Composer  Iain  Hamilton

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

What you are about to read is another in my series of conversations with composers.  My journey of exploration has led me to many varied and fascinating outposts, and it is with satisfaction that I am able to present them
— first on radio and now on the web.  I hope they remain available for a very long time, and that they help people understand the power and meaning of each individual that get a chance to be heard.  As usual, the details of my guest’s life can be found in the box following the interview. 

In anticipation of his 70th birthday, I made contact with Iain Hamilton and he agreed to speak with me on the telephone.  To a generation brought up with computers and the internet, communication at great distances is routine, expected, a way of life.  But for those of us who are a bit older, it is understood but still just a touch amazing to speak with someone across the ocean just as clearly as if they were next door.  It makes me glad to be living in this technical age
— though I would bet that each generation says that, and future generations will think us very primitive.

After a few moments of chit-chat, we settled down for a conversation about his work . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    One of the things that interests me first is that you started out in engineering and then switched to music.  Why did you want to get out of engineering?

Iain Hamilton:    [Laughs]  That was actually just before the war.  My father was the director of a very big aircraft company here, and I went into that.  It was a kind of a family tradition and then I was there.  Then the war started and I wasn’t able to get out, so I remained in it for about seven to eight years, up until two years after the war.  I had to remain in it because it was a kind of specialized training I’d had, but I’d really wanted all my life either to work in the theater.  I’d studied music since I was a child, so when I was able to leave, I got an entrance to the Royal Academy in London.  And that was it.  I was there from the autumn of 1947 until 1951 when I graduated.  Then I went straight into the profession, so it was really just a matter of being retained as a kind of national service during the war.  I never really wanted to continue with a career as an engineer.

BD:    You would have gotten out sooner if you could?

IH:    Yes, I presume so.  I never really thought about it because I was there during the war, and one was either there or one was in the Army or the Navy or something.  I happened to be in that because it was my original training, but I never really intended to continue that.  Because I was in there, I didn’t go to university; I did my degree later on, when I came out.  I did my degree at London University concurrently with my training at the Academy.  So I was quite glad to be out of engineering.  I enjoyed the years I was in it, but I was quite glad to start into what I really wanted to do.

BD:    I just wondered if the fact that you had done something else early in your career had any influence on your music.

IH:    After my apprenticeship I was concerned and involved with the design.  I was a draftsman at one time, so it certainly had a very good orderliness.  I’ve always been terribly concerned, in all my works, with form and proportions and all these various things.  Although I never was much of a mathematician, I did actually find that it gave me a tremendous sense of an orderly mind and an orderly training.  Of course it was very strict and as I was involved in that side of it, I’ve always been very, very meticulous about the form and shape of the pieces I write.  The larger the piece, the more fascinated I become with it.  So there’s a connection there.  I don’t know how direct it is, but it certainly is kind of subliminal, in some way.

BD:    I assume, though, that first you think about how it sounds, and then how it looks?

IH:    I think it’s really one of the things that I’m never able to actually define or analyze.  I’m always afraid if I could, I might not be able to do it anymore, but I think it’s very much an integrated process.  To be a serious composer, I don’t think it’s really possible to think without the integration of the sound and the form.  It’s just whether there are other influences.  For example, when you’re writing an opera or a choral work, you have the influence of the subject or the text.  But I’m basically terribly concerned in whatever I’m writing with this relationship between the form of the piece; so much so that even when I’m writing a large-scale work, maybe an act for an opera which may last forty minutes or an hour, I will really sketch it out, almost as one would make a plan for a bridge or a large engineering project.  Then I work within that on the musical side of it, because eventually the sound is as important as anything else.  But this structural thing does come from my very orderly and proportional training, which of course is a very important part of engineering design.

BD:    Is there ever a time when the structure that you have decided on gets in the way of the music that you want to put down?

IH:    A little bit modified, but if I write an orchestral work, I usually like it to be in one large span rather than broken into movements.  Sometimes I do break it up, but I’m awfully concerned with the totality of the piece and then working in.  I’m the kind of composer who sees a thing as a general completeness, and then I work in towards details, rather than starting with a cell and working outwards.  But naturally, any plan you make of that kind has to be modified so that it will have musical sense as well.  But that overall planning of a work is immensely important to me.

