Contemporary composer: Brian Elias

Stephen Plaistow
Monday, August 12, 2019

A culturally diverse upbringing and an idealistic mindset have resulted in a special contemporary voice, writes Stephen Plaistow

Brian Elias was born in Bombay (modern Mumbai) in 1948. He was 13 when he first came to England and was in his early twenties when I got to know him through his teacher and mentor Elisabeth Lutyens; at the time he had just written La chevelure (1967), a setting of Baudelaire for solo voice and orchestral ensemble. Webern is a model but the Elias voice is there. It is the first work he acknowledges.

With his childhood in Bombay and ancestral roots in the ancient Jewish community in Baghdad and a long creative life in London, he has experienced a wider diversity of cultural, religious and musical tradition than most of us will ever know. English is his mother tongue, though he is bilingual in Hindi and retains a smattering of Arabic. His general education in India was entirely Western, apart from having to study Hindi and Marathi in school, and some Hebrew at home. After being taught by nuns and Jesuits, he attended The Cathedral, an Anglo-Scottish foundation in Bombay which he calls a ‘Boxwallah’s Eton’, vividly described by his fellow pupil and near contemporary Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children.

‘I do not come from a musical background, and despite being in India I was never trained in Indian classical music, something I regret deeply. However I did from infancy hear a wonderful kaleidoscope of sound and music – from the Arabic songs and Hebrew prayers of my Iraqi-Jewish grandparents, to the endless variety of folk music, festivals and prayers of the greatly varied ethnic and religious communities in Bombay, the calls of street vendors, hideously amplified Bollywood songs in every street, the baffling number of languages and dialects spoken everywhere – the list is endless and all these things, more than any formal training I have had, are what I think of as my musical psyche’.

As a student in London, he deliberately ignored his heritage in his attempts to acquire a European technique and discipline. ‘At first, I developed a kind of 12-tone technique that was heavily influenced by Webern, even though I was more attracted by Berg’s lyricism and the energy and fantasy of works such as Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Pierrot lunaire. And of course I heard all the contemporary music I could – the 1960s was a very exciting time’.

In 1967 the individuality and polish of La chevelure were noticed with enthusiasm, and in the 50 years since, Elias has produced, on average, one piece a year. Quoting Auden with approval: ‘Ariel sings because he must, Prospero, because he can’, he will not be shaken from the position that ‘a piece has to have a reason for its existence and should be written out of real need, not simply to fill up paper or fulfil a commission. He likes too ETA Hoffmann’s warning: ‘Great mischief could be caused in the realm of art through mistaking a strong external stimulus for a true inner calling’. It was an attitude that enraged Elisabeth Lutyens, who used to refer to Elias as a mandarin.

Testing the ground every inch of the way, the 1970s had periods of reflection and even withdrawal from composition entirely. On an NMC compilation (NMCD025, 10/95), a virtuoso setting of Robert Browning’s Peroration for unaccompanied voice, composed in 1973, is an example of what he was capable of as a burgeoning vocal – and theatrical – composer. Paul Griffiths has called it a Berio-esque essay, and so it is, but Elias has made something original, and you do not think of him as looking over his shoulder as you listen, but rather of a man of our time treading a path of discovery.

He demands the best of himself and expects it from others. It is without a feeling of compromise that he applauds the force of Boulez’s imperative that one should burn the library of the past every day, before starting to write, while recognizing that this is not wholly realistic, even for Boulez.

Looking at the Elias work list, the 1970s and 1980s are not short of music that offers pleasure and surprises in the revisiting. They are by no means all miniatures either, though vocal composition predominates. Five Pieces for right hand (1969), marks the first appearance of Elias in print. The harp and the hurdy-gurdy turn up with the voice as well as the piano, the hurdy-gurdy not out of the Auvergne or Transylvania but a guest from the Indian street, where Elias remembers it was sometimes referred to by the British as a ting-a-dee. There is Sylvia Plath and Mervyn Peake as well as William Blake (Proverbs of Hell, for unaccompanied chorus, 1975), and Verlaine together with the Roman Petronius who was set by Elias in 1979 for tenor and orchestra in Somnia, his first work of such scope and ambition since La chevelure. His first BBC commission and performance at the Proms (1984) was for L’Eylah (‘to transcend’, from the Kaddish), and a breakthrough, an orchestral work for an occasion that has never daunted this increasingly assured composer since that time. He knows what he’s doing and what he wants to do, and he doesn’t disappoint. L’Eylah seemed every bit as good when it had a second performance but it still awaits a recording.

