Born in Scotland, Alistair Hinton studied music from the age of twelve. His early work attracted the interest of Benjamin Britten with whose advice and help he attended Royal College of Music London for lessons with Humphrey Searle and Stephen Savage. His earliest music dates from 1962 but he destroyed much of his pre-1985 output.
Hinton's development as a composer was greatly encouraged by the music, literature, and friendship of Parsi composer Kaikhosru Sorabji; this exposed him to the crucial formative influences of Szymanowski, Busoni, Medtner, van Dieren, Godowsky, and Stevenson. Together with a deepening admiration for Chopin, these were to enhance his love of the piano and preoccupation with the challenge of writing for it.
In 1976, he persuaded Sorabji to relax his embargo on public hearings of his music imposed four decades earlier. His active part in fostering international interest in Sorabji led to his founding the Sorabji Archive, of which he is curator. Based in Bath, England, the Archive is a research source for performers and scholars; it maintains a large and continuously expanding collection of literature by and about the composer, assists and oversees the compilation of new authentic editions and issues copies of his scores and writings to the public.
He has published articles, worked as executive producer of a number of recordings, and contributed to radio and television productions in Scotland, England and Netherlands. He is the author of two chapters in the book Sorabji: A Critical Celebration, for which he also contributed substantial valuable research material. His extant works include a String Quintet, Wings of Death (a song-cycle for soprano and orchestra to poems of Tagore), a Violin Concerto and numerous piano works. His Pansophir for John Ogdon, for organ, commissioned in 1990 in memory of the great pianist (with whom he worked in the preparation of his historic recording of Sorabji's Opus Clavicembalisticum) was first heard in 1991 in a recital program devised and given in Ogdon's honour by Kevin Bowyer. In 1993 he received four commissions, of which three have been completed in 1994 and 1995 and the last, Variations for Piano and Orchestra, was completed in February 1996. A wide variety of artists who perform and broadcast Hinton's work include pianists Yonty Solomon, Ronald Stevenson, Donna Amato, and Ian Brown, soprano Jane Manning, and organist Kevin Bowyer. His Variations and Fugue on a theme of Grieg for piano and his organ works have been recorded by Altarus Records; this prestigious label plans further recordings of his other music.
OPUS DISSONUS - What was your first contact with the art of composing? What motivated you to start?
ALISTAIR HINTON - I was raised in a music-free zone, so to speak and was therefore unaware of the wonders in store for me. At the age of 11, I happened to find a radio and switch it on, only to hear the Fourth Ballade of Chopin, which completely changed everything for me. I knew from that moment that I had to do something with music and my immediate motivation was to find out about it and learn to make some of my own. I think that the broadcast that I heard was by John Ogdon.
OPUS DISSONUS - How does your compositional process works?
ALISTAIR HINTON - That's one of a number of questions here that are far easier for you to ask than for me to answer! The timescales involved will inevitably vary from piece to piece, but usually I try to work with ideas in my head for as long as possible before beginning to commit myself to paper (yes, I still use paper rather than music-setting software when composing!). I rarely sketch anything more than the very barest details of a piece, and even when I do that it is merely for the purpose of aides-memoire; I usually write straight into final draft. I always compose away from the piano, even when writing for the piano - in fact, especially when writing for the piano!
OPUS DISSONUS - Which ones of your works may, in your own view, be regarded as "introductory" or "obligatory" for those who want to know more about your compositions?
ALISTAIR HINTON - Again, a tricky one!
From my earlier pieces, my String Quintet.
Among the piano music, Variations & Fugue on a theme of Grieg, piano sonatas 3 & 5, Sequentia Claviensis and Vocalise-Reminiscenza.
Of the chamber works, I would say the Duo for violin and cello, Sonata for cello and piano and my most recently completed piece, the Piano Quintet.
My two wind ensemble pieces (Szymanowski-Etiud and Concerto for 22 Instruments).
Pansophiæ for John Ogdon, for organ.
Lastly, my violin concerto, Variations for piano and orchestra and Sinfonietta.
OPUS DISSONUS - How would you describe your own style of composing?
ALISTAIR HINTON - I wouldn't! Seriously, I prefer to let my work speak for itself. OK, my music is broadly tonal and, one might say, is closer to the Romantic movement than to any other persuasion, but that really says very little about it, to be honest! - and it is light-years away from some of what is nowadays terms "neo-Romantic"! I try to make everything as though constant organic developmental processes are at work, particularly in larger-scale pieces.
