Judith Weir: the female music master with royal seal of approval

The 60-year-old composer is the first female master of the Queen's music, a position that has existed since 1625

Tom Service's guide to Judith Weir's music

In 1995, as a newly appointed composer-in-residence at Birmingham's Symphony Orchestra and Contemporary Music Group, Judith Weir's calling-card piece was commissioned under a scheme whereby 20 members of the audience clubbed together to pay for it. Later that year, Musicians Wrestle Everywhere was performed abroad in Toronto by another ensemble. Weir asked for each of the Sound Investors' addresses and sent them each a postcard from the performance to thank them. It was typical of a woman who is to be the UK's next master of the Queen's music – the musical equivalent of the poet laureate and a position that has only ever been held by a man.

Talk to musicians, colleagues and friends about Weir and the same words come up time and time again. Integrity. Thoughtfulness. Generosity. Radiance. Clarity. Wit. And privacy. Weir, 60, is a composer who, despite a huge body of work that ranges from grand operas to piano concertos to songs for children, has never sought the limelight.

"She's not naturally a public figure, but everything she says is extremely considered and valuable," says the Southbank Centre's head of classical music, Gillian Moore.

"She would be the perfect choice. She really thinks about the place of music in the world. She's a composer who works very much on her own but has demonstrated that she absolutely has a commitment to involving a wide range of people in everything that she does."

"As a composer, you feel very much on the edge – even of the classical music world," Weir told an interviewer in 2008. "But I don't mind that. I think it appeals to my temperament."

The palace is neither confirming nor denying the appointment, news of which leaked out at the weekend, but sources in the classical music world confirmed that Weir had accepted the position. An announcement will be made "in due course", at which point it will also be made clear whether Weir, like her predecessor Peter Maxwell Davies, takes on the post for a 10-year tenure as opposed to the life term previous incumbents have signed up for.

Weir is no stranger to royal approval. In 2007, she was the first (and remains the only) composer to be awarded the Queen's medal for music, while her name was one of those mentioned even in 2004 when a successor to Malcolm Williamson (who died in 2003) was being sought. Williamson had endeared himself to few in the establishment – a silver jubilee commission was not finished in time; he was escorted in handcuffs, drunk, off a flight at Sydney airport; he turned up at the palace in a kaftan or silly hats; or, on one occasion, wearing a badge proclaiming "I am Gay".

The post has been in existence since 1625, when Charles I made Nicholas Lanier head of the private band that accompanied the monarch on journeys. Since 1893, the job has been given to a composer; Edward Elgar and Arnold Bax are perhaps the best-known names. After Williamson's largely undistinguished 28-year tenure, Maxwell Davies brought legitimacy back to the post, which has no fixed duties. Weir too will surely use the appointment to promote things she cares passionately about – music, education and ensuring that as wide a cross-section of society as possible has access to it.

"She's passionate about music education but I can't imagine her waving a big flag and politicising anything," says her longtime publisher, Gill Graham, who believes that Weir, should she agree to it, will bring integrity and commitment to the role. "When she takes something on, she throws her full self into it."

Weir was born in Cambridge in 1954 to Scottish parents, her father a psychiatrist, her mother a teacher. As a teenager, she was an oboist with the National Youth Orchestra (playing alongside percussionist Simon Rattle). Her evident talent led to composition lessons with John Tavener while she was still at school. "He didn't say I was genius or anything like that, but just talking to him about my work somehow validated it and it made a real difference," she told an interviewer in 2008.

A music degree at Cambridge followed, where she was one of the first women to study at King's College. She studied composition with Robin Holloway, who remains a friend.

"She's a very private person. That was apparent even when she was an undergraduate, says Holloway. "I remember finding what she wrote in those long ago days very exiguous. Her music is made up of very spare, beautiful images, precise and delicate. She's very exact. As the pieces developed and as she grew into her full nature I saw that she was something very special."

Storyteller and novelist Vayu Naidu has known Weir since the two collaborated in 1997 and took a music and storytelling project on a UK and then Indian tour. She was very struck by how Weir "encouraged the musicians to listen to the stories, to inhabit their space, before playing the music she'd written. It wasn't just about coming in on tune," says Naidu. "Judith's silences could be very communicative, too."

Today, the two are close friends, sharing a love for dogs. Weir has a fox terrier, Betty – "more than a pet: a companion" says Naidu – and they frequently walk their pets together in south London parks.

Weir's quietly held principles extend to living in an environmentally friendly way. She bikes around London and is a keen walker and very proud of her allotment. "She demolishes books pretty quickly – she's a very fast reader," says Naidu, who also reveals that her friend is a keen crossword solver.

