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Weir, Dame Gillian (Constance)

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Weir, Dame Gillian (Constance)

(b Martinborough, NZ, 17 Jan 1941). British organist and teacher. Her early training was as a pianist. She studied the piano with Cyril Smith and the organ with Ralph Downes at the RCM. Additional studies were with Anton Heiller, Marie-Claire Alain and Nadia Boulanger. She won the St Albans International Organ Festival Competition in 1964 with a performance of Messiaen’s Combat de la mort et de la vie. Engagements followed when she was still a student at the RCM, and she made her début recital at the Royal Festival Hall in 1965; three months later she was the soloist in a televised performance of Poulenc’s Organ Concerto on the opening night of the Proms. She has received many awards and honours, and was the first woman to be elected to the Council of the Royal College of Organists (1977), the first musician to receive the Turnovsky Foundation award for an outstanding contribution to the arts (1985), and the first woman president of the Royal College of Organists (1994). She received an honorary DMus from the Victoria University of Wellington, and was created a CBE in 1989, the year in which she was elected an honorary member of the RAM. She was made a DBE in 1996.

Weir’s organ repertory is comprehensive. She has revived many forgotten works and given premières of organ concertos by Robin Holloway (1967), Peter Racine Fricker (1979), William Mathias (1984), Michael Berkeley (1987) and others. She has specialized in the organ music of Messiaen, performing the complete works for BBC Radio 3 and for a CD set issued in 1994, and contributing an article to The Messiaen Companion (London, 1995). A tireless campaigner for standards in the organ world, Weir also has a deep interest in philosophy, religion and contemporary issues. As a performer she combines a formidable technical accomplishment with a rare capacity to entertain. The 1989 television series ‘The King of Instruments’, which she presented, was a breakthrough in creating a mass audience for the organ.


‘Messiaen’s Musical Language’, Studies in Music, xiii (1979), 66–76

‘The Organ Music’, The Messiaen Companion, ed. P. Hill (London, 1995)


Weir, Judith

(b Cambridge, 11 May 1954). British composer. While at North London Collegiate School she took private composition lessons with Tavener and was an oboist in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. She went on to King's College, Cambridge (BA 1976), studying composition there with Holloway; in 1975 she was awarded a Koussevitzky Fellowship to study with Schuller at Tanglewood and was composer-in-residence at the Southern Arts Association, during 1976–9. She then held a Cramb Fellowship at Glasgow University (1979–82) and was a creative arts fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge (1983–5). She was Guinness composer-in-residence at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Glasgow (1988–91), and Fairbairn Composer in Association with the CBSO (1995–8). Weir was made a CBE in 1995, and in the same year she received an honorary DMus from the University of Aberdeen; she was artistic director of the Spitalfields Festival in London from 1995 to 2000. She received first prize at the international Opera Screen Festival in Helsinki (1991) for Heaven Ablaze in His Breast, a dance-opera collaboration with the dance company Second Stride based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's Der Sandmann. She was Hambro Visiting Professor in Opera Studies at Oxford University (1999) and became an Honorary Fellow of St Hilda's College, Oxford in 2000.

Weir's compositional style was achieved through rejection of the structures and materials of the avant garde and an early adoption of alternative sources. Perhaps the most profound, philosophically as well as musically, has been the influence of folk musics from different traditions. Their directness of expression and identification of a sense of community has reinforced her own belief in the importance of a composer's role in society, one part of which is reflected in a particular sensitivity to communicate with performers and audience, another by her educational work and by her artistic responsibilities to London's Spitalfields Festival. Technically, the study of folk music materials was something of a personal cours de composition in melodic writing and structural thinking. Particularly important was the discovery of the Scottish piobaireachd, a prime model of extended variation form structures generated from a limited interval set. First explored in the Sketches from a Bagpiper's Album (1984), this compositional principle marks much of her subsequent instrumental music. Weir's references to folk music are never merely imitative, but an imaginative spur resonating with complementary elements of her own musical personality. For example, the declamatory aspects of Chinese theatre and the sonorities of its music gave Weir the means to invent a style for the opera A Night at the Chinese Opera (1987) that avoided chinoiserie. She has also responded creatively to very different compositional models from Western art music, for example Perotinus in Sederunt principes, Mozart's Il sogno di Scipione in Scipio's Dream and Schubert's ‘Trout’ Quintet.in her own piano quintet I Broke off a Golden Branch.

All Weir's music, whatever its medium, is characterized by a narrative quality and an element of storytelling. This is explicit where texts feature, but the carefully chosen, descriptive titles of the instrumental pieces often also suggest a scene or action. The orchestral The Ride over Lake Constance, for example, is based on a melodramatic ballad by Gustav Schwab; Heroic Strokes of the Bow refers punningly to a painting by Klee; and Music, untangled describes the compositional process of reduction to a concluding monody. Of her chamber pieces with similarly graphic titles, Distance and Enchantment is based on two folksongs about disappearance and Musicians Wrestle Everywhere is a celebration of music's omnipresence and stylistic pluralism, the subject of Emily Dickinson's eponymous poem.

