An Interview with Marcus Tristan Heathcock

Written by: Edward Clark

Edward Clark, producer of the 2007 British Music Festival in St Petersburg, Russia, talks to composer Marcus Tristan Heathcock

You are an English composer living in St Petersburg. How did this happen?

Well, it’s rather a long story, in fact! As you yourself have pointed out to me recently, over 50% of the music heard in the concert halls of Britain is music written by composers who were living and working right here in St Petersburg, and so this legacy is a very immediate and accessible one for a young composer growing up in the UK. Probably rather like many cultured people in 1960s Britain, my father used to have a generous collection of vinyl records, a good proportion of which were of music by people like Tchaikovsky, Rimsky Korsakov, Mussorgsky and, particularly, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. And of course, most of those men either lived and worked, or were born at least, here in St Petersburg. So this gave me an appetite, from a very early age, to go and visit the place where all this great musical wealth came from.

After graduating from the Royal Academy of Music in 1990, and spending a few months taking some private lessons with Olivier Messiaen in Paris, I started working as a freelance composer and pianist in the Birmingham area of the UK, my “motherland”, as Russians would say! I started working for an international group of dancers there, playing the piano for their rehearsals and writing the occasional dance piece for them to perform. And it was in this group that I met a young Russian woman called Valentina, whom I married a few months later.

I had been finding since leaving the Academy that I wasn’t really in sympathy with the music that was then fashionable, that the music promoted by the establishment, although far from some of the horrors of the 1960s, was not yet something that I was really in tune with. I had champions even then, people like Jeremy Patterson and his Birmingham Festival Choral Society, who performed my choral piece Vespers to a packed Symphony Hall in Birmingham in 1994, and the late Ramsey Silver of Banks Music Publications, who took on and published the Vespers, as well as two other pieces, but I still felt that I would like to try my luck somewhere else, somewhere where I was possibly more in tune with the music that the Establishment were promoting. So, as I was now married to a lady from St Petersburg, and full of the sounds of all that magnificent Russian music that had stayed with me since childhood, St Petersburg was the natural choice really.

What are your early memories of musical experience?

I have been writing and composing music from a very early age, in fact. When I was very small, the piano in our house was right next to my bed, and I remember reaching my hands around from a prone position in bed and playing very quietly the very highest notes of the piano, long after I was supposed to have gone to sleep! I remember that the very sound of them fascinated me, so I would play them again and again, like a mantra.

I should point out that my father, although an architect by trade, is a very competent amateur composer – he still writes a carol at Christmas time most years, some of which are very good indeed. This meant that our house was always full of music; either he was composing something, or transcribing a Handel sonata for himself to play on his treble recorder, or he was just listening to one of his many records. And so I picked up the basics of notation from just watching and listening to what he was doing. The story goes that when I was about 5 years old, he returned from work one evening and found me sitting on the floor, crouched in great concentration over a piece of manuscript paper, on which I was writing notes. He asked me what I was doing, and I replied, “I’m writing my Seventh Symphony!” I was very fond of Beethoven’s Symphony no.7 at the time. So writing a symphony obviously came more naturally to me than the simple mathematical concept that I needed to write another six first!

My sister was also quite a good young flautist and my uncle John was good enough on the cello to be able to play, very creditably, the “Louange a l’Eternite de Jesus” from Messiaen’s Quartor Pour le Fin de Temps, so we often got together and had family musical gatherings. We played all sorts of things, from the gorgeous slow movement of Bach’s Double Concerto to Handel Trio Sonatas and pieces written either by myself or my father. This is very good training for a young composer, as it must have been for people like Bach, Mozart and Schubert, all of whom were blessed with such experience . . . in some ways, it’s the very best way to prepare for a professional life composing music. It really shows you what works and what really just doesn’t.

How would you describe your musical development from childhood onwards?

That’s a very interesting question! I was aware very early on that you can’t learn or teach anyone to compose – you can teach them all the techniques, the scaffolding, if you like, but the talent is something that is either there or it isn’t. I don’t like false modesty – I am lucky enough to have been blessed with talent. So my development has been in the realm of the technical grasp of how to express what I have always heard inside me.

My first intimation that I was a composer, because I think it’s a calling rather than a job you choose to do, came very early in life, as I have mentioned earlier, and I was already channelling that early outpouring of music into music that was “symphonic”, in the widest sense of that word. In my opinion, modern composers who say that the concept of the “symphony” is dead are either just avoiding the truth, or they just aren’t good enough to write on that scale! The same was being said after Beethoven, after all, by composers whose names are now rightly forgotten. As my old composer friend James Francis Brown has said recently, saying that the symphony is dead is like saying that the human face is suddenly passé! It was wonderful, by the way, to be able to meet and get to know David Matthews during this Festival of British Music in St Petersburg, because he is a composer who I have always admired, partly for his ability to bring new life into the symphonic genre without looking over his shoulder into the past.

