All the time I’ve been working away, writing and broadcasting, something else has been fermenting away in the background.
I use to compose as a child: mostly impossibly ambitious things like symphonies and a concerto for five saxophones and orchestra, hardly any of which got anywhere near the finishing line. I studied composition at university, and was encouraged by my tutor Alexander Goehr and the composer and writer Robert Simpson. But after graduating the flow soon started to dry up – I found it increasingly hard to silence the critic in my own head. Instead I took up journalism and broadcasting, and for the last thirty years that has been my day, and sometimes night job.
Every time I came back to my desk it was there waiting, straining at the leash.
Then, about fifteen years ago, after a close bereavement and a particularly nasty depressive episode, I started composing again – painfully slowly at first, but with growing pleasure and confidence. In marked contrast to my boyhood efforts, the things I wrote now were mostly small scale: songs, and short unaccompanied choral pieces. But towards the end of 2013, not long after the death of my mother, a sketch for an orchestral piece that had sat, inert, on top of my piano for seven years suddenly leapt into life. Fitting in such a demanding project was hard, but I soon found it had a momentum of its own. Every time I came back to my desk it was there waiting, straining at the leash. The musical ideas merged with images form a favourite novel: Mikhail Bulgakov’s riotous, life-affirming The Master and Margerita. Soon the piece had a title, Behemoth Dances, named after Bulgakov’s magnificent cat-demon Behemoth, who wreaks such havoc in Stalin’s Russian, yet whose pranks prove to be strangely redemptive for a few privileged souls.
Now, thanks mostly to the wonderful efforts of Andrew Jamieson from IMG Artists, Behemoth Dances is being performed – not once, but five times, and by the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra under its direction Pavel Kogan. The premiere is in Moscow on April 23, then there are four performances in the UK in May during the orchestra’s forthcoming visit – see the events page for details.
I still cant quite believe that I’ve fallen so spectacularly on my feet, but as the last of the orchestral parts are sent off to Moscow the reality of it is beginning to sink in. I’m tremendously proud of it, and I hope at least a few of those who hear it will experience some of the joy I felt in composing it. True, there are darker moments in Behemoth Dances, but I think joy does re-emerge in the ending. I’d be fascinated to hear your responses.
For those of you who’d like to know a little more about Behemoth Dances, please see my programme note for UK concerts.
2016 Performances of Behemoth Dances
Moscow: Moscow State Symphony Orchestra/Pavel Kogan
Cadogan Hall, London
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
The Anvil, Basingstoke
City Hall, Sheffield