For this blog post we interviewed Robert Hugill, a composer and classical music and opera blogger with whom we've interacted a lot on social media. Read on to find out more about his passion for classical music and opera, as well as his own composition work.
Hi Robert, for anyone who hasn't heard of you before, would you mind briefly introducing yourself and explaining what you do?
I run the Classical Music blog Planet Hugill and contribute occasional opera reviews for other websites and publications, as well as this I write the programme notes for Conway Hall's Sunday concert series as well as giving pre-concert talks there and lecturing about music. In my spare time (!) I write music as well. I studied Maths at University and had a long career in IT with music as a side-line before redundancy made me take the plunge and have a more portfolio career which now includes a part-time position as Membership Secretary at the Garden Museum.
Let’s start with your composition work: at what age did you become interested in composing music and what was it that sparked your passion?
I had piano lessons from the age of around 7; I simply came home from Primary School and announced I was going to learn the piano, luckily my parents (interested in music but not musical) said why not. In my teens I started writing music for myself at the piano. This led to experiments with composition in my 20s, though I have never had any formal lessons. My first compositions to be publicly performed were all cabaret songs and I have written two musicals.
When did you compose your first piece and what was it like to share that with people?
I wrote my first piece as a teenager, for myself at the piano and was encouraged by my parents to perform it for people at home. This surprised everyone as I was rather shy and quiet in company but the music was big and noisy. Sharing my music with people remains a scary process, the first rehearsal when we go through things is always nerve-wracking even though I have never had a bad experience.
What is your composition process like?
Excavating a buried artefact. I hear melodies and shapes, and begin from there. Sometimes the vocal line, sometimes a more general feeling of structure and then we see what happens. I rarely know how a piece ends, and I am not the sort of composer who has large-scale plans for works, and I certainly find sticking to rigorous form difficult.
You’ve composed for a wide range of ensembles, various instruments and in multiple different styles, but do you have an overall favourite?
I like writing for voice, and find writing for four-part choir a joyful and relaxing thing. Songs can sometimes be a challenge, but I have recently been writing an operetta and rediscovered the joy of writing tunes and pieces that have a beginning, a middle and an end.
Which of your compositions are you most proud of?
The most recent one! Well, my 2019 opera The Gardeners (with a libretto by Joanna Wyld) and my latest song cycle, Out of the Shadows, which we are premiering next year.
How did your recent collaborative project with conductor, orchestrator, researcher and musicologist Dario Salvi, the comic opera Ademdai or The necessary and the superfluous, come about?
I wrote about Dario's recording of Meyerbeer's first opera, Jephtas Gelübde (written when he was 21), and we made email contact. My email footer includes a sentence about The Gardeners and I ended up sending him a copy of the live recording of this, that led to more general talk about opera. Dario has conducted a lot of operettas and is something of a specialist in this style of music. He suggested collaborating on an operetta and having written musicals some time ago, I though it would be an interesting challenge, and in fact it proved enormous fun.
Moving on to your classical music writing: your blog, Planet Hugill, covers classical music news and live music previews, plus reviews of concerts, operas and recordings. What led you to start the blog?
I started writing reviews for other websites and decided to start the blog as a place to keep links to my reviews in one place, and would do occasional reviews off my own bat. When I left IT in 2011, I had more time and an invitation to the 2012 Buxton Festival spurred me on to develop the blog as an entity in its own right. The habit of doing news items and previews came about as a way of having smaller items on the blog in addition to large-scale reviews.
Do you take a different approach when you review a piece of music, concert or opera?
With an opera I never make notes and simply write about the experience as a dramatic whole. With a concert and a recording I make notes as I go along, and sometimes I refer to these but sometimes the review is based on memory with the notes as back-up. With any piece I am writing, I try to include any historical background if necessary. I am rather partial to the more obscure and rarer repertoire, and so am aware that you need to present background to this as well as writing about the music itself.
What’s the most challenging part of writing reviews?
Working out what to say, so that you are describing what you actually heard.
Now for some questions to get to know you a bit better.
Who was your favourite artist/band/ensemble when you were growing up, and what’s your go-to music to listen to now?
That depends what age you refer to. As a child, I was fond of singing Perry Como hits like 'Catch a Falling Star'! In my late-teens (circa 1971/72) I discovered the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams thanks to the Grimsby Cleethorpes & District Youth Orchestra in which I played, and from then on I listened to a lot of RVW's music on disc. Go-to listening now is quite varied, depending on mood though there is usually a lot of Baroque music around, particularly Handel and he is perhaps my desert island composer.
What are your hobbies outside of composing and writing reviews?
Cooking and gardening at home. I am interested in history and architecture so my husband David and I are often walking round historic places and interesting modern architecture.
If could choose to visit any country in the world, where would you go?
Not so much countries as places - opera in Santa Fe with a few days relaxing in Taos is a heavenly holiday combining relaxed culture, art and architecture; I would like to go back to the West of Iceland where we have had some wonderful stays; we love the buzzy atmosphere in Berlin, going to the Deutsche Oper (who do a nice line in Meyerbeer) and eating around Savigny Platz.
One of the most important questions for us, what’s your current HiFi/music listening setup like?
I need to have music playing in multiple rooms in the house, so I have a Sonos set up with Roberts CD player and DAB radio plugged into it. I am not a big fan of streaming music, and tend to listen to Radio 3 directly from the radio and to music from CDs though often now, I review from digital files which are played on my computer plugged into the Sonos system. Probably not super-fi, but I find the sound representative.
And finally, have you got any exciting projects coming soon?
On Friday 3 February 2023, we are presenting the premieres of my song cycles, 'Out of the Shadows' and 'Et expecto Resurrectionem' at Hinde Street Methodist Church as a concert for LGBT History Month. Both works are for tenor, baritone and piano, and the pianist will be Nigel Foster. 'Out of the Shadows' is about gay men in the 19th century, whilst 'Et expecto Resurrectionem' is about the search for eternal life, from religion to cryogenics to Burke & Hare to Frankenstein, and both cycles are linked in that they both end with settings of Walt Whitman.
I also have a new song being premiered this Autumn, detail to be announced, and in May 2023 my husband and I (ha ha!) celebrate our 25th anniversary with private performances of two song cycles that I wrote for him.
Many thanks to Robert for such an interesting interview! Make sure you check out his blog for articles and reviews, and keep an eye out for his upcoming releases!
Robert Hugill is a great British composer, journalist, lecturer, and blogger. Good conversation!