‘The Composer Speaks’ was the title of a lecture Elias prepared to give at the Oxford Faculty of Music nearly 15 years ago but never gave because of last-minute illness. In it, there’s a good deal about his early studies and development of a technique that uses small cells or groups of notes, the concern always that the material should be at the service of his intuition, rather than the other way around – ‘it’s a long time’, Elias says, ‘since I permitted my musical material to dictate the direction that the music should take’.

‘Rhythm is also an essential tool and I depend on it greatly as a means of communicating my ideas … I cannot now imagine writing pitches down without giving equal consideration to rhythm, and of creating form and structure without giving similar and equal thought to short and long-term rhythm and rhythmic structure … Each situation makes its own demands. It was while thinking about finding some kind of consistent approach to rhythm that I came across the writings of Aristoxenus, a Greek philosopher and musical theorist [born between 375 and 360BC]. I found his theories a gold mine of ideas expressed with the utmost clarity and some of them turned out to be wonderful models. Like other writers of his day, he tells that “a mere succession of shorter and longer notes was not recognised as providing a rhythm to which we could respond”. In the often difficult search for a means of communication, this is a valuable lesson that too many people ignore. Aristoxenus developed his theories by linking music with dance and poetry and their rhythmic techniques, and it is this unified approach with all its divisions of function, style and purpose that I found so very instructive, if only because it helped to put so many things in place for me.

‘At first, I wrote a couple of pieces using some of these ancient theories directly – building up verse structures and poetic forms, using poetic feet in the same way that the Greeks would have used them to express not only rhythm but character and ethos.’ Geranos (1985) is one of these, composed for the Fires of London, and it’s included on an NMC release reviewed in Gramophone last month (NMCD235). If you’re looking for a first-class studio recording as your own Elias entry point, I suggest you couldn’t do better.

Go on next from Geranos to the Five Songs to poems by Irina Ratushinskaya, a BBC Symphony Orchestra commission. It came to the Proms in 1991 and was also toured; it was received everywhere with acclaim. The powerful image of resistance, the acceptance of shattering realities and the fantasies of different kinds of escape made poetry of urgency and truly universal significance.

On the NMC recording (NMCD064), the pairing is with Laments, which has origins in his childhood experiences. The text uses funeral laments set in Grico, a language from Salento on the heel of Italy that is mostly Greek, but heavily influenced by Italian. These poems were sung by professional mourners and were an essential part of ritualized mourning processes. ‘Before writing the piece, I dreamed a lot about these mourning women, and the clarinet solo in the coda also came to me complete in a dream. This solo is the progenitor of much of the material of the work. I really believe in using all my experiences, and one would have to be mad to ignore gifts such as these.’

Mourning, raging, defiance, lamenting: do not judge these to be the limits of Elias’s preferred world. The other NMC compilation I recommend (NMCD173) provides other perspectives, and Gerard McBurney’s booklet essay has pertinent observations: ‘What is so immediately striking is his feeling for surging drama. A recurring feature is the way in which symphonic gestures swirl and rise like waves and shake their crests with a flourish before falling back and yielding to the next in line. This is what gives his art its narrative power, its restless forward motion. He is a natural storyteller.’ What gives structure and sense to Elias’s waves of sound is not merely the music’s rise and fall, but his fondness for one of the most ancient structures in music – call and refrain.