"She's endlessly curious about things – she's a great theatregoer and I see her at a lot of concerts. She is actively engaged with a wider cultural life in a way that I find very inspiring," says Susanna Eastburn, chief executive of Sound & Music, who has worked with Weir for two decades.

Weir's feeling for language and her alertness to other cultures, both high and low, were evident from the outset. "She was very interested in unusual texts and poems. I used to put things her way that sometimes she used," says Holloway. "She has a very special feeling for words and atmosphere and mood."

Her sources are voraciously eclectic, united simply by the desire to tell stories. Chinese opera, 11th-century Taoist texts, Scottish traditional music and folklore, Shakespeare, poetry ancient and modern, German romanticism and Sardinian folk tales have all been drawn on. Unlike many of her peers, she has always written her own librettos and programme notes.

"You don't so much interview Judith Weir as marvel as her beautiful mind roves from subject to subject," wrote Tim Ashley in the Guardian in 2000.She cited then Der Freischütz by the German composer Carl Maria von Weber as a particular inspiration, named Haydn as her ideal composer and expressed a passion for Brahms. Stephen Newbould, artistic director of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, has worked closely with Weir since the mid 90s. "That made sense - Haydn" he says. "Her music and his share a clarity, a wit and a lightness of touch."

"She's great company and fantastically interesting to talk to - always full of insights," says Moore.

Weir's musical sources audibly include Britten, Bartok, Janacek and Stravinsky, but she transforms it all into music that is uniquely and distinctly her own. "Her music is full of tunes and charm but it also has something about it where you feel you never get to the bottom of it," says Eastburn. "It has a deftness of touch, but there's something out of the corner of your eye you can't quite catch so you always want to listen again and explore it more deeply. Whatever she writes and whoever she writes for it's always completely recognisably her - there's a distinctive Judith quality, and individuality - that marks her out as a great composer."

Friends and colleagues say Weir has a gift for communication that will be invaluable in the role. "I'm always impressed when I see her standing in front of crowds of people talking about her work. There's no smoke and mirrors," says Graham. Eastburn agrees. "She's one of the best communicators I've ever met about music."

"She's like her music," says Newbould. "Both have an economy, a directness. But there's an enchanted quality to her music that is in her. It's like northern European light. It's clear, it's absolutely communicative."

Central to Weir's musical life is her support of her fellow musicians and her outreach work. Hers is no rarefied ivory tower world. "She's very supportive of her younger colleagues, and collegiate and generous with her time and skills," says Eastburn.

Weir was artistic director of the Spitalfields Festival from 1995 to 2000, and has taught in Glasgow University and the since renamed Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and has been a Visiting Professor at Cardiff University since 2006. "She cares very much and thinks a great deal about music's role in society," says Newbould. "She's always been involved in outreach projects, working in schools, helping youngsters with composing." Weir has been a muse to many younger composers, women particularly, but neither she nor her colleagues will be comfortable with headlines that will inevitably focus on her gender. "I've only ever seen her say that she's a composer who happens to be a woman. She's supportive of other women composers, but the only thing that's been important is that she's an really original fresh voice," says Moore.

"The important thing about Judith is not that she's a woman but that she's a fantastic composer and a great spokesperson for music," adds Eastburn.

The appointment will bring greater – and overdue – exposure to Weir's enormously accessible compositions. "People who think they don't like contemporary music will be surprised," says Moore. "She'll make the role her own," says Eastburn. "She'll be a strong advocate for music education and for a broader range of people having music in their lives.

"And I'm sure she'll write some wonderful music that will charm and delight many, and maybe mystify a few."

Potted profile

Born 11 May 1954

Age 60

Career BA from Kings College, Cambridge, Cramb fellowship at Glasgow University 1979-82, composer in association for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra 1995-1998, artistic director, Spitalfields festival 1995-2000, recipient of the Lincoln Center's Stoeger Prize in 1997, a South Bank Show music award in 2001 and the third recipient of the Queen's medal for music in 2007. Subject of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's composer weekend in January 2008.

High point A Night at the Chinese Opera, 1987 – "the debut of a very remarkable composer" (Times review)

Low point Miss Fortune, 2012 – "musically and dramatically a limping, flaccid non–starter" (Telegraph review)

What she says "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." (2005 Guardian interview with Stuart Jeffries)

What they say "She is a credible composer (which is more than you can say about some of her predecessors in the post), with a world standing (ditto) and an impressive body of work across a wide range of genres. She is serious but accessible (and what's more, funny). She is erudite, but not without the common touch." (Michael White, Telegraph)


Imogen Tilden

The GuardianTramp

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