John Casken (b1949) has established himself as one of the most distinctive composers of his generation. His works range across every genre and the titles reveal that he can be inspired both by literature and legend as well as landscape and the visual arts. Working with words is an important element in his output and early works reveal this interest, using poems as the basis for a piece, and setting poems, including his own texts.
(key premiere performances)
Tableaux des Trois Ages
CBSO, cond. by Vernon Handley
Birmingham Triennial Music Festival, 27 September 1977
(based on paintings by Gustave Moreau)
London Sinfonietta, cond. by Peter Eötvos
BBC King’s College, London 12 December 1978
(based on “this is the garden” by e e cummings)
Ia Orana, Gauguin
Jane Manning (soprano) and Richard Rodney Bennett (piano)
Leicestershire Museum and Arts Gallery, 18 January 1979
(setting own text)
Capricorn, Teresa Cahill (soprano), cond. by John Casken
Bath Festival, 25 May 1980
(setting of “A Revel” by George Macbeth)
City of London Sinfonia, Heinz Holliger (oboe), cond. by Richard Hickox
Eton College, 9 October 1982
(an imaginary stage-work)
John Casken lives in Northumberland in the far north of England, not far from the English-Scottish Borders, within sight of the Cheviot Hills and within reach of the historic Northumbrian coast. The landscape, its changing colours, huge skies, and the poetry of this part of England have influenced his works and helped to create a strong sense of place, forming a thread throughout his music.
Orion Over Farne for orchestra (1984, commissioned by Glasgow’s Musica Nova Festival and premiered by the BBC SNO conducted by Matthias Bamert), the large-scale choral piece To Fields We Do Not Know, described as a Northumbrian elegy (commissioned by the BBC for the BBC Singers conducted by John Poole in 1985 and premiered in Durham Cathedral), and the orchestral song-cycle Still Mine (1992), commissioned by the BBC Proms for Sir Thomas Allen, and winner of the 1993 Prince Pierre de Monaco Prize, all draw inspiration from Northumberland and the northern hills. Still mine centres on Killhope lead mine in Upper Teesdale, and the Cello Concerto (1990) is closely structured around his own short Northumbrian landscape poem. The Dream of the Rood, for the Hilliard Ensemble and large instrumental ensemble, is a setting of Casken’s own adaptation of the Early English poem which also has its roots in the ancient kingdom of Northumbria. This work won the British Composer Awards (Vocal Category) in 2009. Winter Reels, commissioned and premiered by the ensemble Psappha at Hatfield House in 2011, and the choral piece Uncertain Sea, which sets dialect poems by the Northumbrian poet Katrina Porteous, are further evidence of music growing from the region in which Casken lives. John Casken was Composer-in-Residence at the Corbridge Chamber Music Festival in Northumberland in 2019.
Orion over Farne
Scottish National Orchestra, cond. by Matthias Bamert
Musica Nova Festival, Glasgow, 17 September 1984
To Fields We Do Not Know
BBC Singers, cond. by John Poole
Durham Cathedral, 26 October 1985
(words by Basil Bunting, Ezra Pound, the Venerable Bede)
Northern Sinfonia, Heinrich Schiff (cello)
Schleswig-Holstein Festival, 7 July 1991
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Thomas Allen, cond. by Matthias Bamert
BBC Proms, 31 July 1992
(words by Gael Turnbull, Jon Silkin and Rodney Pybus)
The Dream of the Rood
Ensemble 10/10, Hilliard Ensemble, cond. by Clark Rundell
Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, 8 October 2008
Psappha, cond. by Nicholas Kok
Hatfield House, 9 September 2011
National Youth Choir of Great Britain, cond. by Ben Parry
Sage Gateshead, 30 August 2014
A different sense of place is important in his first opera, Golem (1989), commissioned for the Almeida Festival and written to his own libretto, created in collaboration with Pierre Audi (who also directed the opera) and based on the Prague Jewish legend of the Golem. This work won the First Britten Award for Composition in 1990 and a Gramophone Award in 1991.