OPUS DISSONUS - Who are the composers who have had the greatest influence on your work, from the earliest compositions to the present?
ALISTAIR HINTON - At the outset (and ever since!), Chopin. Then Roussel and Ravel, Szymanowski, Schönberg and Berg, Fauré, Beethoven, Godowsky, Bridge, Busoni, Rakhmaninov, Brahms, Shostakovich, Mahler...
OPUS DISSONUS - You have had contact with the composers Sorabji and Britten. What are you most personal remembrances of these people? and what are the influences they had on you?
ALISTAIR HINTON - I did not know Britten well and met him only twice, although we did correspond occasionally. A most warm and encouraging person whose conversational style seemed almost as though he was reading something that he'd already written, yet at the same time wholly spontaneous. He took an interest in my work in my late 'teens and early 20s and was most helpful in arranging my music education for me. I cannot say that his work influenced me at all, however and, to this day, I remain somewhat surprised that he showed as much interest in my earliest work as he did!
I met Sorabji in 1972 and we became firm friends at once. We immediately found ourselves enthusing about many of the same things and certainly many of the same composers. A towering figure in the music of the past century, yet his direct influence on my music is perhaps apparent only in parts of my Pansophiæ for John Ogdon and Sequentia Claviensis, each of which occasionally quote from him and the latter of which is dedicated to his memory
OPUS DISSONUS - You are the curator and founder of the Sorabji Archive. How started your interest in Sorabji's music.
ALISTAIR HINTON - A chance encounter with the published score of his Opus Clavicembalisticum in London's Westminster Library. It was hard in those days (1969) to find out anything much about Sorabji, but my two teachers at Royal College of Music, London - Stephen Savage and Humphrey Searle - warmly encouraged me to pursue this interest (not that I needed much encouragement!). Ultimately, I just wanted to find ways to ensure that Sorabji's music began to attract the international recognition that it deserves but was hardly receiving; the rest, as they say, is history - and, indeed, it continues to be so!
OPUS DISSONUS - In your Biography we can read you had destroyed most part of your early works. What are the diferences between your musical concepts of that period and now?
ALISTAIR HINTON - Those acts of destruction, whilst by no means without precedent in other composers, were prompted more by recognition of my sheer incompetence in dealing with ideas as I wanted to than by any feeling that my concepts of what I was aiming for had undergone fundamental change from one period to another.
Very early on, I studied with someone who had been a pupil of Webern just before WWII and he led me into a world whose capital was Darmstadt and I got involved in the music of Boulez, Nono, Stockhausen and others as well as Webern himself; all this happened at a time when I had almost no experience of tonal music, or indeed much music at all. I realised later that, glad as I was to have gone through this experience, it was doing little to help me to find my own way compositionally (although it was great for sharpening the aural faculties!), so I almost felt as though I had to start over again.
Even then, I was, I suppose, my own worst critic and, never having been much of a reviser at any time, I soon began to feel that, if a work just wasn't good enough, then it had to go. I have not regretted disposing of any of those works except my fourth piano trio which I have sometimes wondered about reconstructing but have never gotten around to doing this.
Also, although it is not quite the same thing as destroying works, I have found on occasion that I have embarked on an ambitious project only to find that, whilst happy with the work done up to a certain point in the piece, I felt insufficiently confident in continuing with it until some time later. Examples of this are my String Quintet (1969-70, 1973 and 1976-77), Variations & Fugue on a theme of Grieg (1970, 1974 and 1978) and Piano Quintet (1980-81, 2005 and 2008-10).
Lastly - and again only partially connected with this issue - there have been occasions when ideas return in different guises later on; an extract from a song that I wrote in 1968 and later destroyed became the basis of the opening of my Piano Sonata No. 2 (1968-69 - see below), but it also prompted in 1969 the opening of my Concerto for 22 Instruments which I did not resume until 2000, then worked on it sporadically in 2004 and completed it in 2005.
OPUS DISSONUS - You wrote 5 piano sonatas. Are there any plans for more Sonatas? can you describe your 5 Sonatas for us?
