Michael Hurd interviewed by Richard Balkwill
RB: Do you work at particular times of day or just when the mood strikes you ?
MH: When I'm writing a new piece of music I do keep office hours. I wouldn't say they would be precisely the same every day but basically I work in the mornings, perhaps starting at half past eight, then going on fairly solidly until lunch time. I might then again work in the evening after five o'clock and that might take me up to about eight or nine.
It is necessary to work in a very consistent way and even if what one's writing isn't very interesting or very good (one may of course scrap it after a few days) you've just got to do it in a regular fashion. If you hang around waiting for inspiration you can be pretty sure that nothing will ever happen.
RB: What's the first step in writing a new piece ? Is it a musical idea or a particular emotion or some more abstract concept ?
MH: I'm sorry to say that the answer really varies with the kind of piece you're writing. I suppose if it's a purely orchestral piece the first idea in my case is likely to be a musical idea, which comes unbidden - or at least it may come in answer to the need for an idea. Someone may commission a work and this immediately focusses your mind in a particular direction. Then some musical idea may come to you that seems to suit that particular work and you then go on from there.
But obviously with a work like a choral piece or a song you've got to find the words first. Therefore the stimulus is external to you. You learn to know what words are going to work as music - they do suggest musical images as soon as you read them - musical patterns, rhythms, that sort of thing. So to some extent setting words to music is very slightly easier than writing an abstract piece.
RB: So, going on from there, the first practical steps. Do you use a piano or blank sheets of paper in front of you ? Is it a question of trial and error or do you have other instruments at hand ?
MH: I personally when composing do in fact use a piano - not all the time. I think one's ideas come in one's head - it's no good sitting at a piano and fishing around for ideas. But I might when ideas have come and I've written some of them down, I would perhaps go to the piano and test them out. Very often if you stuck when writing a piece, the very act of playing sometimes gets you past the barrier. It's almost as if yolur fingers are in direct contact with your mind.
I think I have an advantage in that I'm not a very good pianist as such so I'm not inclined to invent pianistic passages for my fingers, the kind of routine things that fingers always do. I have to work in a slightly more amateurish way. The answer about pianos is it just depends on the sort of situation you're in. One won't find ideas in the piano itself but it is a useful implement.
RB: We understand that different composers use different methods in the early stages; sketches and so forth. Beethoven's manner included lots of sketches of different ideas which he then gradually refined and perfected. On the other hand we understand that Mozart seems often to have been able to work everything out in his head and then put then notes down on paper as confirmation at the end. Do you work in a particular way that resembles either of those two ?
MH: When writing a piece of music I always sketch things in a very elaborate way. I use up endless sheets of paper which get discarded. I suppose I should keep them for posterity really but I don't. (laughter) I find it easier to know what I am doing if I can see it in front of me. Some composers like Britten and Mozart could do all this preliminary stage of composing in their head entirely and then transfer the complete work to paper. I would think this was the better way of doing things but I find I can't do that - I'm in quite good company after all, as Beethoven used sketches in this way. It is entirely a matter of temperament really.
RB: What else stimulates your imagination as a composer ? You've mentioned having a commission or the words for a choral piece. What about other thinsg where it is you and your creative imagination ?
MH: Oh dear. I think I'm basically stimulated by the fact that other people want my music. I work nearly always to commission and this may sound terribly cold-blooded but in a funny kind of way the fact that the music is needed instantly makes you interested in writing it. I think when you're younger as a composer, when you're starting, you might compose entirely out of emotion because at that stage of your career no-one's actually asked you to write anything. It's an interior compulsion that's operating.
But later on you have developed the facility of writing and you are just a composer - you think in terms of music so that someone then presents you with a commission or some suggestion or other and this immediately focusses your mind on a particular task. It sets you a problem, in other words, and you then begin to solve it. I'm sorry if this doesn't sound a very romantic sort of answer but in fact if you think about composers most of them in the past, certainly up until Beethoven, always worked to commission; think of Haydn, with the Esterhazys saying, "We want a new symphony for next Friday," - he must simply get on with it. Being a composer, that he was he did - he wrote symphonies.
RB: I think I'm reflecting the popular myth about composing being merely from some kind of internal fountain. I'm sure, as you've said, it's much more practical. But what about particular performers ? Do you ever feel inspired to write for them ? Do their individual styles influence the way you write at all ?