Weir frequently exploits music's ability to paint a scene or to function as an illustrative backdrop. In an onomatopoeic sense this is deftly achieved in the engaging The Consolations of Scholarship (later incorporated, as a play-within-a-play device, in A Night at the Chinese Opera). At a deeper level Act 2 of Blond Eckbert, in a strategy that follows the example of Janáček and Britten's Peter Grimes, the orchestra's own commentary plays a crucial role in the intensification of the psychological drama. Weir has also composed music for the theatre, including the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Gift of the Gorgon and the Royal National Theatre's production of Sophocles' Oedipus plays, directed by Sir Peter Hall.

Although Weir's idiom is rooted in a form of expanded tonality, the individuality of her ear is revealed in textures and harmonies which are far from conformist. Heterophonic techniques and jump-cutting between sections (often characterized by ostinato patterns) are typical. The melodic focus of the music often results in treble-dominated textures that evoke a sense of weightlessness, as in the openings of the Piano Concerto, Isti mirant stella and I Broke off a Golden Branch. Operatically too, Weir reaches personal solutions to achieve longer term dramatic effect.In The Vanishing Bridegroom, the overall textual delicacy emphasizes the effect of the carefully paced gestures. The interior, fateful, world of Blond Eckbert is all the more powerfully drawn by the understatement of Act 1 throwing into relief the development and densely obsessive dénouement of Act 2. In this opera, Weir has characterized in her own terms the Stravinskian example of Oedipus rex.



Night at the Chinese Opera (op, 3, Weir, after Chi Chun-hsiang: The Chao Family Orphan, and other texts), 1987, Cheltenham, Everyman, 8 July 1987

The Vanishing Bridegroom (op, 3, Weir, after Popular Tales of the West Highlands), 1990, Glasgow, Theatre Royal, 17 Oct 1990

Blond Eckbert (op, 2, Weir, after J.L. Tieck), 1993, London, Coliseum, 20 April 1994


other dramatic

Hans the Hedgehog (Weir, after J.L. and W.C. Grimm), 1978

King Harald's Saga (‘grand opera in 3 acts’, after Snorri Sturluson: Heimskringla), 1979

Thread! (Weir), Stirling, MacRobert Centre, 2 March 1981

The Black Spider (children's op, 3, Weir, after J. Gotthelf), 1984, Canterbury, Cathedral Crypt, 6 March 1985

The Consolations of Scholarship (music drama, 2, Weir, after Chi Chun-hsiang and others), 1985

Heaven Ablaze in His Breast (dance-op, Weir, after E.T.A. Hoffmann: Der Sandmann, choreog. I. Spink), 1989

Scipio's Dream (film score, Weir, after P. Metastasio, dir. M. Williams), 1991, BBC2 TV, 24 Nov 1991 [after W.A. Mozart: Il sogno di Scipione]

Combattimento II (music theatre, A. Vehstedt, after T. Tasso), 1992, Antwerp, 1993 [after Monteverdi]

The Gift of the Gorgon (incid music, P. Shaffer, dir. P. Hall), London, Barbican, 16 Dec 1992

The Small Moments in Life (happening, collab. M. Duncan), 1992

The Skriker (incid music, C. Churchill), 1993, London, Royal National Theatre, 1994

Hello Dolly, Goodbye Mummy (film score, dir. M. Williams), 1996

Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus (incid music, Sophocles, dir. Hall), London, Olivier, 1996


Orch: Where the Shining Trumpets Blow, 1974; Isti mirant stella, chbr orch, 1981; The Ride over Lake Constance, 1984; Variation on ‘Summer is icumen in’, 1987; Music, untangled, 1991–2; Heroic Strokes of the Bow (Heroische Bogenstriche), 1992; Forest, 1995; Pf Conc., 1996–7; Certum ex incertis, 1998

Chbr: Out of the Air, wind qnt, 1975; King Harald Sails to Byzantium, fl + pic, cl + b cl, vn, vc, pf, mar + glock, 1979; Several Concertos, fl + a fl + pic, vc, pf, 1980; Music for 247 Str, vn, pf, 1981; Spij Dobrze [Pleasant Dreams], db, tape, 1983; A Serbian Cabaret, vn, va, vc, pf, 1984 [with some spoken recitation by players]; Sketches from a Bagpiper's Album, cl, pf, 1984, arr. as The Bagpiper's Str Trio, 1985; Airs from Another Planet, wind qnt, pf, 1986; Gentle Violence, pic, gui, 1987; Sederunt principes, ens, 1987; Mountain Airs, fl, ob, cl, 1988; Distance and Enchantment, vn, va, vc, pf, 1989; Str Qt, 1990; I Broke off a Golden Branch, vn, va, vc, db, pf, 1991; El rey de Francia, vn, va, vc, pf, 1993; Musicians Wrestle Everywhere, 6 wind, perc, pf, vc, db, 1994; Sleep Sound Ida Mornin', 2 vn, 1995; The Story Behind the Song is Forgotten, fl, ob, cl, pf, vc, perc, 1997; Pf Trio, 1997–8