BD:    When you’re writing the piece and you’re putting the notes down on the page, are you always in control of where those notes go, or are there some times when the notes sort of control themselves?

IH:    Sometimes they take over.  I think one is always in control of what one does — and creative things are very difficult to talk about — but one of the fascinating things is that sometimes, after you’ve done a day’s work or a few days’ work, you look at something and you think, “It’s extraordinary.  Now if I hadn’t actually sat down and worked at that today...”  An answer to your question would be that if I’d planned to do something in the evening and then it’s cancelled, I think, “Oh, I’ll just work tonight,” and very often, in that space of however many hours, something continues or grows in the work.  Then you think,
If I’d gone out that night, would I have written that?  [Laughs]  So there are things of that kind.   It’s a very subtle thing to talk about or analyze.  That’s the wonder of having a kind of gift of this kind, that you don’t really quite understand it.  But you have to be in control of what you do, otherwise it would just be kind of rhapsodizing or improvising.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I assume that you are constantly in demand to write pieces and you get many commissions.  How do you decide which commissions you’ll accept and which ones you’ll turn aside?

IH:    Well, there’s always usually something.  Since the early seventies, but particularly in the seventies and the early eighties, I worked very much in the opera houses.  During that time I wrote about five operas.  These are very large works and therefore I tended not to write so much in the way of instrumental works at that time.  But I did get commissions for chamber works and orchestral works, and wrote them.  But generally it’s a kind of coincidental thing.  There are some works that I really wouldn’t be very interested to write at all, but somehow when you’re asked to do something, ideas will spring up in your mind.  At the moment I’m in roughly the position you mentioned, because there are several things which I am planning to do, and am in the middle of doing.  I like to work, actually, so unless I’m working for a deadline on a large opera or something of that kind, I usually like to work on several pieces at once.  I can sketch out several works and get to a certain stage, then leave them, go on to something else and then come back to them.  Sometimes that works out with what I’m asked to do.  Very often I will write something that I’m not particularly commissioned to, but I really want to do.  So it’s a mixture of the two, but I think I manage to juggle it fairly well.

hamiltonBD:    You get it to a certain point and then set it aside.  Does it grow at all during the time you are working on another piece?

IH:    That’s a very good question because it actually was happening this morning and last night.  I put the sketches away because very often those are very, very important.  When I take it out, it’s very interesting that a great deal of what I have put down
sometimes in a kind of shorthand and sometimes in actual notationactually seems right.  And from then I go on.  There are certain things, of course, that won’t work, and I change it.  I would say that by and large, most of the original things I sketch have a logic about them that was there for some indefinable reason.  That’s why I like to do it.  I can write extremely quickly, but I don’t really like to work that way.  I prefer to do it rather like a painter who is doing a big mural.  He would do a line sketch and then fill in the detail.  That’s very much it.  I can’t write a work bar by bar by bar by bar.  I can sketch it in that way, but I like to feel that I have the whole thing in my mind.  So the early sketches are very important.  Usually within that are the seeds of the final thing.   When I was writing these many works for the stage, I wrote my own librettos or adapted an already-written play.  I often found that when I was writing the libretto, the only reason why I liked to do it was that the music was already formulating itself in my mind.  Then when I would come to set the music to it, it wasn’t really all that difficult.  I’ve never done it, but I would find it very difficult to set a libretto written by somebody else.  So I think the answer to your question would be yes, those initial things are very, very important, because there is some reason why you put certain things down in a sketch, and unless it seems absolutely wrong, they are altered and developed but the basic thing remains right to the end.

BD:    So the sketch is really the instinct of the composer?