MH: I am sometimes influenced to write for particular performers because I like the way they sing or the way they play and - it's a very strange feeling this - you suddenly are impressed by their particular capabilities and tyou want to do something to share in their ability. Obviously one's listened to them a great deal and begun to take note of the kind of things they do very well. You want to write something that is grateful for their particular talent. I do find performers quite a stimulus. I like to know who's going to perform a new work, preferably before I write it.
RB: When you've completed a piece, an orchestral piece, let's say, do they always sound exactly as you imagined them when you wrote them ? How do you learn to achieve this, to make them sound as you want them to ?
MH: I my case, a new piece very often sounds better than I had hoped for. This may sound slightly strange but for the most part the work will sound largely as I imagined it - but it is quite difficult in your study to recreate the physical feeling of sound. If the work comes alive at all, it will bve in a very pelasant way. You learn how to understand what sounds are going to be like and how scores are gloing to be heard through a process of memory, very much in the way that one learns a language.
A child learns various words through repetition and how to put sentences together, purely through repetition - a composing mind does this in terms of sound. It will store away the sound of an oboe, a clarinet, different instruments in combination, this by listening to a great deal of music and studying the scores. You then learn how to transfer this to your own music. It seems a rather miraculous and strange gift but in fact it is pure memory.
RB: Do you think that it is possible to teach the techniques of composition as such or as you have just said, does one learn it by trial and error ? To what extent is it teachable ?
MH: I don't think in the strict sense it is teachable. I know there are excellent teachers and some minor composers, perhaps someone like Sir Charles Stanford, clearly he was a very fine teacher. But I think all the teacher can do is bring out what is in the pupil. For the most part people tend to chose a teacher because they like his or her music very much and perhaps they want to imitate it. The teacher then acts as a kind of mirror to the student, who will produce his work in front of him.
It's an extraordinary thing, when you've written a work, as soon as you give it to somebody else to perform or to look at, you begin to realise what is right or wrong with it. In terms of pure teaching, you couldn't really teach an unteachable person - you've got to be a composer first, then have it drawn out of you. Obviously you can suggest that certain things are right, certain are wrong, but it is very much to be drawn out of the student.
RB: Who did you study with ? Did you choose that person or did it happen by accident ?
MH: I studied with Sir Lennox Berkeley and I went to him simply because I admired his music very much. I thought that if I could write music like that - I still think this - if I could write music like that I would be very happy. His music seemed to me to have all the qualities I admire; that is to say elegance, economy, a lyrical imagination - all those things which I find fascinating and want to imitate. Composers are great hero-worshippers, you see - I suppose all artists are - and you learn by imitation.
RB: If you had to choose one composer as the greatest of all time, one to whom you would feel most drawn in a sense, who would it be ?
MH: Well, the composer of all time is Mozart; there can be no doubt about that. I daresay some people would say Bach but I find him very slightly dull. I know that's a slightly heretical thing to say but Mozart it seems to me to get it right all the time. This is partly to do with a balance between emotion and form; Mozart is an intensely emotional composer but it never overflows (in the way that it does with Tchaikovsky, which to me is hysteria).
Mozart's emotion is genuine, beautifully contained, given the perfect form and shape and you see this particularly in the operas. His understanding of human beings and character is second to none. Mozart and Shakespeare are the two men who understand what human beings are really about. They don't moralize, they don't criticize, they simply accept them as human beings. You're presented with a real flesh and blood person in a way that I think is absolutely extraordinary. As far as I am concerned, Mozart is the only real composer.
RB: Well, you certainly answered one of my next questions, which is do you think music reflects the innermost being of a composer ? In this case, it obviously does.
MH: I suppose all music must reflect the composer's character and personality. In some instances this will obviously be stronger than in others - some have very pronounced fingerprints. You hear a bar or two of Mozart, Beethoven or Vaughan Williams and you know instantly who it is. So this must be the reflection of their character, like handwriting I suppose, perhaps capable of being analysed in a similar way to tell things about the composer that he himself may not know.
RB: Do you think, then, in your own case, that your music has ever taught you anything about yourself ? Is there a revelation in that way ?
MH: I don't think that listening to my own music has necessarily improved me but I have found aspects of myself which come as a slight surprise. If I talk in very personal terms about my music, it's much more melancholy than I am in ordinary life - I'm inclined to be reasonably humourous and cheerful. I think I've got a very pessimistic view of life but carry it out in a very optimistic way.