ALISTAIR HINTON - The piano has always been a driving force in my work, even though I hardly play it and never use it when composing. It seems to me to be an instrument capable de tout expressively and I'm sure that I've come to this conclusion largely through my study of the piano music of Chopin, Liszt and Alkan, Busoni, Godowsky, Rakhmaninov, Medtner, Szymanowski, Sorabji and Stevenson. Writing for it competently, let alone effectively, is perhaps more difficult if one is not a pianist than is writing for some other instruments that one does not play. I spent many hours in college practice rooms in the late 1960s and early 1970s trying hard to get to grips with the piano music of all of those composers that I've just mentioned, with a view to trying to discern how they went about writing for their own instrument and to attempt to divine some kind of understanding of the physical aspects of playing that impact upon the ways in which a pianist composes for his/her instrument; the experience might in some senses be regarded as one of pretending to be a pianist, but for a constructive reason!
My very earliest attempt at composition was my first piano sonata, a three-movement work of some 13 minutes' duration of which I lost the finale on a London Underground train, never to see it again; I suppose that I could try to reconstruct it from (very distant!) memory, but it's such a baby piece (as one might expect) that my motivation to do so has never been other than very weak - almost as weak as the piece itself, in fact! It was written very soon after my earliest experiences of listening to music which, apart from the Chopin Ballade, had largely been of music by Ravel and Roussel and some early works by Stravinsky; how much of any of this "rubbed off" on the piece is difficult to say.
What remains of it has been performed privately but not yet publicly; I do not anticipate a public performance unless and until I do commit myself to reconstructing the lost movement first.
This sonata is quite different to the first. It's a four-movement work occupying some 70 minutes and is arguably more notable for its ambition that for its fulfilment of that ambition. Its genesis was somewhat unusual and its subsequent history perhaps even more so.
When suffering from a particularly vicious bout of laryngitis, my temperature rose to a sufficiently uncomfortable level to incite a degree of delirium in which an unpleasant nightmare made itself manifest; in it, I recall walking trepidaciously onto a concert platform towards a piano, acknowledging the presence of an audience with far more horror than pleasure and then sitting uneasily before the instrument to confront large blank sheets of paper on the music stand. For no logical reason whatsoever, I gave an A to a non-existent orchestra, whereupon notes begin to appear on these sheets. Feeling as though no alternative option presented itself, I then proceeded to attempt to play at sight from the music as it appears on the first page; as I played, more notes appeared and the public reading exercise continued, albeit with a constant fear that the music’s emergence might cease as suddenly as it commenced. This “progressed” for about a page and a half, whereupon the nightmare reached its own inconclusive conclusion in peremptory wakefulness. The following day, I remembered this fearful experience in such graphic detail that I began to reproduce it on paper; so began this sonata.
It was a greater struggle to complete it than had been any previous piece of mine; its eventual unevenness seems in retrospect to be an inherent part of it.
Less than two years after its completion, the nightmare repeated itself in real life when a pianist who promised to perform its first movement in a recital backed out of so doing, leaving me composer two choices – either to cancel or to attempt to present it myself. Unwillingly and even more unwisely, I chose the latter option and I look back on the results of this folly – which occurred before an audience including a number of real pianists – as the one of life’s musical experiences that I would least like to repeat.
The autograph manuscript was written mainly in pencil and partly in ink on some of the cheapest and nastiest paper that I had no choice at the time but to find. The desperately unsatisfactory state of the presentation of its score here is due to the fact that the manuscript – the only one – was stolen shortly after this “performance”; justice this may have been, though its poetic nature escapes me to this day (as does the reason for the theft). Fortunately for the survival of the work itself, I had photocopied the manuscript before I was relieved of its possession; unfortunately, however, the copy quality was as poor as the appearance of the original. The manuscript has never come to light since.
It has yet to be performed in its entirety.
This piece, a single-movement one of some 17 minutes' duration, is in some ways one of its composer’s happiest creations, in that the first ideas began to occur to me a mere nine days before the entire sonata reached completion. The influences of Szymanowski and Berg are somewhat apparent and the work was written very much under the spell of a broadcast by its dedicatee Yonty Solomon of Albéniz’s seminal piano suite “Iberia”. It was written in 1978, a year that marked a return to piano writing and it evidences what I feel was at last the beginning of some sort of technical accomplishment in writing for the piano – something which had eluded me almost completely for so long. Premièred by Yonty Solomon, it is to date my most frequently played work, its most recent performances having been given by Jonathan Powell.
