A concerto like
a cracked bell
Scottish composer Helen Grime is inspired by visual arts and poetry.
Text: Laura Airola
“Nimble melodic lines take unexpected turns, rustling around one another inside vast orchestral landscapes. Bright orchestral colours shine with clarity, like light rays across a clear winter’s sky.”
This is how the London Symphony Orchestra describes the music of Scottish composer Helen Grime, performed by the orchestra this spring.
Grime’s music has also been described as complicated, poetic and butterfly-like – her notes flutter rather than rumble.
“I simply was fascinated by Helen’s music,” says conductor Sir Simon Rattle, explaining why he decided to programme the young composer for the LSO.
Helen Grime grew up in Scotland and inherited a love for music from her family. She says she was lucky to have the opportunity to go to the government-funded City of Edinburgh Music School at an early age, where pupils “swam in music” alongside the usual school curriculum. Her principal youthful favourites were Debussy, Sibelius and Janáček. As a young girl, she wanted to become an artist. “So I got instrumental lessons since early age, but also lessons in chamber music, composing and many other things associated with music. And not only me – everyone had these lessons.”
Helen began writing music at the age of twelve and took it very seriously. “It seemed like the normal thing to do, it didn’t feel weird to me. I didn’t think that for example composing is unusual for girls. Also my brother composed, and I thought then why not me as well.” It was not until she went on to study the oboe at the Royal College of Music at the age of eighteen that she discovered that she was one of only two female composition students in the entire school.
She was then faced with a difficult choice between two things she loved: composition and the oboe. Composition came out on top, but she did play the solo part at the premiere of her first concerto, the Oboe Concerto. This was in 2003, she was 21, and her life has never been the same since. The concerto won the ‘Making Music’ prize in the British Composer Awards and a slew of other awards. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra programmed the concerto.
The Oboe Concerto brought Grime to the young composers’ workshop held by the London Symphony Orchestra, and as a result the LSO premiered her orchestral work Virga. After Oliver Knussen conducted the work at the BBC Proms a couple of years later, her career truly shifted into high gear. Virga was praised for its scintillating beauty, and Grime became one of Britain’s most prominent young composers. “[The Proms performance] gave it lots of exposure, a lot of audience, it was even on TV. After that I got many commissions, people asking [about] this piece for a lot of orchestras who wanted to play it.
Now, ten years later, Grime listens to her breakthrough work very differently. “I can see where I’m coming from. [...] I hope my music has evolved since a lot, it feels almost like it was another person who wrote it. It’s silly to be ashamed of it really, but I still have commissions from persons who liked that. They want me to write something similar, and I have to say it’s not the music I’m writing anymore.”
Today Helen Grime is one of Britain’s most in-demand contemporary composers. When she was appointed composer-in-residence at Wigmore Hall in London in 2016, she was the first woman to be thus honoured in the institution’s history going back more than 100 years.
Grime keeps herself inspired by nourishing her creativity in other branches of the arts. Women in visual arts in particular have inspired several of her works. Most recently the sculptures created by Laura Ellen Bacon out of natural materials prompted her to write a work for the LSO. The landscape paintings of Joan Eardley led her to write the diptych Two Eardley Pictures, which was premiered at the Proms in 2016.
Composing is a rewarding but arduous profession. “It’s quite turbulent emotionally. The hardest part in being a composer is just to keep a sense of belief and hope. It’s quite exhausting to write music, I find that in the sense of reinventing and producing new work and not just repeating the old.”
Before the Nordic Music Days, the only Nordic country that Grime had visited was Sweden, which is where her Violin Concerto was premiered by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding in 2016.
The idea of inviting Grime to the Nordic Music Days emerged as a gesture of solidarity towards Scotland, which as part of the UK is being dragged into Brexit against its will. “Brexit: It’s just a depressing thing – it’s pretty embarrassing. I don’t know many musicians if any who really voted for Brexit.”
But we must sustain our belief in music and our hope for a better future – even in politics.
The programme of the Nordic Music Days features Helen Grime’s Clarinet Concerto. “I love the clarinet, it’s one of my favourite instruments, I love writing for soloists.” She wrote the concerto while studying at Tanglewood Music Centre in 2008. She describes studying at Tanglewood as a turning point: “I met a composer who taught me and really championed my work. He was Oliver Knussen, who very sadly died this summer. Knussen really took an interest in my music.”
The Clarinet Concerto was inspired by a poem by Charles Baudelaire, The Cracked Bell. It ends on a rather less than positive note:
“Ah, my soul is cracked, and when in sorrows
It wishes to people the cold air of the night with its songs,
Often it happens that its feeble voice
Seems like the thick death-rattle of one wounded, forgotten
By the side of a lake of blood, under a great weight of dead,
Who dies, without moving, amongst enormous efforts.”
- (Geoffrey Wagner: Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire. NY: Grove Press, 1974.)