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Helen Grime: "I wanted to set poems about Joy"

12 Feb 2024

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Helen Grime (photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega)

The composer Helen Grime is probably most familiar to SCO audiences from the Scottish premiere of her Percussion Concerto with Colin Currie in April 2022, a "beautifully crafted showcase for [her] talents as a composer and orchestrator" (Bachtrack, on the work's world premiere in 2019). As its title suggests, the song cycle It will be spring soon - featured in our Time and Tides concerts in mid-March - is an optimistic (and timely) look ahead to the warmth of the season.

By way of introduction to It will be spring soon, we are delighted that Helen agreed to a short interview.

It will be spring soon is your first work for string ensemble. As a wind player yourself, did that present any particular challenges and if so, how did you overcome them?

This is my first piece for string ensemble (with solo violin and soprano) but by no means my first with strings - I love writing for strings and have written many orchestral pieces, a string sextet and trio, two piano trios and two quartets as well as a violin concerto. Not being a string player, it can be difficult to understand some of the technical challenges of the instruments, even with study and knowledge of the instruments and their repertoire. I’m careful to show what I’m writing to a player when I can but also not to let these technical challenges confine the imagination too much. There is so much variety of colour in the string ensemble and possibilities for contrast as well as the warmth and homogeneity that the group offers.

How did you set about selecting the texts? They are wonderfully evocative.

I knew I wanted to set poems that were about Joy in different ways. I came across an anthology of poems on Joy and went from there. I found these three poems [Coming by Philip Larkin, Little Clown, My Heart by Sandra Cisneros and Once, I by Jane Hirshfield] to be so expressive but in quite different ways. Each is a window into a different kind of world and I wanted to capture some of that energy in my own settings.

The first performance of It will be spring soon took place in Sweden, and the programme for its UK premiere includes music by (amongst others) Tüür and Rautavaara. Is there any significance in these northern European connections, or should we beware of reading too much into it?

I didn’t know what the programme for this concert would be, but I feel quite connected to a lot of music from Scandinavia so this is a nice connection. A number of my pieces have been performed and premiered there and I continue to be fascinated by the music, history and culture of these countries.

Many will associate the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with older repertoire. As a composer who studied in Edinburgh from a young age, did you attend any of the Orchestra’s performances of contemporary music as a child, and what do you remember of them?

I definitely attended SCO concerts as a child, but I can’t remember going to many with contemporary music, Hebrides Ensemble and ECAT [Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust] were often where I heard new work. Later on I heard Knussen, MacMillan and MacRae amongst others. I have distinct memories of other performances though, including a wonderful rendition of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite which made a lasting impression.

For anyone unfamiliar with your music, which of your works would you suggest they seek out, whether as an introduction before the concert or inspired by It will be spring soon?

As this is a song cycle with solo violin, I would suggest another song cycle, Bright Travellers, again with Ruby Hughes and Joseph Middleton on piano. There are also various recordings of my Three Whistler Miniatures for piano trio available to stream.

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