I think the music in a funny kind of way underlines the pessimism. It isn't very strong music in the sense that Beethoven is - his is incredibly vigorous and physical music, you are gripped by it as part of the audience - I doubt if my music ever does that to people because I think as a personality this isn't in my makeup. But the melancholy side came as a bit of a surprise - I knew it was there but I found it more pronounced than I expected.
RB: And is that true of music that you've written recently or more about music composed several years ago ? Does music from your past ever come as a surprise to you ?
MH: I find the music I wrote when I was a young man, it hasn't really changed much during the course of the years. I think I write better, technically more fluent music, but the basic character is still the same. On the whole, listening to an old work - in fact I was doing that this morning with a choir - I'm sorry to tell you that my only reaction was one of enormous pleasure, thinking what a nice piece of music it was, but this may tell you something about my character which I ought not perhaps to reveal.
RB: When it comes to listening to music yourself, for pleasure or relaxation, is it in any way like your own music or does it tend to be something opposite to the sort of thing you write ? Do you listen to much music at all in fact, now that you're composing so much ?
MH: I don't go to many concerts now - I would only tend to go if it was something I had never heard. For example, I wouldn't go to an all Beethoven concert because I know the works and have my own view of how they should be performed. For relaxation, I very often listen to the kind of music which I could never write. A style perhaps, like Richard Strauss, I have come to admire very much in the last three or four years - but our music compared is very much a matter of chalk and cheese. I do listen to quite a lot through gramophone records and the radio; again it's a question of finding pieces I've not heard.
RB: Thank you. To move to another topic, the manuscripts of certain composers - Puccini, Vaughan Williams, for example - are almost indecipherable and I suppose there is a myth about the difficulty of reading original manuscripts. How do you approach the business of putting music on paper ? Do you use anything other than standard notation to convey your ideas ?
MH: I enjoy the act of putting music on paper very much, it's a very soothing occupation. At that point you see, you've solved the problem of the composition and you have all the deliught of putting it down on paper. I dislike indecipherable manuscripts - I'm sure my own sketches are such, except to me - but when it comes to writing the score, which has got to be accurate, then I think it behoves the composer to be as accurate as possible, as clean, as neat and as tidy as possible. I don't mean the manuscript will look like a printed score but it can very nearly and in point of fact it is as easy to write legibly as it is to do the opposite.
But there is a curious pleasure for me in actually doing this. I like to rule my bar-lines, I'm very meticulous about it - not as much as I's like to be, having seen other people's scores which are absolute masterpieces of calligraphy and I would like to be able to do that. In a funny kind of way I feel that the music deserves this kind of attention. You see, if you're not legible, a mistake in music - if you've written a wrong note or a note which might be B or might be A - it's going to make an awful lot of difference to the performance. As a composer you do learn through trial and error, if you have written out orchestral parts and the orchestra find it difficult to read - you've arranged a rather bad turnover for them or something like that - then you do learn by bitter experience that the whole thing will fall aprt and you'll feel a complete fool.
So I get great pleasure in putting down music neatly. In the same breath, however, I do quite enjoy the romantic appearance of other people's scores. I mean, a Beethoven manuscript is really rather a delight to look at because you feel instantly in touch with the inspiration. But then I think the kind of scores we're talking about were not intended for practical performance - they were things that would go to a copyist who would then make a clean score. To some extent, I like to be my own copyist.
RB: Can you remember the moment when you wanted to start composing ? Was there a specific incident or did it come gradually to you ?
MH: I began taking an interest in music as soon as I could crawl to a piano - we had a piano at home and I remember roughly when that would have been because we left the house we were living in then when I was about four - so at that time I was improvising music. For a long time I didn't realise that people could be composers and I just didn't know that they really existed. I knew that I liked inventing tunes but I didn't realise there was a whole business behind it.
The moment I decided I wanted to be a composer was curiously when I was about ten. I heard a broadcast of Puccini's Madam Butterfly on the radio. I didn't know what it was about, I got it completely confused in my mind but I thought the sound was wonderful and I thought if that was waht composers did then that was what I wanted to do. I started at ten, writing little operas of my own and spent quite a lot of time wondering why Covent Garden weren't ringing me up to perform them. Looking back of course I find they were the work of a complete idiot but it was curiously enough Puccini who turned me on to music.
RB: Michael, thank you very much indeed.