Golem has received seven international productions, with two in the UK (Almeida Festival and Northern Stage/Northern Sinfonia), two in the US (Omaha and Aspen), Dortmund, Berlin, and Rennes/Nantes/Angers. His second opera God’s Liar is based on the novella Father Sergius by Tolstoy and was written to a libretto by the composer and Emma Warner. Its premiere production in 2001, directed by Keith Warner, was with Almeida at King’s Cross, and the production then moved to Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. In 2004 the work received a new production by NeueOper Wien in the KlangBogen Festival, Vienna and its first broadcast performance on Belgian Radio of the original production was subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in ‘Opera on 3’, introduced by John Casken in discussion with Andrew McGregor.
Music Projects London, cond. Richard Bernas
Almeida Festival, 28 June 1989
Almeida Ensemble, cond. by Ronald Zollman
Almeida Festival at King’s Cross, 6 July 2001
The interest in music and theatre continued with a commission in 2009 from Counterpoise for a melodrama, Deadly Pleasures, for narrator and small ensemble, setting in a musical context a poem by DM Thomas about an especially unsavoury episode in the life of Cleopatra. This led to another commission from the same ensemble for a monodrama, Kokoschka’s Doll, about the painter Oskar Kokoschka’s relationship with Alma Mahler to a text by the composer and Barry Millington. This was premiered in 2017 at the Cheltenham, Deal and Buxton Festivals with Sir John Tomlinson taking the part of Kokoschka as singer/narrator. This work was released on CD (Champs Hill – CHRCD150) in January 2020 and recorded by Sir John Tomlinson and Counterpoise.
Counterpoise, Sir John Tomlinson (bass and narrator)
Cheltenham Festival, 8 July 2017
John Casken’s relationship with Northern Sinfonia began in 1984 when members of the orchestra recorded Firewhirl (1980) with Teresa Cahill (soprano) conducted by the composer. The orchestra subsequently commissioned him to write Maharal Dreaming (1989), an orchestral fantasy based on Golem. The opera was toured by them on an Arts Council Contemporary Music Network tour in 1990 and John Casken was then invited to take up the position of Composer-in-Association with Northern Sinfonia, a role he fulfilled as both composer and conductor from 1990-2000. This resulted in a number of works, including the Cello Concerto (1991) written for Heinrich Schiff, Darting the Skiff for strings (1993), and, with Maharal Dreaming and Vaganza (1985), recorded by NMC Recordings and conducted by the composer.
Après un silence (1997) for violin and piano was written for the former leader of Northern Sinfonia, Lesley Hatfield, and an orchestration of the work for chamber orchestra for Kyra Humphreys, co-leader of the Sinfonia, followed the same year. Farness – three poems of Carol Ann Duffy (2006) for soprano, solo viola and chamber orchestra, was premièred in 2006 with Patricia Rozario and Ruth Killius with Northern Sinfonia conducted by Thomas Zehetmair. This led to a new collaboration, a Double Concerto for Zehetmair and Killius, That Subtle Knot (2013), which was premiered at Sage Gateshead and then at Milton Court, London in June 2014 by Royal Northern Sinfonia, with Zehetmair as soloist/director. Other performances with the same soloists soon followed with different orchestras in the Salzburg Festival, and in Norway, Munich and Minneapolis.
Darting the Skiff
Northern Sinfonia, cond. John Casken
Cheltenham Festival, Cheltenham Town Hall, 13 July 1993
Northern Sinfonia, Patricia Rozario (soprano), cond. by Thomas Zehetmair
Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Huddersfield Town Hall, 19 November 2006
That Subtle Knot
Royal Northern Sinfonia, Thomas Zehetmair (violin and director) and Ruth Killius (viola)
Sage Gateshead, 14 June 2014
John Casken’s relationship with the Hallé began in the 1990s when Kent Nagano asked the composer to write a short overture for an unusual combination of instruments of his own choice. The result was Cor d’oeuvre for solo horn, piano, harp and six double basses which the composer conducted in November 1993. Four years later, Nagano programmed Casken’s Violin Concerto with Dmitri Sitkovetsky for whom the work had been written (see below). Much later, the orchestra collaborated with the composer’s colleagues at the University, The Lindsays, and commissioned Rest-Ringing for string quartet and orchestra, and Sir Mark Elder conducted the premiere in 2006.