IH:    Yes, that’s very true and I think they’re very important.  The value of a composer’s archive
all the work that he hasis probably more interesting to the average person through the sketches.  Anybody who wants to research will go into it because it is in those sketches.  Sometimes, of course, they are very difficult to decipher.  You often see a full score written out, but the sketches for that are actually very cryptic.  They are what I’d call the magic of the work!  That’s why they’re very valuable for anybody who wants to go in and research a person’s work — if you can find them.  A lot of composers destroy those sketches, or they’re lost or people throw them away.  That’s the trouble.  But that’s a very important part of the process.

BD:    Is there any real value in looking at the sketches rather than just trying to appreciate the finished product?

IH:    I think it’s immensely important, because I know they have had—see, a great many—it’s very difficult, I’m sure, to find scores.  There are quite a lot of sketches of Beethoven; I don’t know whether there are of Bach or not, but a lot of composers like Brahms and Ravel, as far as I remember, destroyed all that material.  When they’ve been trying to reconstruct some of the works that Debussy didn’t complete
like the opera The Fall of the House of Usher they have tried to work from the sketches.  It’s immensely difficult because very often you’re in a rush when you’re doing this and you don’t bother to put down all the accidentals, the sharps and flats and everything.  So it’s very difficult, if you’re writing in a chromatic style such as he was, to find out exactly what he meant.  He would have been able to tell you.  If I go back to sketches of a work that I haven’t worked on, or laid aside for a year or two, sometimes it’s difficult to pick up some of my own things.  But they’re very, very important.  There is a line sketch in the Morgan Library in New York of Wagner’s Lohengrin.  Verdi did this, too, with Rigoletto.  There’s a whole act of the opera written actually out on one line.  Then, of course, it burgeons into enormous choruses and ensembles, but it’s all actually in this line sketch.  Those are the things that I think are fascinating because that is an insight into the composer’s mind in the process of writing what eventually will come out in the final manuscript.  People go back to the manuscript, especially performers, because they want to know exactly whether they have been edited, but that’s a different kind of thing from the creative process, which is really to be found in the sketches.

BD:    So perhaps the more we know about a given composer, the better we’ll be able to play his or her music?

IH:    I think performers are primarily concerned — particularly at the present day as far as the classics are concerned, although the Baroque works and even earlier are looked at — to find out exactly how these pieces would have sounded at that time.  A lot of the early music movement is concerned with that.  There’s a tremendous influence on particularly Bach and even Mozart and Haydn, of performing these composers and trying to get them as near as to how they would have sounded, and not playing them in a kind of nineteenth century or twentieth century manner at all.  If one wants to perform in that manner, he would go back to the original manuscripts from which the composer would have played the concertos.  So that’s slightly different, because that is actually a performance practice, rather than what I would be involved with, which is the creative thing.

BD:    Well then who is it that looks at the sketches?

IH:    I would think anybody who’s doing research — not only on my work, but any particular composer, such as Stravinsky or Schoenberg
would be very fascinated to have the sketches because that would show you the working process and how these ideas evolved.  This certainly happens, of course, with the Beethoven sketchbooks.  I would say that was more of interest to people who were doing research into the composer’s works and the way he worked.  They would also be of interest, I suppose, to performers if they were scholastically inclined.  The sketches that expose the working process of the composer’s mind might be of interest to a performer, but it would be particularly interesting to somebody who was doing scholastic research on an aspect of any composer’s work, whether contemporary or in the past.

BD:    What is the result, then, of that research?

IH:    It would be different if you were researching something on Bach or Beethoven than if you were researching something on myself or Stravinsky or Copland.  It would actually be anything musicological.  I’m not a musicologist, but I’ve known many of them and how they work.  It’s really to find out how the work evolved, if you’re talking about the composer’s side of it, not the performer’s side.  The sketches would be the only key that you actually have of the composer’s work, especially for something like the later works of Bartók such as the Third Piano Concerto which he didn’t quite finish, or the Viola Concerto which was very largely reconstructed from the sketches.  He never actually completed that, so there it’s a little bit worrying.  You wonder if you are really listening to Bartók or to Tibor Serly who worked on it.  But that fascinates us, and at least we have some idea of what Bartók’s Viola Concerto would be, whereas otherwise, if there were no sketches left, it would have been impossible.  This was also done with the Mahler Tenth Symphony.  It was almost entirely reconstructed, except for the first movement and the other movement later on.  That was a vast thing and a lot of people are against it, but that was something.  They’re published with the sketches so you can see the sketches of these huge things that he wrote!  Often all he had in front of him when he was doing his orchestration were a few lines, but he elaborated. 
He didn’t need to write it all down until he came to the final score, which of course would be the final manuscript.  So that would be the importance of the sketchesto see how the composer, from the minimal amount of notes, actually finally wrote out this very elaborate score, which was all in his mind. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We’re kind of dancing around this, so let me throw the big philosophical question at you...  What is the purpose of music in society?

