One of the most acclaimed British contemporary composers, Iain Bell’s name is for the second time in the program of the Enescu Festival. At this edition, Bell will present The Hidden Place, a cycle of songs for soprano and orchestra, which will be performed on September 3rd, on the stage of the Palace Hall by the famous soprano Diana Damrau, alongside the London Symphony Orchestra.
Iain Bell’s music is one that captivates you, it invades your senses and it makes you wonder. Questions that bring about other questions and answers you can’t go without. Iain’s music was the one that, just like a business card, awoke my curiosity of knowing the one behind it. Moll’s a ‘cold, the madness scene from his first opera A Harlot’s Progress, 15 minutes of music that made my eyes question and wonder. Another kind of “mad scene”, which stands now, two years later, at the basis of my Musicology final paper. I can’t wait to relive the feeling described above, this time in Diana Damrau’s interpretation. Until then, here is the English version of our interview, published on the official website of the George Enescu Festival, which you can read below.
Dear Iain, I would like to tell you that we are happy to have you back in Romania, at this year’s George Enescu Festival edition. Your visit in 2017 was your first time here and that time Adela Zaharia performed the mad scene of your first opera, A Harlot’s Progress. How did you receive the invitation then and how do you feel about coming back with a new piece, performed, this time, by the famous soprano Diana Damrau?
The performance at Enescu happened thanks to the conductor of the concert, Maestro Sitkovestsky. He had heard my music and wanted to include it in his programme, which was an honour and a thrill. Adela’s performance was majestic. She completely understood the musical, the dramatic and linguistic requirements of this long scene, and I was amazed. She deserves all the success she has. It is always a joy to hear new, different interpretations. They all bring their own flavour.
What about these last two years since your last performance at the Enescu Festival? What have they brought new to your creation?
I have been very busy since my last performance at the Enescu Festival. I had another wonderful collaboration with Adela Zaharia who gave the world premiere of Aurora, my Concerto for Coloratura Soprano at the Proms in 2018. I also had my fourth opera Jack the Ripper: the Women of Whitechapel premiere at the English National Opera in March 2018 and I am now looking forward to the first performance of my fifth opera Stonewall at New York City Opera, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. I truly feel very fortunate.
When did your musical studies start and why did you start studying music? Is the passion for music something that started in your family? Do you have relatives that are musicians, singers, composers or is it just you?
Since an early age, it was clear to my parents I had a musical ear, for instance, I could sing melodies of pop songs back to them having just heard them once. I am not from a musical family, but from one that is very supportive of all our talents (I have four brothers, and we are all very different). I have no relatives who are professional musicians in the traditional sense, but my maternal grandfather was a Bag Pipe player in the army in the 1940s. My musical studies started at school where everyone in class was taught the recorder. That is where I began to read music.
Could you please tell me about the moment you knew you were going to become a composer and what or who inspired you to start walking on this path? Are there any composers that could be mentioned as an influence for you, as you developed your own musical language (and why)?
As soon as I started playing the recorder, I began composing melodies on it, from maybe the age of 4 or 5, I think. I didn’t know it was ‘composing’ – I guess it was just another form of expression for me. At that age, a child only does what comes naturally. As I grew older, the pieces I wrote were of greater complexity, and people around me were very encouraging, so I continued. I knew even as a teenager that composing music would be a lifelong passion at the very least. I had no idea of being able to earn a living as a composer till much later. Composers that have influenced me include Britten (his dramatic instincts and setting of English text), Berg for his emotional palette in his music and his skill in orchestration, Strauss for his writing for female voices, Ravel, Ligeti and Penderecki for their orchestral colouring. Harmonically, I like music that surprises me, that takes me to a place I didn’t expect. I sometimes get the greatest thrill and inspiration from listening to composers of the medieval period including Leonin, Perotin, Machaut, Dunstable. This was at a time before harmony and tonality were established; the rules didn’t exist, therefore the music could lead to the most unexpected places.
My writing style is in constant development, without me even realizing it, or even trying. I imagine that the more one writes, the more refined one’s style and taste become. I wrote a small solo piece for the recorder when I was five years old, and now I am writing my fourth opera! I am a lyrical composer essentially, and I greatly appreciate that aesthetic, but I love chromaticism and atonal harmonies, and really consider them to be a tool for dramatic expression. That was particularly true of A Harlot’s Progress. The harmonic world is in constant fluctuation as it responds to the emotions of the time.
How do you choose the subjects for your operas and the lyrics for your song cycles? What are the social subjects, the artistic currents that inspire you to create?
It varies. With my operas A Harlot’s Progress, A Christmas Carol and Jack the Ripper, it was my idea as I always wanted to create a trilogy of London operas. With my opera In Parenthesis, I was approached by the Intendant of the Welsh National Opera. Song cycles is different, too. Often, I will speak to the singer who will be premiering the commission and ask them what poetry or themes interest them. I am very interested in exploring the perpetual link between sex and death in my work. I also like to shine a light on the way women have historically been mistreated by men in society. Unfortunately, through this we see that such things are still happening.
What does your first opera, A Harlot’s Progress, mean for you? What made you choose such an actual and controversial subject? Tell me about the composing history of this work, about its structure and orchestration, please. Did you take the composing processes from a music theme, from the libretto or from certain leitmotivs?
This is my first baby so it is very special for me. Diana Damrau asked me to write an opera for her, and I spent a great deal of time considering what subject it should be. I saw the pictures in a Hogarth exhibition in central London and realised that was the story I wanted to tell. It took me around 18 months to complete. I wrote a short vocal score from the libretto, chronologically and then orchestrated it. In terms of structure, it is in 6 scenes, corresponding to the 6 pictures. The orchestra is a standard early romantic orchestra of around 40 strings, double winds, harp and percussion.
This kind of description or analysis is always better coming from someone with more perspective than I have. I am far too involved in the piece to be able to view it, let alone my music as a whole. As I said before, the music constantly fluctuates in harmony and tonal centre in reflection of the dramatic moment. It is essentially lyrical, but with some ‘acid’ in the harmony and tonality, which means one is always never 100% settled, one is always aware of something in the shadows. Maybe it is truer to verismo?
What about the piece that is going to be performed this year, the song cycle for soprano and orchestra, The Hidden Place? What is its story? Was it also composed for Diana Damrau, who is going to perform it?
This was an orchestral song cycle I wrote for Diana Damrau around ten years ago. It was at a point when I had already written several song cycles for piano and voice for her, and it seemed that an orchestral work would be a step forward in our working relationship. I am great friends with her Aunt, the retired mezzo-soprano Christa Palmer, and Christa one day showed me some poems she had written in the 1970s and 80s about precious moments with a loved-one during the four seasons. They were such great texts that I knew these would make wonderful orchestral songs; Christa’s texts really evoke the atmosphere and colour of the seasons, so to have the chance to respond to these musically was a joy. Thus, in this piece, we hear the orchestra journeying from the gentle mists of Spring, through the sultry excitement of Summer, the melancholy of Autumn and the joy and wonder of the falling snow at Winter.
Vocally-speaking, being the first orchestral piece I wrote for Diana (before my opera A Harlot’s Progress), it meant for the first time that I had the scale to really explore the enormous coloristic, dynamic and virtuosic elements of Diana’s voice, which would have been inappropriate in the chamber-setting in which we had previously worked. This meant I could truly explore her vocal potential, whilst striving to reflect the intimacy and beauty of Christa’s poetry.1