My problem with the classical symphony, with the exception of Schubert and possibly Mendelssohn, both of whose music I have always loved deeply, is that the classical techniques of development are quite alien to my world view – to me, ideas change and “develop” organically through association and intuition, rather than through intellectually manipulating material. Therefore, at quite a young age, Sibelius’s 3rd Symphony hit me between the eyes because, in that piece, he composed a symphony that works totally on all levels but in a completely new sound world from what other composers were writing at the time, and with a completely natural and organic musical trajectory. This organic and intuitive approach, which I have always strived towards, was further helped by coming across the music of Messiaen and Mussorgsky, and it seemed to me to be a much more modern, and closer to me personally, approach to symphonic writing. And then, of course, there was always Tallis, whose melodic writing and formal genius have always pointed the way forward for me. I have also always felt that the ‘song’ symphony idea of Mahler was very innovative, but that his bloated forms and morbid, apocalyptic, and often hysterical musical language seemed to do more for killing off the symphony than reviving interest in the form!

I am omitting to mention many great names here, such as, for example, Elgar, Ives and Tippett, who have written wonderful symphonies in completely new and unexpected ways, and whose work has played a vital role in my development and re-appraisal of the symphonic form. Just to give a quick example, my 4th symphony, called Symphony-Lamentations, is a choral symphony-cum-song cycle with words from the Lamentations of Jeremiah interlaced with graffiti that was found scrawled in the cells of prisoners in Stalin’s Gulag. The choir sings the Biblical text, in most cases, and the solo tenor sings the words of the suffering prisoners. The music has been described as quite Mussorgskian in spirit, but not in sound, and instead of a minuet, like you might find in a Haydn or Mozart symphony, I have inserted a trepak-like section, a trepak being a popular Russian dance that Mussorgsky was particularly fond of. So I write symphonies in order not to try and perpetuate the classical idea of the form, but more to come at it from different angles and, hopefully, take it in new and interesting directions that might give the form a new lease of life.

Tell me about musical life in St Petersburg.

Musical life in St Petersburg . . . there are a lot of talented young performers here and very few talented composers left, because they have all gone to Western countries to be paid for what they do! So I have often worked with talented music students, who are ready to branch out and play or sing something new and different.

If you look at the concert listings for any given month, if there is any interesting new music being performed, it will be being played by a visiting orchestra or ensemble in 90% of cases. There is a festival of contemporary music that used to take place in the city every November, maybe it still does, at which a new piece of mine used to be performed every year, but in around 1999 there was sudden lurch towards a sort of post-Darmstadt aesthetic, and my music was deemed unsuitable. The director of the festival, a nice man called Alexander Rodvilovich, actually said to me that he personally liked the music I had written for the 1999 festival, but that he couldn’t show his students that you could write such music and have it featured in his festival! Bizarre!

One of the brightest spots in all this is the St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra Klassika, and particularly their vice Chief conductor Roman Leontiev. Since about 2003, the other British composer in St Petersburg and myself have been associate composers with that orchestra, and, surprisingly, it is, as far as I’m aware, the only orchestra in St Petersburg to have composers in residence. Roman is an untiring champion of our music, often in the face of direct opposition from the ultra conservative Director of the orchestra. Last year, this director, a man by the name of Alexander Kantorov, made a rare appearance in the orchestra’s office and, by chance, the score of my 8th symphony, a football-themed piece subtitled “Playing Away”, which was going to be performed a few days later in a concert, was lying on the table. He took one look at it and said to Roman, “We can’t perform this modern stuff”. Roman went ahead and performed it anyway, in direct opposition to the wishes of his boss, and he got away with it, because it proved a great success!

What are the main strengths and weaknesses of musical life in St Petersburg?

Well, as in many other respects, Russia is a complete web of paradoxes. In one sense, after 70 years of Soviet dogma and suppression of artistic innovation, Russian musical life was, and still is to a certain extent, in some respects a tabula rasa, when it comes to new music. In a country where Messiaen’s music, when I first arrived here in 1996, was completely unknown and unperformed, Stravinsky, one of Russia’s greatest composers, was shunned, and the first performance of Wagner’s “Parsifal” was in the future, there was an appetite for the new music unlike in the West now.

But, on the other hand, the ultra conservative musical education and, in consequence, concert programming has left the Russian audience with an attitude of, “I know what I like and I like what I know!” I was shocked when a friend and fellow composer from St Petersburg told me that when he tried to slip some music by Rachmaninov into one of the church services for which he conducts the choir, the director of the church said that he didn’t want any more of that avant-garde stuff in his church again! The words “Rachmaninov” and “avant-garde” are not words that I would ever have thought of in the same sentence before! And you are always fighting this battle between this interest in hearing new music and a deep seated conservatism.

