Interview: Composer Jonathan Dove


There is no doubt that 2019 is Jonathan Dove’s year. The much-loved and highly praised opera composer has a fantastic series of commissions ahead to mark his 60th birthday - set across the country.

Highlights include Letters from Claude, a beautiful CD that interpretes Debussy’s love letters, and a world premiere of Sappho Sings with Fairhaven Singers (Saturday 30th March at Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge).

The renowned Salisbury International Arts Festival (running from 24th May - 9th June) sees Dove as a Guest Festival Director and will be reflecting a number of significant historical anniversaries. Alongside this, audiences can also enjoy two new compositions as part of the festival programme, including Vertue performed by the heavenly ensemble, Voces8.

A little later in the year, the world premiere of Jonathan’s ‘Northern Lights’ Concerto for accordion and orchestra will be taking place on the 2nd May in Edinburgh with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. A staple of chamber opera repertoire, the Austen classic ‘Mansfield Park’ will be taking centre stage at the Waterperry Opera Festival from 25th - 29th July.


Jonathan provides intriguing insight into upcoming events across the year, advice he would give to his younger self, and plans for 2020:

As part of your very special milestone birthday, you're celebrating with a number of  fabulous commissions across the country. One of the main highlights has to be the Northern Lights Accordion Concerto with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (2 May Edinburgh,  Glasgow 3 May and Aberdeen 4 May).  Can you share how the composition of this piece came about? What's it like working with Owen Murray? 

Owen Murray is an extraordinary man.  In 1986, he created the accordion faculty at the Royal Academy of Music – making it the first British conservatoire to offer the classical accordion.  He has inspired a new generation of young players.  He has dedicated himself to establishing the accordion in the classical world, in the face of widespread ignorance, and even hostility towards the instrument.  The concerto is part of his mission.  Sir Peter Maxwell Davies had promised Owen to write him a concerto, but sadly he died before he could finish it, so I inherited this commission.  I have used the accordion in several of my operas over the years: it’s a wonderfully versatile instrument, and incredibly useful in a small ensemble.  But writing a concerto for it was something new.

Owen wanted a piece that would show the classical side of the instrument, rather than its folk aspect (which I have often drawn on).  He plays a freebass accordion, with buttons on both sides, instead of a piano keyboard: on this instrument, the left hand is free to play melodically, rather than the traditional oom-cha chords of the piano-accordion; and I wanted to show its surprisingly wide melody range, its polyphonic possibilities, and the musicality of Owen’s phrasing.

We collaborated closely on the piece: I sent him lots of sketches as I was developing ideas, and then he’d show me what worked well, and what I had to re-think.  He lent me an accordion like his own, and that was really helpful for finding out that certain chords were possible, or realising that one hand spans far more notes than it does on the piano. 

Thinking of Maxwell Davies naturally conjured up Orkney, from where you can see the Northern Lights: this suggested the basic scene of the concerto, which quotes from a popular work by Maxwell Davies, and is dedicated to his memory. 

Another world premiere coming up is your new choral work Sappho Sings with the Fairhaven Singers, how fabulous. Did you enjoy setting music to the lyric poetry? 

Sappho was what we’d now call a singer-songwriter, although she was working around 2,500 years ago.  She would have sung her poems, accompanying herself on the lyre.  Now we only have fragments of her verses, but they are still worth singing.  Sometimes a fragment is just one sentence, like “You burn me” – such a potent phrase, it’s easy to make a whole song out of it.  Instead of Sappho’s solo voice, I have a chorus, and instead of her lyre, I have an orchestra, so I can paint these few words in many colours.

It must be incredibly special to return to the Salisbury International Festival as a Guest Festival Director  - as it was here that your career in composition started when you were a musician in residence 30 years ago . What can visitors expect at this year's festival? 

We are reflecting the anniversaries of two events of global significance.  One is the fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago. Artists behind the Iron Curtain often found themselves in conflict with the authorities, as one of our visiting artists will testify, and yet created music of haunting beauty even under oppression. 

Perhaps an even more momentous milestone: it is 50 years since man first landed on the moon, the climax of the Space Race that brought us undreamed-of technological advances. Artists have long been fascinated by the moon, but photos from the Apollo missions also gave us a new image of ourselves floating in the void on a tiny, fragile blue planet: a revolution in human consciousness.  Throughout the Festival, a stunning installation in the cathedral will let us see the earth as only astronauts have seen it.  We will meet the writer who talked to the men who stood on the moon, see films capturing the excitement and wonder of space exploration, and hear the music it inspired, from the Moonlight Sonata to Earthrise and The Planets. 

Alongside all this is a huge array of jazz, flamenco, street-theatre and comedy, walks and talks, with up to a dozen events each day.  It’s going to be a mind-expanding Festival!

One of your CD releases this year, Letters from Claude delves into musical interpretation of love letters that Debussy wrote to two women with whom he had affairs with - fascinating. How did this project come about?

My friend, the pianist Andrew Matthews-Owen, was putting together a programme celebrating Debussy’s anniversary last year, and his friendship with Satie.  He asked if I could write something for it, and at first I thought there might be some interesting correspondence between the two composers, or perhaps just some postcards, that I could set to music.  But then I learned about the two most significant women in Debussy’s life, and that seemed a more fruitful subject to explore – especially as I would be writing for two exceptional singers, Claire Booth and Susan Bickley. 