In The House that Jack Built, Elias draws on the late Peter and Iona Opie’s revelations about the shape and significance of traditional English nursery rhymes and playground games, to create a nightmare vision of innocence assaulted by experience. In A Talisman, an ancient Jewish text of intense personal significance offers an emotional starting point from which to explore dramatic antiphonies between soloist and chamber orchestra. And in Doubles, the composer not only delights in the symphonic possibilities of ‘call and refrain’ from bar to bar, but makes the entire work depend on this same idea, by treating three movements as ‘calls’ and three others as ‘echoes’ or ‘responses’.

The Jerusalem Quartet are playing the String Quartet of 2012 a good deal and must surely record it; likewise Nicholas Daniel and the Britten Sinfonia with the more recent Oboe Quintet. And at long last the Royal Ballet are reviving The Judas Tree this autumn (October 24 to November 1) as part of commemorations to mark the 25th anniversary of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s death. It was the last ballet he choreographed.

Deborah MacMillan had heard the premiere of the Ratushinskaya songs: out of her enthusiasm she told her husband to listen to it. ‘It was a wonderful stroke of luck,’ Elias recalls, ‘for I had always wanted to write for dance. With Diaghilev-like initiative, and great imagination, MacMillan wanted me to write him a proper work; rather than providing me with a scenario, we simply agreed a very broad dramatic structure. He did not want to take the risk that a detailed scenario (such as those given to Tchaikovsky) would result in my writing ‘film music’. Writing specifically for dance is quite different to writing for the concert hall. Dancers and choreographers respond well to strong rhythm, but that rhythm need not always be an ostinato or a pulse, or even a direct beat! They are most sophisticated in the way they learn and memorise music in huge spans, and I learned a very great deal about musical continuity from watching this process; writing for dance, for the theatre, in its turn, has also taught me much about writing for the concert hall’.

To talk of the best of new music forming part of ‘a vital repertory’ marks me down as a dinosaur, I don’t doubt, but I do believe this is wonderful stuff. And being a composer, a real one, as opposed to a good musician who likes to write something now and then, is of course a lifetime’s work. They continue to bring up the last of the queue, after everyone else has been paid and attended to; but it was ever thus.

Elias on record

Five Songs to Poems of Irina Ratushinskaya. Laments

Mary King mez Catherine Wyn-Rogers mez BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins; Tadaaki Otaka


‘The powerful imagery of resistance, the acceptance of shattering realities and the fantasies of different kinds of escape made poetry of truly universal significance and urgency, and the idea of a setting for voice and large orchestra followed immediately.’

The House that Jack Built. A Talisman. Doubles

Tim Mirfin bass BBC Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Davis; Martyn Brabbins; Jiří Bělohlávek


‘The playground and all its rumbustiousness rather than the more gentle nursery is the setting for The House That Jack Built. The moment to moment construction attempts to mimic the furious and manic activity of the playground with its rapid succession of games, chants, calls, jeers, taunts and jibes all repeated frequently at random.’

Geranos. Meet me in the Green Glen. Once did I breathe another’s breath. Electra Mourns

Roderick Williams bar Susan Bickley mez Iain Burnside pf Nicholas Daniel cor anglais Psappha; Britten Sinfonia / Nicholas Kok; Clark Rundell


‘The first four songs [of Once did I breathe another’s breath] are concerned with some of the happier aspects of being in love, while the final song regrets that the splendour and bliss of love cannot last: it wanes like the “full-orbed” moon.’ 

Elias Facts

  • Born

    Bombay, August 30, 1948

  • Education

    The Cathedral, Bombay; St Christopher’s School, Letchworth; Royal College of Music, London. Studied composition with Humphrey Searle and Bernard Stevens at RCM, and privately with Elisabeth Lutyens.

  • Career

    Spent several years as a statistician for a finance company before returning to music full-time in 1979.

  • Early work

    La chevelure, for soprano and chamber orchestra, premiered in 1969 at the RCM, with Jane Manning as soloist.

  • Breakthrough work

    L’Eylah, for orchestra, was Elias’s first BBC commission, premiered at the Proms in 1984 by the BBC Philharmonic and Edward Downes.

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