This has its plus side as well, of course: Russians have missed out on most of that terrible stuff by Boulez and other so-called composers of the 1950s and 1960s that was foisted on us by the powers that be when I was growing up in the UK. And, since Russians have a great talent for spotting that the Emperor’s new clothes are non-existent, none but a very few people have bothered themselves with finding out much about this hopefully receding epoch in Western music. Which means that good new music definitely falls on ears untainted by all that grey and unpalatable “music”.

I am not saying that there are no works of importance at all created using avant-garde techniques of composition; I have personal favourites like Penderecki’s St Luke Passion, a work of great power and originality, and Stockhausen’s Stimmung. But I think most works from that period are falling below the horizon of visibility already. It’s interesting that it’s these important works from that period that get performed here, and all the other stuff is rightly ignored. When people ask me what my music is like, I now say that my music is “vanguard” music, because the word avant-garde is now so discredited, and I am definitely not a reactionary composer. It seems that many people seem to think that it’s all been said before and that there’s nothing new to say in music, but as I grow and develop as a composer, such vistas open up in front of me that I sometimes think that only a tiny fraction of what is possible has been done before.

Has your musical perspective as a composer changed since living in St Petersburg and, if so, how?

Most definitely yes, and in a somewhat unexpected way. I have finally come to realise that I am an English composer, if that makes any sense! When you live and work in your country of birth, you are often looking outwards to learn about as many different musics as you possibly can, and coming under the influence of many composers, in my case people like Messiaen and Mussorgsky, to name but two, and absorbing some of the national characteristics that their music displays. But when you go and live and work in another country, you start to look inwards and realise how much you are very much part of your own, native culture.

Many Russians actually take me as one of them because I speak the language fluently and pay homage to their culture, which is a great honour, of course, but I shall never actually be anything but an honorary Russian, if you like! I remember a long time ago saying to a musical colleague in the UK that I didn’t think I was very English, and he replied that, on the contrary, he thought I was very English, but all the best things about what it means to be English. I hope it wasn’t just flattery, because I am very proud of all the good things about what being English means, and I now definitely aspire to live up to my colleague’s judgement on me at that time. A country that has produced such composers as Tallis and Elgar, as well Shakespeare amongst a wealth of great literature, is one we can all be very proud to be a part of.

This growing awareness of my Englishness, if you like, is echoed by the fact that it is here in St Petersburg that I have met and started artistic associations with musicians and cultural people from Britain, such as the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, David Matthews, and yourself, to name but a few, who have then, in the case of FSQ, taken my music back to Britain and performed it to the public in my home country, as well as here in Russia! It was Samuel Johnson who said that everyone ultimately yearns to be taken seriously in their place of birth, and he is absolutely correct. I can say without doubt that every time I hear that magnificent apotheosis at the end of Elgar’s First Symphony and that glorious final A flat major chord in the brass, I know I have come home and it makes me feel very emotional indeed!

How do you interact with fellow Russian composers and performers?

The facetious answer is, of course, in Russian! But, that is not quite as silly as it might seem. Russian people react very warmly to people from other countries who speak their language, so I feel that the fact that I can speak Russian fluently has helped “oil the wheels” so to speak, when it comes to communicating with Russian musicians.

But, regardless of language issues, I must say that there is often a problem when starting a new project – with a large number of musicians, their first question is about how much you are going to pay them, as if you’re going to make vast quantities of money out of them and run off with it all! This kind of suspicious attitude often kills a promising project dead in the water, since it’s often quite difficult to tell if anything valuable or even workable will come out of it unless you try something first. But when you have found the right singers and musicians, who are willing to make a go of a project without the immediate promise of megabucks in return, the results are very rewarding indeed.

When I was first in the city, the first composer I met was a charming man called Grigory Korchmar, who was then vice-President of the Union of Composers (now the President). He told me that because Russian musicians are paid very little it is almost impossible to persuade them to play any music that they don’t enjoy playing, but that if you manage to get them to perform your music, then the performance would be a very memorable one indeed. And, basically, I think that he is absolutely right – the commitment that your average Russian musician puts into playing the music he or she enjoys playing is very humbling indeed. It makes you happy that you took the trouble to write the music down in the first place! This is not to say that all performances you hear in Russia are good, by a long chalk, but the good ones will blow you away and will live with you for a long, long time.

How do you perceive your future challenges as a composer?