Apollinaire’s Bird, an oboe concerto composed for Stéphane Rancourt, Principal Oboe of the Hallé, and premiered by Sir Mark Elder with his orchestra in 2014, was shortlisted for both the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards and British Composer Awards in 2015 and recorded by NMC as a download. In 2014 The Hallé, conducted by Markus Stenz, recorded Orion over Farne, with the young German violinist Sophia Jaffé playing the Violin Concerto, and the Concerto for Orchestra (commissioned and premiered by the Musikalisches Akademie des Nationaltheater-Orchesters Mannheim and selected in 2016 by the European Composer and Songwriter Alliance for perfomance in Ljubljana). The recording with Markus Stenz is available on NMC and was voted in the Sunday Times top 100 CDs of 2014 and No. 4 in the newspaper’s Contemporary CDs for that year. Further collaboration with the orchestra saw the premiere in 2019 of Madonna of Silence for trombone and orchestra, written for Principal Trombone Katy Jones and conducted by Jamie Phillips.
The Violin Concerto had been commissioned by, and premiered at, the 1996 BBC Proms by the BBC Philharmonic, with Dmitry Sitkovetsky, conducted by Yan Psacal Tortelier who had also earlier conducted Tableaux des Trois Ages. Casken enjoyed a close working relationship over a number of years with the BBC Philharmonic who played several other works, including Symphony (Broken Consort) which was commissioned for the 2004 BBC Proms, and Sortilège, commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra, which takes Tennyson’s idyll Merlin and Vivien as its basis, and continues Casken’s interest in linking poetry and music. In 1999, James MacMillan conducted the orchestra in Sortilège and Still Mine (sung by Roderick Williams), and with Daniel Hope playing the Violin Concerto,
BBC Philharmonic, Dmitri Sitkovetsky (violin) cond. by Yan Pascal Tortelier
BBC Proms, 26 July 1995
Philharmonia Orchestra cond. by Leonard Slatkin
Royal Festival Hall, London, 9 April 1996
Symphony (Broken Consort)
BBC Philharmonic, cond. by Gianandrea Noseda
BBC Proms, 22 July 2004
Concerto for Orchestra
Nationaltheaters-Orchester Mannheim, cond. by Friedemann Layer
Mannheim, 31 March 2008
Hallé, Stéphane Rancourt (oboe) cond. by Sir Mark Elder
Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 10 April 2014
John Casken has written a number of choral works, starting with To Fields We Do Not Know. Smaller-scale choral pieces have been commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge (A Gathering), Durham Cathedral (Sunrising, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis), St. Barnabas Church, Dulwich (A Song of Chimes) and he has written for Coquetdale Chamber Choir, of which he is Music Director (In the Bleak Midwinter, Returning from the Tomb, Motet of the Rood and Memorial, the latter two self-published). Uncertain Sea was commissioned by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and premiered by them in 2014. In 2018, the Choir of Lincoln’s Inn commissioned From this red earth, a setting of the first two poems in John Donne’s A Litany, which they performed in 2019, Also that year For dappled things was premiered at the Cumnock Tryst Festival by the Novantae Singers and was written as a 60th birthday present for Sir James MacMillan, Casken’s former and most famous student.