IH:    Whatever we’re talking about so-called serious music, — as with literature or painting — it is one of the great areas of uplift in the human condition.  You say to yourself sometimes, “Why am I writing?”  I don’t know if anyone gets on with it, but you hope that you are contributing in many ways.  I suppose some people really want to think that they are entertaining or that they are pleasing people, which is a very important aspect.  If you don’t do some aspect of that, you wouldn’t really be very necessary, but also its deeper layers would be an expression of the human spirit.  Next to poetry and maybe some aspects of painting, it is the least definable.  It’s extremely difficult to talk about it and people can listen to music it in any country because it has no trouble with language barriers.  It is such a universal art that it rises beyond the power of words.  You can express things in music which cannot be defined in words, and you can experience things in anybody’s music.  The way one is moved, or the way people are variously moved in music, is a very, very interesting subject.  Why is it that something sends a shiver down your spine or brings you near to tears?  It’s very difficult to explain.  You can understand it in words because there’s an association with words, but it’s this extraordinary thing about music, that gives it its unique power.  I can discuss many ideas with a lot of my friends who are interesting and do all kinds of other professions
— historians or engineers or paintersbut it’s extremely difficult to talk about music!  [Both laugh]  As we’re probably finding out, it may be impossible to actually put your finger on it, but I think the main thing is that it’s a great source of consolation, comfort, excitement and interest to people at a very, very high level.  And if you do it at the level of all these wonderful composers from the past, it gives such pleasure, such absolute delight in a way that is extremely difficult to define in any other art.  It is this wonderful thing which has no barriers as far as language or countries are concerned.

BD:    You mentioned a word that I want to pounce on just a little bit, and that’s
entertaining.  In your music or in any concert music, where is the balance between an entertainment value and an artistic merit?

IH:    It’s very important and particularly interesting because it comes up very much when you’re in the theater, particularly when you are writing operas, more so than probably anything else.  There you are dealing with an audience which is not just a concert-going audience, it’s a theater audience.  In all the successful operas, whether they’re Wagner or Puccini or Verdi or Mozart, the composers have been extremely shrewd or clever, either intentionally or otherwise.  The works have an ability to reach people at a very low level of musical understanding — which is not necessary to enjoy music.  You can enjoy music on all kinds of planes.  I’m not necessarily talking about dance music or pop music or rock or anything like that, but the more your music has some aspect of this to it, you’ll be more fortunate in reaching a larger audience.  It certainly is the case that extremely difficult contemporary music, or complex music of any period, has this problem.  But you can’t just say to yourself, “Well, I must write this work so that it will entertain.”  Even the great popular composers have not necessarily known that they were writing a very successful work until it hits.  That’s another strain.  Even if you are a so-called popular song writer, you don’t know that your next song is going to be popular.  You hope it will be, but there’s no recipe for that.  So you can’t actually write to please the public, but you hope that what you write will bring entertainment at one level and certainly an uplift or something of that kind on many planes.  The greatest works, of course, are appreciable on all kinds of levels.  I don’t know if I would say that the Bach B Minor Mass is entertaining, but it can reach people who don’t actually know what it’s all about.  That’s not necessary in a great masterpiece.

BD:    Do you hope that your works will be popular?