This also dates from 1978 and was originally planned to be a four-movement piece of similar dimensions to the second sonata but which ultimately terminated at the close of what would have been its opening movement - a fate similar to that which befell Berg's Op. 1 piano sonata. The influence of Chopin, which from the outset had occupied a place of special importance to me, had been deeply enhanced a few years later through my in-depth study of Godowsky’s Studien über die Etüden von Chopin; its results are perhaps nowhere more apparent than in this sonata which in some ways reflects the consistency and constancy of Chopin's influence on my work. Much as I revere Medtner’s Sonate-Ballade, the “Ballade” subtitle of my fourth sonata was suggested not by this but through my preoccupation with the four Chopin Ballades; blent of reminiscence and reconnaissance, this sonata grew subconsciously out of a response to those narrative masterpieces in which Chopin broke so much new ground in both form and harmony. Although its autograph manuscript contains no barlines as such, the compound metre common to all four Chopin Ballades prevails throughout. There is likewise no attempt to recount any tale besides than that implicit in the notes themselves.
This sonata was premièred in London by Carlo Grante and, like its immediate predecessor, has most recently been performed by Jonathan Powell.
Begun in 1994 and completed the following year, this sonata is, I feel, the best of my piano works to date. Cast in four movements and playing for just under an hour, its principal tonal centre in B flat minor and the daunting prospect of writing a piano sonata in that key, given the precedents of Chopin's and Rakhmaninov's second sonatas, the Balakirev sonata and Medtner's Sonata Romantica, all of which share that tonality, struck me from the outset; accordingly, there are some fleeting quotations from three of those sonatas in the finale. The expansive opening movement broadly follows a traditional sonata first movement format, but its second movement, a scherzo, is by comparison of extreme brevity and serves almost as a kind of rude interruption of the proceedings almost in the manner in which the second movement follows the first in Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony. A slow movement follows, the backbone of which is a passacaglia whose ground is a 12-note row and its own retrograde, although this theme is never treated serially. There are 20 variations, although these are interrupted twice throughout their course by some more free-flowing nocturnal quasi-improvisatory music. After the second of these, the passacaglia resumes with one final variation that brings the movement to a quiet but unsettling and uncertain close. The finale begins without a break and gradually launches into a series of false starts, rather as does the finale of Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata, before being propelled into a big and broadly energetic rondo. The mood, despite its contrasts, remains unsettled until a point near the middle of the movement where the music gives way to a rare moment of afflatus; this, however, is short-lived and is unceremoniously interrupted by a length passage marked Alkanique which is a kind of response to the manic and relentless prestissimi of Alkan's études in E flat minor Op. 39 No. 7 and C minor Op. 76 No. 3. This finally burns itself out only to be catapulted back into the music of the rondo's opening, from which point the music drives itself forward inexorably to a hard-won but (almost!) affirmative conclusion in a blazing B flat major.
This sonata has yet to be performed and, at present, I have no plans to write any more piano sonatas, but who knows...
OPUS DISSONUS - You have not dedicated yourself to compose Orchestral works except for the "Sinfonietta" and the Concertante-like works (Violin Concerto and Variations for piano and orchestra). Why? Is there any future plans for this kind of work?
ALISTAIR HINTON - I am not currently planning an orchestral work but the prospect of writing for orchestra has always been an exciting and attractive one, so I am sure that I will do so again eventually.
OPUS DISSONUS - Most part of your works seems to be for piano. What makes you choose diferent instruments for a new composition?
ALISTAIR HINTON - The music itself dictates the medium, as indeed it should.
OPUS DISSONUS - In your opinion, what can we expect for the future of classical music?
ALISTAIR HINTON - Only that it has one, I would say! It's impossible to tell what new developments there may be in the future, especially today!
OPUS DISSONUS - What are your impressions of the youngest generation of composers? Do you know them?
ALISTAIR HINTON - Some of them, yes; I cannot say that I have generally been as impressed by some of their works as yet as I have been by some of the older living and recently deceased composers - but then we're all young once and not everyone's path to compositional salvation is necessarily going to be a particularly easy one!
OPUS DISSONUS - What words would you say to an aspiring composer?
ALISTAIR HINTON - Listen to as much music as you can, but from this experience decide which of it you connect with more than the rest. Write exactly what you want to write and prioritise being true to yourself and your aims and aspirations at all times. Accept that you will undergo certain influences at certain times, especially in the early days, but never be discouraged by this, as an individual compositional voice takes time to develop and mature just as a singing voice does. Never follow fashions and trends, or what you may think to be fashions and trends. Aim never to ingratiate and never to alienate. Remember that you can never be sure who will listen to your work or what they may make of it when they do, so never think that you can - let alone should - write what your listeners might expect, because that is not only unwise but also in reality impossible! Always believe in yourself and your art.