When Judith Weir was announced as Master of the Queen’s Music in 2014, it was not only in recognition of her delicately crafted narratives that have earned her a reputation as one of contemporary culture’s foremost musical storytellers, but also of her tireless commitment to making music engage with contemporary society. Both in her highly intelligible and communicative musical prose, and through her community and education work promoting the role of music in society, Weir is passionate about connecting her music with the world around her.
Best known for her writing for voices, it was the highly inventive operatic work A Night at the Chinese Opera that brought her to international prominence. Inspired by Chinese music dramas of the 13th and 14th centuries, Weir’s libretto traces the adventures of a young canal builder in Kubla Khan’s China, with Act II presenting a play-within-a-play, a reconstruction of an original Yuan dynasty music drama. This narrative ingenuity and engagement with a range of eclectic literary sources is typical of Weir, as is the opera’s rapid dramatic pace and economic use of text, reminiscent of her renowned early work, King Harald’s Saga, a 10-minute epic historical saga in three acts written for solo soprano.
Weir’s engaging musical style is the product of an engagement with a range of modernisms and non-classical musics. Equally interested as a student in the high modernism of Stockhausen and Berio and the minimalism of Reich and Riley, Weir also took inspiration from pop music and folk traditions, particularly that of her Scottish ancestry. Having moved to Glasgow to take up a fellowship at the university in the early 1980s, Weir found the city’s flourishing folk revival inspiring, and was particularly interested in some of the music’s structural principles, for example the piobaireachd variation form often found in bagpipe music. As well as directly referencing folk music in Sketches from a Bagpiper’s Album for clarinet and piano, Weir’s music continually references its clarity of expression.
As endlessly inventive writing instrumental music as she is in vocal genres, pieces such as her Piano Concerto display Weir’s natural feeling for melody, an expanded tonality reminiscent of Stravinsky and Bartok, and a wit and lightness of touch often compared to Haydn. Richly communicative, Weir’s music always tells a story, not just in acclaimed operas such as The Vanishing Bridegroom or Blond Eckbert. Weir states that ‘even in abstract music, I think of what happens at any moment in terms of simple narrative’, often taking inspiration for orchestral and chamber works from literary sources, for example in Musicians Wrestle Everywhere, Weir’s response to Emily Dickinson’s meditation on the power of music.
For Weir, her role as musical storyteller is part of a wider responsibility to engage music with the world. Having had her first professional musical appointment as a community musician in rural counties in the South of England, she was artistic director of Spitalfields Festival from 1995-2000, collaborated with writer Vayu Naidu on a music and storytelling project across the UK and India in the mid-2000s, and has held teaching positions at various universities across the UK. Weir sums up her mission perfectly when noting that ‘the position classical music has in our society does make it rather removed from current affairs. It's presented as this refuge from modern life, where you go to have a comfortable sleep, often in a concert. l don't think my work is removed from everyday life.’