IH:    [Laughs] One always hopes that!  One hopes, first of all, that they’ll be as widely performed as possible.  That, again, is a very difficult thing because you can have all the promotion in the world and your works can be pushed and so forth, but the work has to take its own course.  You must have a good agent or a good publisher, but as long as your work gets a hearing and as long as it’s seriously considered, then the work has to take off itself.  I’ve seen not only composers, but also performers and everything promoted much more than they were thirty or forty years ago.  It works up to a point, but it won’t last unless the work itself has that indigenous, strange, elusive appeal which attracts an audience.  It’s very difficult, really, to define.  I can’t imagine any composer of any work saying, “Well, I’m going to write this way because it’s really good, and I’m going to make this really popular.”  That may be the case with a certain work, but you can’t set out to purposely do it in that way.  I’m sure if you’re writing a Broadway show you have to do that, but you still can’t insure that it will work!  [Both laugh]  That’s something that eludes us all.

BD:    When you’re writing at your desk, are you conscious of the audience that will be listening to the work eventually?

IH:    Yes, I think I am, particularly if I’m writing for the theater.  I don’t know how conscious I am of the sounds, but when I’m writing the stage works, I’m always extremely conscious of the visual aspect of what this is going to be.  I’ve worked with directors and they’ve always said, “It’s very interesting because we feel very much that you’ve thought exactly as to what this looks like, not only what it sounds like.”  In other words, you’ve got a theatrical aspect.   When you’re writing a concerto, of course, you’re very concerned about how it’s going to appeal to the soloist.  You can write anything in the world, but this has still got to be a rewarding part, just as a singer has to have grateful music to sing.  So in that point of view, one thinks probably more of the people who are going to perform it.  If  you’re asked to write for an amateur group or something of that kind, or you’re asked to write an occasional piece to celebrate an event, then you probably think there are certain things about this that I will maybe write in a different way, but it still has to be your own way of doing it.  You can’t write like anyone else; you can only write the way you write.  I think one is aware of this, but I don’t think you can condition it too much.  Otherwise you’d be avoiding the responsibility that comes from your own natural gifts, whatever they may be.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We were talking before about getting performances and getting works before the public.  How have recordings changed this, in making a few works more universally available?

IH:    Very much so.  I don’t know about the situation in America, but it’s not as good here as it was in the late sixties or particularly during the seventies.  The whole recording scene has changed.  It is extremely important and I’ve had many, many works recorded.  The only trouble is when the major companies record works — and this applies to all kinds of contemporary composers, even Stravinsky or anybody else — unless they sell, they withdraw them from the catalogue.  And they don’t let you know this, so sometimes you don’t have enough copies left of your own works.  This is something that’s happened to all of us!  I was looking up a work of Henze in the catalogue the other day.  I know that this work was recorded, but I found that very few of his works.  All his works, his major operas and symphonies have been recorded; they just weren’t there anymore.  I think this is one of the problems.  First of all, when the work is recorded, it’s no good having it recorded if it isn’t marketed or publicized, so people will know it’s there so you can buy it.  Then, of course, it takes a while for it to be reviewed and people come to notice it.  Now if you take it out of the catalogue after three or four years, which sometimes happens, then in a way it’s really money down the drain because although there are copies available, it’s extremely difficult to get hold of them.  A year or two ago I was trying to get a recording of Stravinsky’s Capriccio for piano and orchestra and there just wasn’t one available, or else it was on CD or it wasn’t on cassette.  So this is the trouble.  It is absolutely wonderful if the record companies keep the works in an available capacity.  That company in New York, Composers Recordings, C.R.I., were very good.  In fact, I think they still have my works in their catalogue.  But that is not often the case with the bigger companies and this is frustrating for the composer and the performers who are engaged in the performances, because when the composer’s name is more known, or the work is known to be recorded, it’s no longer available.  I don’t know how you get ‘round that one.  Of course, it’s financial; that’s what it really comes down to.  It’s really important to be performed, but the recording is tremendously important, because in America so many of the radio stations broadcast recorded works.  There’s not so much live broadcasting as there is here, and even here there’s more commercial recordings played on the radio.  So if you don’t have a lot of works available in commercial recordings, then it’s very difficult to have that kind of hearing.  This is very important.  Most of the libraries, of course, would have them, and certainly, in our case the BBC would have them so they could, if they wanted to, do a review of your works and they’d have them there.  But it’s from the point of view of the public, which eventually is what concerns us, because if you don’t come before as large a section of the public as possible, you never really will fulfill this sense of function of what you’re supposed to be, having been given a talent to write.  I like working in the theater and I like working with opera companies because you reach two or three thousand people in any one evening.  U
nless maybe it was at our Promenade Concerts in London, you wouldn’t get that number of people normally at an ordinary symphony concert at all.  And if it’s broadcast, of course, that is very good, but you never know how many people listen.  [Both laugh]  But that comes back to the general question of your work being given a chance to be heard and people actually responding to it.  As a composer, in the long run you’ve just got to put your head down and go ahead and write, and hope that you’ll be given a hearing; that’s the most important thing.