Kbd: An mein Klavier, pf, 1980; Wild Mossy Mountains, org, 1982; The Art of Touching the Keyboard, pf, 1983; Ettrick Banks, org, 1985; Michael's Strathspey, pf, 1985 [also version for org]; Ardnamurchan Point, 2 pf, 1990; Roll off the Ragged Rocks of Sin, 1992 [free transcr. of J.S. Bach: Wer bist du? Frage dein Gewissen from bwv132]; The King of France, pf, 1993 [based on chbr work El rey de Francia]


Choral: Ascending into Heaven (after Hildebert de Lavardin), SATB, org, 1983; Illuminare, Jerusalem (Jerusalem, Rejoice for Joy) (15th-century Scottish), SATB, org, 1985; Missa del Cid (after Poema de mio Cid), SAAATTTBBB, spkr, 1988; 2 Human Hymns (G. Herbert, H. King), SATB, org, 1995, no.1 arr. SSATBB, 1997; Moon and Star (E. Dickinson), SSAATTBB, orch, 1995; Our Revels Now are Ended, SAA, 3 fl, 3 cl, 3 tpt, 3 tbn, timp, 1995; Sanctus, SATB, orch, 1995; Storm, song cycle, youth choir, 3 fl, 3 vc, 3 perc, 1997; All the Ends of the Earth, chorus, perc, 1999; We are shadows, chorus, orch, 2000

Solo vocal: Black Birdsong (after Eng. and Scottish ballads), Bar, fl, ob, vn, vc, 1977; Ballad (Weir), Bar, str, orch, 1981 [after Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer, Act 2]; Scotch Minstrelsy (after Scottish ballads), T/S, pf, 1982; Lovers, Learners and Libations, Mez, T, Bar, rec, rebec, viella, hp, 1987; Songs from the Exotic (after Serbian, Sp. and Scottish folksongs), Mez, pf, 1987; A Spanish Liederbooklet, S, pf, 1988, no. 3 arr. as The Romance of Count Arnaldos, S, 2 cl, va, vc, db, 1989; Don't Let that Horse (L. Ferlinghetti), S, hn, 1990; Ox Mountain was Covered by Trees (Mencius), S, Ct, Bar, str, 1990, arr. S, Ct, pf, 1997; On Buying a Horse, medium v, pf, 1991; The Alps (E. Dickinson), S, cl, va, 1992; Broken Branches (Weir, after Croatian folksong), S, pf, db, 1992; Horse D'oeuvres, Mez, ens, 1996; Waltraute's Narration, Mez, chbr ens, 1996 [after Wagner: Götterdämmerung]; Ständchen (L. Rellstab), Bar, pf, 1997; Natural History (Chung-Tzu, Eng. trans. by A.C. Graham, S, orch, 1999

Principal publishers: Chester, Novello


King Harald's Footnotes: an Annotated Guide to King Harald's Saga (Glasgow, n.d.) [pubd by Scottish Music Information Centre]

‘A Note on a Chinese Opera’, MT, cxxviii (1987), 373–5

‘Heaven Ablaze in his Breast’, Basildon, Towngate Theatre, 5 Oct 1989 [programme notes]

‘Oedipus rex: a Personal View’, The Rake's Progress–Oedipus rex, ed. N. John (London, 1993), 17–20 [ENO opera guide]


CC (B. Morton)

M. Dreyer: ‘Judith Weir, Composer: a Talent to Amuse’, MT, cxxii (1981), 593–6

J. Greenhalgh: ‘Oriental Underground’, Classical Music (4 July 1987)

T. Morgan: ‘Judith Weir’, New Music 88, ed. M. Finnissy, M. Hayes and R. Wright (Oxford, 1988), 22–50

R. Dawson Scott: ‘When Old Scotch Myths Strike a New Chord’, Sunday Times (14 Oct 1990)

F. Maddocks: ‘Highland Wedding’, Opera Now (1990), Oct, 32–5

R. Milnes: ‘The Vanishing Bridegroom’, Opera, xli (1990), 1498–500

D. Walters and B. Martin: ‘Heroic Notes’, Yamaha Educational Supplement, no.13 (1992), 8–9 [interview]

D. Wright: ‘Weir to Now?’, MT, cxxxiii (1993), 432–7

J. Weir: autobiographical note, CMR, xi (1994), 297–9 [incl. brief editorial biography]


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