Brian Elias

Monday 27 July 2020

“…[Electra Mourns] stole the show as a moving study of madness and remorse.” The Daily Telegraph


Bombay was Brian Elias’s first home; he lived there until he was sent to school in England at the age of thirteen. By then he had already composed a fair amount – or rather improvised, as it was not until the need arose to make parts for school performances that Elias began properly writing his ideas down. He still has fond memories of a youthful Flute Sonata and a music-theatre piece based on Mr. James’ ghost story Lost Hearts. In 1966 he entered the Royal College of Music, officially studying composition under Humphrey Searle and Bernard Stevens, though it was the experience of ‘moonlighting’ with the composer Elisabeth Lutyens he found most stimulating. Under Lutyens’s influence, Elias produced a Webern-like cantata La Chevelure, which made a promisingly positive impression at its first hearing in 1968. After leaving the RCM, Elias spent a few years in New York where he studied briefly at the Juilliard School, New York.

On his return to England he produced a modest number of small-scale works, culminating in the unaccompanied choral Proverbs of Hell, based on William Blake. This and a revival of La Chevelure gave Elias the confidence to tackle larger-scale structures. The first significant product was Somnia (‘Dreams’, 1979) for tenor and orchestra, based on words by the hedonistic Roman writer Petronius, followed in 1982 by the song cycle At the Edge of Time. Then in L’Eylah (1983), he at last felt free to write a large, abstract orchestral work. L’Eylah was greeted with enthusiasm by audience and critics at its BBC Proms premiere in 1984. By now the broad features of Elias’s mature style were fully in focus. A fastidious and imaginative craftsman, he was also beginning to show the impassioned urgency and capacity for sustained compelling invention that remain evident in his work to this day.

Geranos for chamber ensemble (1985) confirmed his growing confidence and mastery, as did Variations for solo piano of 1987 (composed in homage to Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor) and the vividly atmospheric Pythikos Nomos (‘The Law of the Python’, 1987-8) for alto saxophone and piano. But even these were surpassed by Elias’s next major work, an orchestral song cycle Five Songs to Poems by Irina Ratushinskaya (1989), commissioned by the BBC. The dark intensity and lyrical eloquence of Elias’s settings fully matched the power of the Soviet dissident Ratushinskaya’s poetry. It is an extraordinary demonstration of creative empathy from a composer brought up under very different political conditions, at the same time showing Elias’s exceptional skill in finding and responding to the musical qualities of the Russian language. Five Songs to Poems by Irina Ratushinskaya was such a success at its London premiere that it was toured by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and repeated at the 1991 BBC Proms. Then in 1992 came one of Elias’ greatest successes, The Judas Tree, a riveting forty-minute score written for the Royal Ballet and choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, with designs by Jock MacFadyen. The Judas Tree has remained securely in the Royal Ballet’s repertory, and it has been taken on tour to France, Germany, Russia and the USA. Although written to be danced, The Judas Tree is scarcely less impressive performed purely as an orchestral work. Not only is the material strong and vibrant, the score is proof of Elias’s capacity to sustain a gripping musical narrative over a long time scale.

For all his achievement as a composer of large-scale works, Elias has not forgotten his early liking for music of a more intimate scale and manner. Two of his most recent successes include Three Songs (2003) on poems by Christina Rossetti for alto voice and harp, and a piece for solo clarinet, Birds Practise Songs in Dreams (2004).

Elias has never been a prolific composer, and all his work – from ambitious orchestral scores to the tiniest instrumental pieces – is executed with meticulous care. Yet the result is music that never sounds merely ‘careful’. The House That Jack Built is bold, dazzlingly inventive and full of dancing energy. Elias’s basing of much of the material for The House That Jack Built (2001) on perhaps the simplest and most memorable of all playground chants also means that one doesn’t need a degree in musicology to follow its many ingenious developments – the process is clear for anyone who has ears to hear. In 2004 Elias was commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival to write A Talisman, which was performed by the National Youth Orchestra Sinfonietta and Paul Putnins, and scored for bass-baritone and small orchestra. It is based upon Hebrew text inscribed on a silver 19th century amulet which was given to Elias by his late mother.

Elias is the recipient of two British Composer Awards; the first in 2010 for the orchestral work Doubles, which was commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the second in 2013 for Electra Mourns. This piece, a setting of Sophocles in ancient Greek, was written for Susan Bickley (mezzo soprano) and Nicholas Daniel (cor anglais) and first performed with the Britten Sinfonia at the BBC Proms in 2012. Elias’ String Quartet, composed in 2012 for the Jerusalem String Quartet, was premiered at Wake Forest University in North Carolina in 2013. The piece was performed and broadcast by the EBU at the Zeist Festival in Holland in 2014 and received its London premiere at the Wigmore Hall in 2015.

In spring 2017 a recording of Geranos, Electra Mourns and Elias’ vocal music was released on the NMC label. The release coincided with the premiere of his Oboe Quintet by Nicholas Daniel and members of Britten Sinfonia. Leonard Elschenbroich and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales gave the premiere of his Cello Concerto at the 2017 BBC Proms. The following autumn The Royal Ballet staged a revival of The Judas Tree as part of its Kenneth MacMillan anniversary celebrations.

© Stephen Johnson – updated by Brian Elias