farnham Youth Choir (conducted by Patrick Barrett), ‘Herstory’ focusses on the achievements of three amazing women ahead of this year’s International Womens Day on 8th March.

Aimed at teaching children about gender equality whilst celebrating the achievements of these historical figures, ‘Herstory’ is a unique release offering not only an informative experience but also a captivating classical soundscape. Featuring factual and yet still poetic lyricism the three tracks also showcase Hepplewhite’s skill as composer.

Russell studied at Chetham’s in Manchester, and then the RCM London as a scholar. He is recognised as a leading music-theatre composer. His ground-breaking operas commissioned by English Touring Opera for young audiences have been widely performed, and won him critical acclaim. The most successful of these operas, Laika The Spacedog, has been performed across Europe including an all new productions by the Opera Nouvel in Fribourg Switzerland; and the Neue Forum Kunst Germany. Other operas include The Price, and Ever Young both for W11 Opera; The Casket Girl for Jubilee Opera, and Moonfleet The Musical for the Salisbury Playhouse in 2018. Russell’s many choral works are published by Banks Music Publications, Oxford University Press and Stainer & Bell.  With acclaimed author Michael Rosen Russell composed the 2020 set of Friday Afternoons songs commissioned by Snape Maltings, Forthcoming productions include Climat at Montpellier Opera; and a new opera for the State Opera in Oldenburg Germany. 

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