BD:    Coming to the artistic merit of the recordings, are you basically pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?

IH:    I’ve always been very fortunate.  Particularly in the seventies I had about twenty or thirty works recorded, and they were extremely good.  I’ve always usually been involved because they’ve usually been recorded by people who have done them before.  So I’ve always been very fortunate with that.  And the BBC records a lot of works and then put them on later.  They’re not sold to the public, but they go out sometimes a year or so after the recording is made.  And when you work with the recording people, they’re meticulous.  I did a lot of recordings with the New York Philomusica and we spent hours and hours on these rather complicated chamber works!  It’s very, very pleasant because you see the tremendous seriousness they put towards the works, and that is something which was there.  I’ve been very fortunate with that and I’ve also been fortunate with the productions of my operas in the theater.  Sometimes you get wacky, idiotic productions of even the classics these days!  [Both laugh]  But I’ve always worked with very, very professional people; I’m very lucky in that way.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk just a little bit about opera.  Tell me the joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.

IH:    I think it’s something you either can do or you can’t.  You can put notes down on paper to be sung, but that’s different.  Particularly when you work in the theater, the characterization of the part can’t only come through the text; it has to come through the way the text is set and the way you use the voice.  You really have to have an understanding of it.  Also, when you write for choirs you have to know exactly how to get an effect, which is very different from writing the same notes for a group of brass or woodwinds.  You can learn, of course; you can develop it, but I think it has to be a little bit of an innate gift and a great desire.  It is extremely pleasant because when you have something beautifully sung or performed by the human voice, there’s nothing really like it.  I suppose the violin would come nearest to it, but it’s been a great pleasure.  Because I worked with a great number of singers in these large-scale operas in the last twenty years, I’ve always found it very, very rewarding indeed.  It’s the nearest thing to our body that we do.  I hear a great many new works — not any operas, but new vocal works — and there seems to be very little understanding of writing for the voice.  You can sing anything if you have a remarkable technique, but if it’s not rewarding to the singer to sing, it won
’t come across with any meaning.  It can be challenging, but if it’s badly written it will never work because the singer won’t really enjoy it.  It is difficult; it’s a different kind of technique from writing for various instruments.  You’re working with fewer notes and you’re working with more limited range than any instrument, and you have to understand that you don’t need to go all over the place.  You can do this in a very limited range and achieve the maximum.  Go back to Verdi and Puccini and Mozart, and study from them — not the style, but the understanding they had of the human voice, which was uncanny!  That’s why their works are always performed! [Laughs] For that reason alone they’re so great for the singers and they sound so marvelous as vocal works.

BD:    One last question.  Is composing fun?

IH:    To me it is.  To me it’s the be-all and the end-all of everything.  I often say to my friends that there’s nothing in the world I would rather do and I’m always eternally grateful for this!  I think it is probably the most magical and wonderful gift to have been given, to be able to write music.  It’s wonderful to be able to paint, wonderful to be able write poetry, wonderful to write plays and God knows whatever else, and wonderful, I suppose, to design great engineering projects.  But to me, composing music is the ultimate thing to want to do.  If I am dispirited about things or if things go wrong or I have some tragedies in life, there is no better way for me to work out of it than to put my head down and work slowly and conscientiously at my desk.  That is the ultimate pleasure and the thing for which I am deeply grateful.  Because I don’t think there’s anything else, there’s nothing else that I’d rather have done!  That is, to me, the greatest pleasure.