There are two types of challenges that I see in the future: that of achieving something in the world, and purely musical challenges, about which I’ll say something in a minute. Both achieving recognition for your work and composing better and more interesting music takes energy, quite a lot of energy in both cases, but I can see now that, up until very recently, I have invested more energy in the composing than in the promoting side of things. But, within the last couple of years, with the encouragement and support of people like the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, Goncalo Lourenco and the Coro Odyssea, and Roman Leontiev, to name just a few people, I came to realise that my music has a larger audience out there which I haven’t invested enough energy in finding. So I started to look at more and more ways of getting the message across to musicians and publishers that my music is both rewarding to them and interesting to audiences. That is the public challenge that I am undertaking right now, so that hopefully if, in ten years time, you were to ask people if they’d heard of Marcus Tristan Heathcock they wouldn’t say, “Who he?” but, “Oh yes, didn’t he write that 40-part piece for voices rather like that Tallis fellow?” Or something like that!

Which takes me neatly onto the subject of purely musical challenges. I don’t know whether it is completely true, as there are works by previous composers, such as Granville Bantock and even Thomas Tallis’s great 40-part motet Spem in Alium, which could claim to be examples in all but name, but I have been credited with pioneering the idea of works on a symphonic scale written just for a cappella vocal ensembles or choirs. After I left the Academy, my first work to cause a stir was Vespers for large mixed choir, performed by the Birmingham Festival Choral Society in Symphony Hall in Birmingham in 1994, and published by Banks Music Publications later that year. This was, in all but name, a symphony for voices, a piece in five movements lasting about 25 minutes in all. The idea for a piece called “symphony” just for voices therefore slowly developed in my mind throughout the 1990s, during which period I worked with various vocal ensembles and choirs both here in Russia and in the UK, slowly developing a more and more in depth knowledge of vocal scoring. In 2004, I was lucky enough to be approached by a composer, choral conductor and all-round wonderful guy called Goncalo Lourenco, who directs a magnificent young choir called Coro Odyssea in his native Portugal. He found out about my music and expressed an interest in getting to know it better. I went to visit him and the choir in Lisbon, and the result was a commission to write an actual Symphony for Voices, which they will premiere in Lisbon in April 2008. This merely whetted my appetite to investigate further the idea of works on a symphonic scale for voices. Since childhood I have loved the Tallis Spem in Alium, and the challenge to fulfil the commission to write a Symphony-Motet for 40 voices for next year’s British Music Festival in St Petersburg is one that I shall take great pleasure in! I shall also continue to widen and deepen my personal development as an orchestral symphonist – I am currently writing no.10 for the St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra Klassika.

I also perceive that I need to dig deeper in the realm of chamber music. With the help of the Fitzwilliam String Quartet I have been lucky enough to develop my ideas for string quartet pieces with one of the best groups in the business, but now St Petersburg-based quartets are beginning to perform my music as well, and I think I shall have the opportunity to write more music in this genre in the future. But the greatest challenge is to continue writing music that is both challenging and interesting to the audience. I can’t say that I write easy music, but it appeals to people and excites them. Messaien used to say that the most important thing is that people understand music not just with their heads, but with their hearts and souls as well. And as long as the establishments in countries around Europe and the world continue to propagate and support the sort of so-called contemporary music that upsets and turns people away rather than draws them in, then the struggle might well be an uphill one . . . but I, for one, shall never give up!

Marcus Tristan Heathcock was born in England and started composing at about 5 years old. He composed many early symphonic works, and the King Edward VI College Orchestra, in which he was the principal timpanist, won the 1987 National Festival of Music for Youth, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, with a performance of his Variations for Two Orchestras. He then went to the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he studied with Hans Werner Henze, Justin Connolly and Melanie Daiken. He received a GRSM (Hons) and an LRAM in Composition. An opera, composed with three other students of Henze, was performed at the 1989 International Opera Festival in Montepulciano. He also took some private lessons with Olivier Messiaen.

He has worked in the UK, Belgium and Romania, where he spent a semester lecturing at the Academy of Music in Cluj-Napoca. He has had many performances of symphonic and choral works in many of the major concert halls in the UK, most notably the Symphony Hall in Birmingham and the South Bank Centre in London. He has had a fruitful collaboration with the Fitzwilliam Quartet from the UK, who have played his music in the UK, the USA and here in St Petersburg.

Since 1995, he has lived and worked in Russia, becoming Associate Composer at the St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra Klassika in 2004. They have already premiered five new symphonic works, including recently his 8th symphony, Playing Away, on January 28th 2007 in St Petersburg. He also directs a three-voice vocal ensemble called Conductus that performs mediaeval and contemporary vocal music, and is currently working with a St Petersburg-based female vocal ensemble called Second Breath. A major choral work called Symphony for Voices is to be premiered by Coro Odyssea in Lisbon in Portugal in April 2008.

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