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis
Durham Cathedral Choir cond. by James Lancelot
Durham Cathedral, 30 June 2013
Writing for solo voice or voices has also been important in John Casken’s output, naturally in his operatic works, as well as for the Hilliard Ensemble (Sharp Thorne and The Dream of the Rood) and Orlando Consort (To the lovers’ well). The Hilliard’s NMC recording of The Dream of the Rood (NMC D245) came in The Sunday Times Top 100 CDs of 2019 and No 5 in the Top Ten Contemporary Music CDs. John Casken has also written a number of works for voice and piano, beginning in 1978 when Jane Manning and Richard Rodney Bennett commissioned him to write Ia Orana, Gauguin for soprano and piano, setting his own poem about the life and work of the painter. Night and Morning (2008) for tenor and piano, setting a poem by Robert Browning, was commissioned for the 20thAnniversary of NMC Recordings in their British Songbook Project and first performed in 2009. This work was rewritten for baritone and now forms the third song in Lines from a Wanderer (setting poems by W.B. Yeats, Browning and Thomas Hardy) which the baritone Marcus Farnsworth and pianist James Baillieu premiered in 2016. This was commissioned by Alnwick Music Society and the premiere took place in Alnwick, Northumberland.
To the lovers’ well
BBC Proms Chamber Music, 5 September 2001
Lines from a Wanderer
Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), James Baillieu (piano)
Alnwick Playhouse, 29 November 2016
Chamber music continues to play an important role in John Casken’s work. Most recently he wrote a clarinet quintet, Misted Land, for the Nash Ensemble, which was premiered at Wigmore Hall in 2017. The Nash also commissioned Infanta Marina for cor anglais and six instruments in 1994. His long association with The Lindsays resulted in three string quartets as well as Rest-Ringing, and he has worked closely with their successors at The University of Manchester, Quatuor Danel who have recorded his short, third quartet Choses en moi (Metier msv 28546). Marc Danel, with David Fanning, gave the premiere of Shadowed Pieces for violin and piano in 2008 and Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Catherine Edwards performed the work at the Verbier Festival in 2009. John Casken also worked with Domus (Piano Quartet) and the Florestan Piano Trio (Piano Trio). More recently, the Gould Piano Trio have taken this work into their repertoire and recorded it along with Shadowed Pieces (Prima Facie (PFCD115). Also on this disc is a recording of Stolen Airs for cello and piano which was written for Philip Higham in 2016.
String Quartet No. 2
The University of Manchester, 5 February 1994
Florestan Piano Trio
Brighton Festival, 6 May 2002
Nash Ensemble, Richard Hosford (clarinet)
Wigmore Hall, 20 September 2017
Philip Higham (cello), Alasdair Beatson (piano
Durham University Music School, 24 November 2015
John Casken’s period at Manchester was the final part of a long career in higher education. As a student at Birmingham University between 1967 and 1971 where he did his undergraduate degree and a year’s postgraduate study, he studied Composition with John Joubert, benefited from the teaching and guidance of Nigel Fortune, and as a postgraduate discovered through Peter Dickinson a wealth of contemporary and avant-garde music, in particular that of Messiaen and Lutosławski. Thanks to this encouragement, he applied for a Polish Government Scholarship and went on to spend time in Warsaw studying with Andrzej Dobrowolski at the Academy of Music. While in Poland he formed a long association and close friendship with Witold Lutosławski.
Subsequently, John Casken became a Lecturer at the Universities of Birmingham (1973-1979) and Durham (1981-1992), Research Fellow at Huddersfield Polytechnic (1980-81), and from 1992-2008 was Professor of Music at The University of Manchester, a university with which he retains strong links as Emeritus Professor of Music. In 1987 John Casken was Visiting Composer-In-Residence at the University of Santa Barbara, California and in 1990 was invited by Toru Takemitsu to Tokyo to be a featured composer in his festival Music Today. In 1992 John Casken was on the Residency Program at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center on Lake Como, Italy.
Having left North-East England in 1992 to join the staff at Manchester, he returned to live in Northumberland in 2005. He plays an active role in the musical community as Music Director of Coquetdale Chamber Choir, an amateur choir with a strong commitment to contemporary music, and as Artistic Director and Chairman of Alwinton Summer Concerts, a role which allows him to organise original and challenging programmes. He also curated and coordinated three concerts from 2012-2014 in the Church of St John, Healey (Riding Mill, Northumberland) to celebrate two award-winning and commemorative windows by Anna Vibeke Mou and James Hugonin. John Casken has been Visiting Fellow in Composition at the University of Aberdeen since September 2018.