BD:    We are very grateful that you have done so much of it for so long, and have shared so much of yourself with the public.

IH:    That, of course is the other thing.  If you can have this happy relationship with the public and with the people you work with, it is a great joy because it is a solitary occupation.  It’s the one thing I would rather do, and the thing for which I’m most grateful to have been given in my life.

BD:    Well, I’m very glad that you’ve been able to do this, and I thank you for spending some time chatting with me this evening.

IH:    Not at all.  I’m very, very grateful to you for giving me the opportunity.  I
’ve enjoyed it!

Iain Hamilton was born in Glasgow, Scotland on June 6th, 1922, and died July 21st, 2000, in London. An important figure in music on both sides of the Atlantic, he was a composer of both stage and concert works, whose music has been praised for the "brilliance of its orchestral textures…uninhibited lyricism" (Anna Karenina—Opera) and "a vast terrain of color, movement, expression and invention" (Voyage—Horn and Chamber Orchestra). These quotes are typical of the critical commentaries on Mr. Hamilton’s music, which constantly refer to the color, texture, variety, lyricism and craftsmanship.

Following his schooling in London, he became an apprentice engineer, and remained in that profession for the next seven years. In his free time he undertook the study of music. After winning a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music, he decided to devote himself wholly to a musical career. He went on to win a Koussevitsky Foundation award, the Royal Philharmonic Society’s prize, and the Academy’s highest honor, the Dove Prize. He earned the Bachelor of Music degree from London University and was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Music from Glasgow University.

Long important in British musical circles, Mr. Hamilton’s influence also extended to the United States, where he lived for 20 years (1961 to 1981). From his home in New York City, he commuted to Duke University, where he was Mary Duke Biddle Professor of Music. He then returned to London, where he lived until his death. In April, 2002, the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation unveiled a bas-relief commemorating the composer in the Music Department at Duke University.

Mr. Hamilton’s extensive catalogue comprises works in all genres, including orchestral, chamber, vocal, solo, and also opera, the category for which he was arguably best known. He wrote 12 operas, including The Catiline Conspiracy, Anna Karenina, and The Royal Hunt of the Sun. They received performances (and also revivals, in several cases) by such companies as Scottish Opera, English National Opera, and the BBC. The Catiline Conspiracy was hailed as "a masterpiece" in The Scotsman headline after its 1974 premiere in Stirling, the Glasgow Herald noting in addition that "there could hardly have been a member of [the] audience who was not reminded of Watergate." Anna Karenina, premiered by English National Opera in 1978, was first performed in North America in 1982 by the Los Angeles Opera Theater. Raleigh’s Dream was commissioned for the North Carolina British-American Festival at Duke University in 1983, where it was premiered at the celebrations for the tercentenary of the founding of Raleigh’s colony in 1584.

In the concert hall, Mr. Hamilton’s works have been performed by many of the leading British orchestras and ensembles; among his compositions from his final years are The Transit of Jupiter (first performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony under Jerzy Maksumiuk in 1995), and Bulgaria: Invocation/Evocation for Orchestra. In the United States, commissions included those of the Eastman School of Music for Piano Sonata No. 3 and the Library of Congress for Hyperion for chamber ensemble. In 1996, the New York Philomusica premiered the 1993 Piano Quintet with performances in Pearl River and New York City. His last works include The Wild Garden (5 pieces for Clarinet and Piano) and London: A Kaleidoscope for Piano and Orchestra, written in 2000.

In addition to composing, he was a teacher, organizer of contemporary music concerts, chairman of the Composers’ Guild, and served on panels and committees for such organizations as the Music Advisory Panel of the BBC.

-- From the website of his publisher, Theododre Presser Company

© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on July 26, 1991.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1992 and 1997.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009.  

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award-winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.