George Benjamin on Lessons in Love and Violence

This Sunday, BBC FOUR will broadcast the world premiere of George Benjamin‘s Lessons in Love and Violence, recorded at the Royal Opera House in May 2018. George spoke to us about writing the opera in the first edition of The Green Room, Askonas Holt’s magazine, and you can read the full interview below.

The opera has since travelled to Dutch National Opera, and is set to receive further performances at Staatsoper Hamburg, Opéra de Lyon, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Gran Teatre del Liceu, and Teatro Real Madrid.

George is also the subject of a BBC One imagine… documentary which airs tonight, Tuesday 16 October at 10.45pm. The BBC describes it as: “Intimate and humorous, this film tracks the creation of the British composer’s latest opera Lessons in Love and Violence, which premiered at the Royal Opera House this year. The film follows his journey from composing songs aged three and being transfixed by Fantasia and 2001: Space Odyssey to his golden days as the youngest ever pupil of the legendary composer Olivier Messiaen in Paris.” More information here.

Writing a full-length opera must feel like a huge mountain to climb at the beginning! How and where did you start?

The process is, indeed, enormous and – once underway – the seasons do drift by, year after year, seemingly without end. But then, suddenly the final double-bar is within reach and the creative journey is coming to its conclusion – a moment of intense elation as well as relief.

For me the hardest task of all is starting a new piece. Within the initial pages essential characteristics of the tone, mood and pace of a work are fixed – as well as the associated techniques which underpin them – and they can take months to get right. With an operatic work I don’t start at the beginning; instead I find a quiet place in the drama where the text invites me in, and where the initial challenges associated with beginning can be disguised.

Do you think that your experiences as a conductor influence your composing, and vice versa?

Yes, but perhaps not as much as one might think, as they remain very distinct activities – one social, physical and active, the other reclusive, solitary and lengthy.

Of course, I have learned a great deal from conducting other composers’ scores, both classics of the repertoire and those of my contemporaries, colleagues and students. Amongst various elements, I have encountered instruments with which I wasn’t directly familiar – basset horn, cimbalom, mandolin, bass flute, euphonium – which I have then felt inspired to include in subsequent pieces of my own. Of course, one also gathers continually new information about standard orchestral instruments too – their capacities seem inexhaustible.

The analytical mind associated with composition perhaps fosters an approach to scores which is somewhat different from that of someone who has never written music, and the inner ear required for composing might also have its uses on the platform. But the best ways to collaborate with musicians and, above all, employ the arm and baton effectively – these are things a composer-conductor has to learn, and continue to learn. And he or she has to try to grasp such essential matters swiftly – for one’s main job remains at the desk, not on the podium.

How involved do you get with the process after the work is complete?

My publisher, Faber Music, is renowned for the quality of its editing, typesetting and printing, and I like to be directly involved with the fine detail at every stage of the process.

Also, once a score is complete – and if I’m due to conduct it myself – I have to try to reduce my feelings associated with the music and memories of how it was written. Ideally one should try to view the notes as if they were the work of someone else; the main task in hand, after all, is to direct with clarity and enable the performers to play and sing with confidence and precision. A conductor overloaded with an excess of internal emotion or wrapped up hermetically with inner hearing – instead of the reality of the sound – will be unable to listen, and the magic of communication and response, which can evolve in performance, will be blocked. So this is a serious matter!

George Benjamin conducts Written on Skin in concert at Gran Teatre del Liceu Barcelona © A Bofill

When composing Written on Skin, you wrote with specific artists in mind. Did you do the same for Lessons in Love and Violence?

Yes, absolutely. I met and heard all eight singers before a note of the music was written – and their specific vocal qualities and exceptional talents were very much in my mind while I composed. While working on Written on Skin I had the sound of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in my mind; this time I have written for the wonderful orchestra of the Royal Opera House, who I’ve got to know well over the last five years.

Lessons in Love and Violence will be broadcast on BBC FOUR on Sunday 21 October at 9pm. Watch live on iPlayer, and on demand for 30 days after broadcast

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