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Rhian at 80: Q&A with Rhian Samuel

In conversation with Angus Smith, Stainer & Bell’s Choral Ambassador

It has been a great pleasure for Stainer & Bell to present Rhian Samuel’s music over many years. During this time we have published titles that display Rhian’s tremendous versatility as a composer, ranging from major orchestral works and large-scale choral pieces through to instrumental chamber music and intimate settings for unaccompanied choir. Rhian’s work is also notable for her innate understanding of the musicians for whom she is writing, whether they be virtuoso professionals or amateurs. She composes in a sympathetic style that allows everyone to enjoy studying and performing her music.

“Everywhere a distinctive voice shines through Samuel’s craftsmanship.”
–George Hall, The Independent on Sunday

To mark the occasion of her 80th birthday, Angus has invited Rhian to reflect on a few aspects of her long and distinguished engagement with music.

AS: What is your earliest childhood musical memory, and was music an ever-present part of your earliest years?

RS: Yes, music was ever-present in my childhood to the extent that I have no idea of my first musical memory. My father was a natural musician (also a music teacher) and my grandmother, his mother, was too – she had a lovely deep alto singing voice – while my extended family was full of musicians. My mother’s ancestors even included the ‘Forey sisters’, three famous professional singers of oratorio in south Wales two hundred years ago.

AS: I understand that you shifted your studies from science to music and described this as being “saved by the scruff of my neck”. Was there a single moment when you recognised that this decision needed to be made, and can we infer that you view this career change as a lucky escape?

RS: I came from a very strict family background and my parents wanted to direct my career. It was the time of Sputnik; even though my father was a musician, my mother was a biologist and we children had to become scientists! Though I tried to rebel from early on, it actually took me years to extricate myself; I even studied mathematics (along with music) up to the second year of university.

AS: How big a step was it for you to pursue your postgraduate studies in the USA? And did you find that the American musical culture of the time offered more or less encouragement to a young woman composer than its counterpart in the UK?

RS: It was an exciting adventure which rocked many of my preconceptions about classical music itself. As a woman writing music I was a curiosity in the States, perhaps more so than in the UK, but my composition teacher was very encouraging (I was very fortunate in that regard in both countries) and I won a certain number of prizes and commissions over there. To be honest, for the longest time I was naive and didn’t think being a woman in such a man’s world was anything to be concerned about; I certainly never had a woman role model.

AS: You write very movingly on your website about your friend, the poet Anne Stevenson, to whose work you have so often turned for the texts of your vocal and choral settings. You make it clear that it is the supreme musicality of her writing that has such a profound meaning for you – and that meeting of minds and the powerful duality of words and music is abundantly evident in your compositions. I wonder if there are other poets from across the ages to whom you have been so instinctively drawn?

RS: Before knowing of Anne’s poetry, I set several poems by the well-known American poet May Sarton, and received her consent to use anything of hers that I wanted; my ‘Before Dawn’ was the first piece of May’s that I set. But I’ve set the poetry of many others too, including Henry Vaughan and George Herbert and, of course, Aeschylus. Also the Welsh poet Nesta Wyn Jones, for two choral sets. I’ve spent much of my life in the poetry sections of bookshops.

AS: In a BBC Proms interview in 2000 you said, “I’m not so happy to be called only a Welsh composer because I haven’t lived in Wales all my life and have other influences as well. On the other hand, I have been a woman all my life!” I am sure you could not have anticipated that this comment would become so well known around the world that it is now cited in a sample test paper for admission to US colleges! You were responding specifically to a question about being a ‘Welsh composer’, but do you feel today that progress has been made in ensuring that women composers are properly represented in the classical music world?

RS: I did know that my comment made it to South Korea, but I didn’t know about the US! I’m always sceptical about ‘progress’, because one thing I learned while working on the New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers is that ‘progress’, at least for this group, is cyclical. Yes, there are incredibly more women composers being played and commissioned than when I was young, but as with previous appearances of the phenomenon it might dissipate quite easily. We shouldn’t be complacent.

AS: I have always thought that one can deduce quite a lot about a person if you discover what they most like to eat, though I suspect there is no scientific basis for this theory! So, as final questions, may I ask you what your favourite meal is, and who you would invite as guests, from the present or from any time in history, to share it with you?

RS: I particularly like Japanese food, but I like all food when it’s well prepared. (I like to cook too.) As for dinner guests: during Covid, a lovely thing happened. An online group of players from my youth orchestra, the Glamorgan Youth Orchestra, was set up, and through this I met, after a gap of over fifty years, many old friends with whom I’d lost touch after going to the States. I’d like to share a dinner with them all!

Recommended listening:

In addition to the numerous and regular broadcasts of her music on BBC Radio, Rhian’s music can be heard on many record labels, including BIS, Tŷ Cerdd, Deux-Elles and Lorelt.

Love bade me welcome (George Herbert), 2014: Choir of New College, dir. Robert Quinney

The Shape of Trees (Anne Stevenson), 2019 BBC Singers, dir. Grace Rossiter

Clytemnestra (after Aeschylus), Movement II: Lament for his Absence, 1994 Ruby Hughes, soprano; BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Jac van Steen, conductor

(Listen also to Ruby Hughes discussing Rhian’s Clytemnestra with James Jolly, editor of Gramophone magazine

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