Debussy was not always exclusive in his relationships: when he started seeing his future wife Lilly Texier, he was already involved with her friend Gabrielle Dupont, and later, when he wrote his first letters to Emma Bardac, he was still married to Lilly, and still sending her equally affectionate letters.  He was an astonishingly prolific letter-writer, and he had a way with words. 

But then in August he wrote a letter to Lilly which ended their relationship.  Lilly attempted suicide, which created a scandal.  Debussy’s later letters to Lilly in March 1905 are cold, even hostile. Three years later, he married Emma. 

I set 16 of Debussy’s letters, although not all in their entirety.  I was imagining that,  perhaps after Debussy’s death, Lilly and Emma just happen to be re-reading some of his letters in their different homes at the same moment.  Sometimes their voices overlap, especially when Debussy has written something similar to both of them! Their memories are full of his music, and so the piano accompaniments are each prompted by a chord or phrase from piano pieces Debussy wrote around this time –  Suite Bergamasque (1890-1905) and Estampes (1903) – along with the earlier Danse (1890).

And how was it to work with Lawrence Zazzo, Tim Redmond and the BBC Philharmonic on the Orchestral Works album to be released on Orchid Classics on 7 June?

Tim Redmond gave me an incredible birthday present by dreaming up this album!  None of these pieces has been performed as much as my most popular operas, they are not at all well-known.  And it was brilliant to have Lawrence Zazzo record Hojoki.  He sang the world premiere in 2006 at extremely short notice, when David Daniels (for whom I originally wrote it) was indisposed.  He did it wonderfully when he was almost sight-reading, but in the recording studio it was marvellous to hear the amount of detail he could bring out.  It’s a very special performance.

Your career has spanned an incredible 30 years. There is no doubt that you have experienced some extraordinary moments. Can you share some of the most notable with us?

Among my first operas were three ‘community operas’ with enormous casts of amateurs.  The third of these, In Search of Angels, had around 600 performers, and took the audience on a promenade around Peterborough Cathedral before a samba band burst in and led them through the market square into the shopping mall where youthful angels came singing down the escalators.  It was the biggest and craziest thing I’d been involved in, and a joyous experience for everyone who took part. 

That was in 1995.  Three years later came Flight, which changed my life.  I was a complete unknown who had written very little: having an opera performed at Glyndebourne is very high-profile, a mouth-watering opportunity for anyone.  It was an extraordinary leap of faith by the opera company, a huge risk.  It wasn’t based on a well-known play or novel, it was inspired by the true story of a refugee who lived for 17 years in Charles de Gaulle airport.  Fortunately audiences took to it, and it continues to be performed all over the world.  I’m often invited to see new productions, and I go whenever I can.  It’s fascinating to see how different audiences respond to it, and to find out what different singers, conductors and directors make of it.

A few years after that, I wrote an opera for Channel 4 about the reaction to the death of Princess Diana.  It was watched by around 2.5 million people, an unusually large audience for an opera, although of course it was the subject that drew them in. 

In 2015 I wrote a new kind of community opera, in which hundreds of amateur singers could collaborate with a great symphony orchestra.  The first three productions were conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, which was amazing in itself, and of course made a huge difference to the life of the piece.  The orchestras were the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra – you can’t get better than that! – and the productions were in Berlin, Aix-en-Provence and London.  Working with artists of that calibre, and in different countries, was a thrilling experience.  The opera, The Monster in the Maze, has since been seen in Lille, Montpelier, Taiwan, Lisbon, Gothenburg and Paris, and will shortly be in Wuppertal and Baltimore.  It shows the impact that this world-famous conductor has, and it also shows that there is an appetite for work that involves the community.  Orchestras and opera companies are exploring new ways to reach out.

If you could give your younger self advice about the world of composition/music, knowing what you know now, what would that be?

Just keep going, and enjoy every moment!  But also: keep dreaming – keep feeding your imagination – don’t let work take over completely, or keep you from living life to the full. 

Your comic opera Flight is the most performed contemporary opera across the past two decades - how does it feel to have an original work that is so popular? Did you ever dream it would be so successful?

I wrote the opera I wanted to see and hear, but I had no idea if an audience would go along with it.  I thought they might check out after 5 minutes, and never come back on board.  I certainly couldn’t imagine past the first performance.  If you’d told me then that, by this time, it would have had more than 30 more productions, with five of them in just one year, I wouldn’t have believed you.  I would have been utterly gobsmacked.

I once read that the advice you would give to aspiring composers is "write the music you want to hear". With this in mind, if you could pick just one of the many works you have composed that adheres to that notion - which would it be and why? 

Really all my pieces do this.  But perhaps it’s most obvious to me in Flight, because that was the first time I had a whole professional symphony orchestra to play with alongside great soloists: there’s a feeling of release, of getting to do everything I ever wanted.

To top the 60th celebrations, you see the year out with a party at Wigmore Hall. A night of champagne on ice and glorious music. What comes next in 2020?  

There will be some serious pieces, one about refugees, and one about exile; but also some more festive ones. And I’ll be working on some more operas, but I can’t talk about those yet.

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