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‘It’s a poem that already felt like a song’: Dame Judith Weir at The Byron Festival

Acclaimed composer Dame Judith Weir describes the creative process of setting a poem to music as part of the Byron Festival at Trinity. The Master of the King’s Music is an Honorary Fellow of Trinity and a former Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts at Trinity.  

Photo: Dame Judith Weir by Sim Canetty-Clarke

Where you do you start with a new commission?

It depends on how much is already requested or specified by the commissioner. ‘Set a poem by Byron to music, for baritone and piano’ is a very clear set of guidelines. My first decision was naturally, ‘which Byron poem?’ Followed by finding out about the singer, what kind of voice is it? And then, working out a melody line, hopefully already suggested by repeated readings (aloud) of the words. And then some harmony surrounding it, again ideally presenting itself out of the melody. A final, major stage is writing the detail in the piano part; it’s a most important element in telling the ‘story’ of the poem.

How familiar are you with Byron, his life, works and letters, and to what extent has that inspired your piece of music?

We didn’t study him at school, and after that, when I encountered him in anthologies, I found his work hard to get into. This would have been mostly extracts from the longer poems; which had the disadvantages that they were incomplete, but still long. When I was a music student, I absolutely loved Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, an enormous symphony-cum-viola concerto which Berlioz based on Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. But even with that incentive, I never found the energy to read the whole poem. Of course, that really is lengthy.

When setting a poem to music, I’m thinking about the poem itself, its structure, atmosphere, rhythms, words. I don’t have the musical space to invoke biographical reflections about the poet (even when the life is as interesting and provocative as Byron’s was) which would seem to me a way of working more appropriate to opera.

Why did you choose this particular poem?

Bright be the place of thy soul! is by contrast very brief, only 16 short lines. In that small space, Byron creates an extraordinary atmosphere. It’s a graveside scene; but the poet speaks only with geniality and warmth, no funereal sentiments. Yet the imagery is all about burial and tombs, while Byron is addressing the dead person as if they are still alive. I found this momentarily shocking, particularly the verse that begins “Light be the turf of thy tomb!”  I should also say that the the rhythms are perfect for music; the words simply dance off the regular triplet metre. It’s a poem that already felt like a song.

How special is it to return to Trinity for the Byron bicentenary and play a pivotal role in proceedings?  

I’ve written just a short song – I can’t say it’s pivotal! But it will be most enjoyable to attend Byron Festival, which surely embodies Byron’s great gusto and energy for life.

What is it like being the Master of the King’s Music?

My ten-year term as Master of the Queen’s, then King’s Music, is soon coming to an end. It has been a most interesting time; educational, and broadening for me, as I’ve been involved in a huge range of music-related activities, all over the country, and have met a great many people who love and care for music in all kinds of ways. The position was created by King Charles I in 1626; it’s remarkable that it still exists, and continues to be actively supported by the Royal Household.

You can book a free ticket for The Byron Festival Recital, 5:30pm – 6:45pm, Friday 19 April, in Trinity’s Chapel. 

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